by Meredith O'Brien
Sanford. Edwards. Spitzer. Clinton.
What do those names have in common? First of all, they’re the surnames of nationally prominent politicians, three of whom ran for president (both Clintons ran), two of whom once held U.S. Senate seats and one of whom served in Congress. What else do they have in common? They also happened to be the last names of wives who’ve been betrayed by their husbands. Publically so. Humiliatingly so. In a Star Magazine-tabloid TV kind of way, and in the case of three of the wives had the “other woman” (or “women” as the case may or may not be) rub salt in their wounds by giving splashy interviews about their affairs with politically powerful men.
When news of the affairs became public, these four political wives not only had to figure out how they were going to handle it personally -- Should I stand by his side at the press conference? Should I kick him out? Should I make my own statement? -- but they had to determine how to shield their children from the torridly public sins of their father, particularly when loud criticism was directed at the moms by those who didn’t necessarily agree with their choices.
The New York Times’ Lisa Belkin , after watching Jenny Sanford, wife of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford who ran off to Argentina – sparking a nationwide scandal when he went missing – to canoodle with his mistress, said that married women feel quite invested in the decisions made by these “betrayed political wives.”
“We have been waiting, impatiently, for the ending we want. We – by which I mean married women – have watched the parade of press conferences, heard the mea culpas, been unmoved by the tears and held out for the plot that turns out differently. Because while the cameras are always focused on the errant husband, we are transfixed by the wife. From Clinton to Craig to Spitzer to Edwards to Ensign we wonder: Why does she take this? Why do we take this?”
Belkin said when women see a political wife standing, literally, next to her man despite the fact that he cheated on her, the reaction is, “We wouldn’t do that, we tell one another. We would leave. We would throw him out. We certainly wouldn’t support him with our presence in our Hermes scarf and pearls.”
“Why in the world would she stay with him?” people ask one another. After all, how many articles have you seen asking that question about Hillary Clinton ? Or Elizabeth Edwards ?
It’s from the point of view of a wife and mother who stayed with her cheating politician of a husband that the new CBS drama The Good Wife  begins. The first three minutes of the show, starring Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick, provide an excruciating portrait of a dutiful political wife whose husband has repeatedly strayed but can only think about the impact the news has on his career, not his family. The opening shot is of two hands -- a man’s and a woman’s – clutching onto one another as the bodies to which they belong enter a room filled with a blitzkrieg of lights and flashes, an intimidating bank of microphones and a pack of television cameras trained on the lectern. As Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), the fictional state’s attorney for Cook County in Chicago, announces his resignation amid charges that he frequented prostitutes and abused the power of his office, his wife Alicia looks stricken as she focuses on the details of the man she loves. The perspiration along his hairline above his ear. His death grip on the podium. The tiny piece of loose string on his suit jacket. As she’s about to remove the string for him, Peter roughly grabs her hand and pulls her through the doors and out of the room because he’s finished his statement. Once in the hallway, away from the media’s glare, Peter abruptly drops her hand and starts strategizing with aides as they swiftly walk down the hall. Peter doesn’t notice that he’s left Alicia behind. Alone.
Based on the pilot episode of The Good Wife, which premieres Sept. 22, I’m hopeful that the series will build on the first episode and provide an unsentimental, unsparing portrait of a life upended by the high-profile adultery of a spouse. Margulies’ Alicia not only has to face the withering stares, the gossip and judgment of people who don’t understand why she remains married to her now-jailed two-timing husband, but she faces a further penalty as the family’s sole breadwinner bearing the burden of her husband’s legal bills because she left her career as a litigator well over a decade ago in order to raise her children, now 13 and 14, and support her husband’s career. Within the first 10 minutes of The Good Wife, there are several references to Alicia having left the workforce and there’s the none-too-subtle hint, after a 13-year absence from a courtroom, that the woman who once graduated at the top of her law school class in Georgetown is out of touch and not to be taken seriously. Even though Alicia was able to secure a job as a junior associate through a former law school buddy who’s a partner at a law firm, Alicia has to compete with twentysomethings who have no kids and no lives outside of their work.
Watching Alicia interact with her 13-year-old daughter -- who called her at work to not only report that kids in the school computer lab were watching sex tapes of her dad and a prostitute online, but wanted to know if her father had really slept with a teenaged hooker (Alicia told her the prostitutes were all 20 or older) -- I kept thinking about the real life women whose children are old enough to look up videos, interviews and other tawdry stuff about their unfaithful dads on the internet and what a horror that must be. What does Elizabeth Edwards say to her kids now that media outlets like the Washington Post  are passing along info from the National Enquirer that her husband is the father of his mistress’ toddler ? What did Hillary Clinton say to the college-aged Chelsea when Bill Clinton had an affair with a White House intern, a special prosecutor was convened and Chelsea later read the gruesome details of said illicit liaison in the Starr Report online ? It makes you wonder, in an uncomfortable, voyeuristic sort of way.
The Good Wife’s writers gave a nod to the Elizabeth Edwards and Hillary Clintons of the world by having Alicia’s colleague ask her over drinks why she remained married to her husband and why she didn’t metaphorically “stick a knife in his heart” like she said she would have. Alicia replies, “I always thought I would too. When I heard about those other scandals, the other wives, I thought, ‘How can you allow yourself to be used like that?’ And then it happened. And I was [long pause] unprepared.”
So if you tune in to The Good Wife next month, you’ll see a fictional portrayal of what it’s like to be a member of the heartrending club of betrayed political wives after their husband’s affair has become a full-blown public scandal. From the looks of the pilot episode, living in the aftermath ain’t pretty or easy, even if Hillary Clinton did go on to become a U.S. senator and the Secretary of State.
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