Can Eliot Spitzer Win Without His Wife’s Support?

What Women Really Think
July 18 2013 9:00 AM

Can Eliot Spitzer Win Without His Wife’s Support?

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Silda Wall Spitzer

Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Silda Wall Spitzer impressed herself into our collective memory when she stood, chalk-gray, beside her husband as he resigned from the New York governorship in 2008. It was a wrenching image of devotion or delusion, depending on your take—one that got fictionalized in The Good Wife and has been (sadly) replicated IRL in previous and future political scandals. But now that Eliot Spitzer has stepped back into the spotlight with his announcement that he is running for NYC comptroller, Silda has not followed.

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

A column in Tuesday’s New York Times attested that “so far Ms. Wall Spitzer has been all but invisible, issuing no statement of support and not once appearing at her husband’s side. It is a stark contrast from her days trekking to Niagara Falls and Buffalo to rally voters to his cause.”

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Reading the Times piece feels a little bit like wandering around the mausoleum of a happy marriage. The tone is hushed, solemn and sad. We learn that “Ms. Wall Spitzer’s unwillingness to play the public role of forgiving spouse has complicated her husband’s message and added a dose of dissonance to a campaign that Mr. Spitzer had hoped would follow the familiar arc of political resurrection.” That Wall Spitzer “is currently residing at the family’s home on Fifth Avenue, while Mr. Spitzer is staying with his ailing parents, who live 18 blocks south.” That despite Spitzer’s statement that his wife plans to campaign alongside him, she has not betrayed any intention (at least in public) of taking a hiatus from her job at a private equity firm.  

In an era where politicians’ wives are often among their most fervid advocates, Wall Spitzer’s silence is noticeable. It's not just that she's not there to humanize her husband—her absence keeps questions about their relationship and his transgressions front and center. Wall Spitzer's sister in high-profile betrayal, Huma Abedin, has rallied to support husband Anthony Weiner in his bid for NYC mayor. But though, according to Democratic strategist Matthew Hiltzik, even “minimal public support [from Wall Spitzer] would go a long way,” the former first lady of New York remains elusive and noncommittal—which, OK, makes perfect sense, given what she’s gone through. So the question now is: How much will this hurt him?

The track record for politicians whose wives retract their spousal goodwill during a candidacy (or potential candidacy) is pretty poor.

Mitch Daniels didn’t fare too happily after his wife, Cheri Herman, divorced him and ran off to California in 1994. She returned in 1997, but was less than enthused about the prospect of the Indiana Republican running for president in 2012, reportedly because she didn’t want their tumultuous personal life under the press microscope. Sure enough, Daniels declined to enter the presidential race.

Gloria Cain was likewise deeply unenthusiastic about Herman Cain’s 2012 bid for the White House. (Perhaps the series of women accusing her husband of sexual advances dulled her patriotic fervor.) “Sources close to the campaign say Gloria Cain wants her husband to leave the race,” reported Newsweek on Dec. 2. “They describe a woman angry that her life has been turned upside down by her husband’s need for attention and power by any means.” Cain dropped his name from the ballot the next day.

Judith Steinberg Dean also opted out of her husband’s run for national office, with more mixed results. Some criticized her for continuing to practice medicine while Howard Dean stumped around the country, but others saw her reticence as a source of charm, implying photo-shyness and authenticity. And, wrote Debra Saunders in 2004, the fact that Howard Dean didn’t force the issue “spoke well of their marriage." It implied that he “respected his wife for who she is,” rather than using her as a campaign prop. “She loves work and doesn’t love the spotlight. What could be more normal?” added a Salon headline approvingly. Still, Dean lost the primary.

Wives send an indirect message to voters,” LaSalle University political science professor Mary Ellen Balchunis-Harris told USA Today nine years back, as Laura Bush and Teresa Heinz Kerry diligently hit the trail for their husbands. The statement rings no less true today. In detaching herself from her husband’s career aspirations, Wall Spitzer may have figured out how to send the most powerful message of all.