She didn’t say a word and she wore big sunglasses, but Suzanne Craig was standing by her man – conservative Republican Sen. Larry Craig, who at that moment was denying he had propositioned a man in the stall of an airport bathroom.
She had walked hand-in-hand with her husband of 24 years to a news conference in front of a Boise bank. She placed her hand on the small of his back as he maintained he’d nothing wrong, that he wasn’t gay and that he’d mistakenly pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge in the bathroom case.
Why do the wives of politicians willingly step into the frame of public humiliation that only a sex scandal can bring?
Hillary Clinton did, though her appearance seemed more icy defiance than unconditional support. So did Dina McGreevey – initially, anyway. Later came a tirade of name-calling between herself and her husband, James McGreevey, who announced in 2004 on live television that he was stepping down as governor of New Jersey and that he was a “gay American.” His wife stood next to him, looking shellshocked.
Even Wendy Vitter, after saying she’d remove her husband’s manhood should he ever stray, nonetheless stuck by husband David Vitter, a Republican senator from Louisiana who recently admitted using an escort service.
Sometimes the answer is presenting a united front for purely public relations. Sometimes it’s about hanging onto the perks of power and the pleasures of public office. And sometimes, political consultants say, it’s the simple fact that she still loves the jerk.
“As hard as that may be to believe in some of these cases, that can’t be discounted,” said a laughing Mark Fabiani, longtime political consultant and Democratic spokesman. He should know about such things. He was special White House counsel to President Bill Clinton, and later served both Clintons during the Whitewater scandal.
“It’s impossible to get inside anyone’s marriage and figure out what really goes on,” he said. “But if you can’t immediately persuade your wife to stand with you, you’re finished. How they convince them to stand there before cameras and hot lights and angry questions is impossible to know.”
The Craigs, whom friends described Thursday as loving and close, have been hounded for years by speculation that theirs is a sham marriage, designed to derail rumors of the senator’s homosexuality that date to the 1980s sex scandal involving congressional pages and cocaine abuse.
“I am not gay,” Craig declared in his much-replayed press conference from earlier this week. “I never have been gay.”
Unlike his wife, his Republican colleagues have shown little support. Several said they were “disgusted.” Some called for the three-term senator’s resignation, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
The couple left for vacation on Wednesday without a word about their plans.
Craig was arrested at the Minneapolis airport in June, but never told his wife, his family or his congressional colleagues, he admitted Tuesday, one day after a story about his arrest appeared in Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper.
His hometown paper, the Idaho Statesman, had been investigating the senator for months. This week, it published a recently conducted interview in which a recording was played for the couple that contained the voice of a man who claimed he had oral sex with Craig in the men’s room at Washington’s Union Station.
Suzanne Craig’s eyes reddened and filled with tears as she listened, the paper reported. “I’m incensed that you would even consider such a piece of trash as a credible source,” she said.
This is not the summer’s first political sex scandal. In July, Sen. Vitter held his own press conference and admitted that yes, in the business sense, he knew a staff member of “D.C. Madam” Deborah Jeane Palfrey.
Wendy Vitter found herself eating her own words from 2000, when she criticized Hillary Clinton for not divorcing Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal.
“I’m a lot more like Lorena Bobbitt than Hillary,” she said. “If he does something like that, I’m walking away with one thing, and it’s not alimony, trust me.”
Lorena Bobbitt cut off her husband’s penis and later threw it from the window of her car.
But at David Vitter’s press conference, his wife stood at his side.
“Look,” said political scientist Larry Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia, “politicians love to have their spouses there because it makes reporters hesitate to hurl the really hard questions. It’s a natural inhibition. It was critical for Bill Clinton that Hillary stand by her man, and it turned out well for her, didn’t it?”
Eventually it did. But in January 1998, when the besieged couple stood in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, neither looked well.
It was supposed to be a news conference to unveil a $1 billion child care program. But it was packed with journalists eager for details of a sexual dalliance between an awe-struck former intern named Monica Lewinsky and President Clinton.
Angrily wagging his finger, Clinton declared: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Hillary, radiant in pearls and an impeccable yellow suit, shot the reporters and photographers a smile that could freeze water.
“I’m pleased to see so many people in attendance who care about child care,” she said.
And for months, she endured as the public learned that Clinton did indeed have sexual relations with Lewinsky and that her semen-stained blue dress was in the custody of a special prosecutor.
In the coming years, with her husband retired from political office, she became a popular senator from New York and the current front-runner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
But her stoicism during her husband’s scandal has become a model for political wives, the latest being Suzanne Craig.
“She did stand by her man,” Sabato said. “She didn’t say anything, and she had sunglasses on, and it does makes one wonder what she was thinking.”
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