About 15 minutes into a newly released documentary about her husband’s train wreck of a campaign for New York City mayor, Huma Abedin reflects on the awkward improbability of it all.
“Those of you who know me are probably surprised to see me standing up here. I’m usually back of the room, far away from the microphone as possible,” she tells an audience of well-heeled women in a swanky Manhattan apartment where she has come to raise money for Anthony Weiner’s mayoral bid.
Abedin, of course, is the famously private aide de camp, confidante and surrogate daughter to Hillary Clinton. She is Clinton’s couture-clad palace guard.
It was astonishing for Abedin to have allowed such a film as “Weiner” to be made at all — much less to put a high-definition, close-up lens to the most humiliating chapter of her life.
The filmmakers go into the Weiners’ home, eavesdrop on their arguments, capture awkward moments of silence and exasperation. They open windows on a strained partnership that is being held together but appears a long way from healing.
Especially striking are the ways in which Abedin’s own marriage follows the patterns of her boss’s, raising many of the same questions. Was it love or ambition that made her stay with a self-destructive politician who betrayed her again and again? Is her torment a testament to her character, or evidence that something is lacking in her judgment?
“Weiner” premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, opened in the top 10 markets on May 27, and will spread to screens across the country in coming weeks. The ex-congressman has said he gave filmmakers Josh Kriegman, a former staffer, and Elyse Steinberg access in hopes that people might get a fuller picture of him. But at this point, the person everyone wants to see is his wife.
The timing of the film’s release is hardly ideal, coming at a moment when Clinton appears poised to become the first woman to win a major party’s presidential nomination. Abedin comes off as the oldest stereotype in politics: the suffering, ornamental spouse.
Off-screen, however, Abedin has become a key figure in many of the controversies that have swirled around Clinton.
She has been interviewed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in connection with its probe into Clinton’s use of a private email account. Questions have also been raised about the fact that, during the last six months of Clinton’s tenure at the State Department, Abedin was drawing paychecks simultaneously from the government, a private consulting firm with close ties to the Clintons, the Clinton Foundation and the secretary’s personal office.
The film traces Weiner’s 2013 mayoral campaign, launched less than two years after the sexting scandal that forced his resignation from Congress. After a brief stint at the top of the polls, the endeavor collapses under the fallout from a fresh round of revelations that Weiner had returned to his old ways, using the pseudonym “Carlos Danger.”
Abedin, now 39, had not only acquiesced in his bid to restart his political career, but had encouraged it.
“She was very eager to get her life back that I had taken from her, to clean up the mess I had made, and running for mayor was the straightest line to do it,” Weiner says in the film.
But then, she had had a front-row seat for a political crash and resurrection once before. Abedin began working for then-first lady Hillary Clinton in 1996 as an East Wing intern — right around the same time that Monica Lewinsky became one in the West Wing.
She was a George Washington University student at the time, the Michigan-born daughter of a Pakistani mother and Indian father, both academics. A practicing Muslim, she had spent much of her childhood in Saudi Arabia.
Abedin’s sense of style has made her a fixture on the glossy pages of the fashion magazines. When she donned a specially made Oscar de la Renta gown to wed Weiner in 2010, Bill Clinton officiated at the ceremony.
For Abedin and Weiner, the first step toward political redemption was remaking their image, from that of a late-night punch line to a loving couple in recovery. There were gauzy profiles of their family life in the New York Times Magazine and People. His announcement video opened on a scene of the couple and their curly-haired toddler having breakfast in their kitchen.
Seemingly, no detail was too small for Abedin to fret over. At one point in the film, she tells Weiner that she is “not crazy about those pants.”
“We all have our things to bear,” he says dismissively. “They’re lightweight. I need lightweight trousers.”
The film showcases both her charm and her calculation. Abedin coos over the phone to one potential donor: “It’s Huma. How could you tell my voice? I haven’t talked to you in a year. How was the engagement? I want all the details.”
When she hangs up, she announces: “All right. He’ll max. His wife is going to max out, and he’ll try to raise another five.”
“Ka-ching,” Weiner exults.
Only touched upon are the implications of what she is doing on his behalf. Abedin worked the contacts she had made through the Clintons and leveraged the expectations of the role she would have in a future Clinton administration.
Some who are close to the Clintons were appalled.
“People like Huma, but they saw her trading on the Hillary card and resented it, but that didn’t mean they didn’t show up” for Weiner, one longtime Clinton friend and adviser had told the Washington Post at the time. “The chatter was, if you wanted to stay in Hillary’s good graces, you answer the call from Huma.”
Abedin is an accomplished woman who has been one of the secretary of state’s closest advisers. But there are moments in the film where she is beset by wonkish insecurities. She asks her husband for “a book. Like a prep book. Just something. I have nothing.”
He seems mystified: “Just like a novel or something?”
“Don’t you remember my event last week?” she snaps. “That woman was like, what’s his position on — And I’m like, I don’t know what the hell his position is on X.”
As the second scandal breaks, the camera catches 23 seconds of excruciating silence between the couple, before Weiner asks the crew to leave. But Abedin stands by his side at the subsequent news conference professing that she loves him, she forgives him, she believes in him.
And when Weiner’s shell-shocked staff holds a meeting in the couple’s apartment to regroup, Abedin coaches his communications director, Barbara Morgan, to put on her game face when she heads out the door.
“Just a quick optics thing,” she tells Morgan. “I assume the photographers are still outside, so you will look happy? I’m saying this for you. I don’t want it to be, ‘The press secretary walked out very upset at 6:30.’ ”
But it soon becomes clear to her, if not to him, how irredeemable his situation has become. She looks on as he watches, over and over again, a replay of a set-to that he had with MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell.
His expression is one of ecstasy, hers of horror. Finally, she walks out of the room, shaking her head, and saying: “Sorry, I can’t.”
As Abedin retreats from the public eye, she turns back to Clinton’s world for advice — and specifically to longtime media handler Philippe Reines.
She defers to Reines’s objections when Weiner presses her to attend a campaign event.
“I’ll give you some prep in the car,” Weiner says.
“You don’t know anything,” she replies.
“I would say you act like a normal campaign candidate’s wife: ‘I think Anthony is doing an amazing job. It’s great to be out here,’ ” he persists.
Abedin slumps in her chair and buries her chin in one hand, fidgeting with the other.
Because, as both she and anyone who watches can see, there is nothing even remotely normal about any of this.