Sunday, March 16, 2008

The First Wives' Club from Hell

New Zealand TV channels don’t do overseas news until about 25 minutes into the news hour because they’re so stuck on the idea that viewers like local news best. The only time that changes is when the world is falling apart.
Around half an hour into the news bulletins of the last day or two we’ve been witnessing the sad sight a woman whose world is falling apart. Poor Mrs Spitzer. Skewered by the glare of lights and cameras, she was either forced or felt it necessary to stand alongside her husband, the granite-jawed Eliot, now former Governor of New York, as he confessed to using the services of prostitutes even while he was going after other people for doing the very same thing.
He blah-blahed all the usual things that American politicians have said over the years as they ’fessed up to wrongdoing. There’s been a long line of them, including Bill Clinton’s own excruciating moments. Every time, their wives (including Hillary) stood shoulder to shoulder with their errant spouses, grim-faced but upright, willing to be seen as the good woman staying strong through thick and thin.
It seems, in America, to be required of them. And even a woman like Silda Spitzer, a top Harvard graduate who once had a big career in finance, felt the call to fall into line and stand gamely before the avid cameras as her husband intoned his “sorry” speech.
What a face she showed us. Eyes like stones, grey complexion, compressed mouth, face wiped blank with... what?... rage, humiliation, grief, anger, shame. No need for the latter, of course. He’s the bad boy. But she’s probably feeling stunned with the shame of it all, knowing that her position as Number One society wife of America’s greatest city, with all the parties, the honour and glory, the designer gowns and flowers, the best seats in restaurants and shows and operas, the invitations engraved on fine paper, the chauffeurs opening doors, and doormen saluting and lunches with powerful ladies... all of it is now in the compost. Along with whatever life she used to have with the father of their three teenage daughters.
What, by the way, do you tell three teenage daughters about the trouble their daddy is in over his habit of having expensive sex with young women not much older than them? How did Silda hold it all together in public like that, when what she must have really wanted to do was howl and sock him in the chops?
But this, it would appear, is how life is for the spouses of famous men. Just look at the great political parade going on in the US elections. Each candidate must be accompanied by their other half. Whenever John McCain appears, there alongside him is his wife of 28 years, the smiling and silent Cindy, groomed to the max, pin-thin in her bright silk suits and with ultra-sleek blonde hair, looking like a very mature Barbie doll.
Michelle Obama, wife of Barack, looks like she can barely contain herself as a talker, but must resist blurting for now. When she did speak recently she made the mistake of saying she was “proud of America” for the first time in her adult life. Big oops! Patriotism must not be questioned. Since then, not a murmur.
Then there’s Bill – so verbally effusive in recent weeks that he came close to and pushing Hill’s campaign off course. The former Prez has had to go quiet, too. It must be killing him.
It’s a weird thing. All these middle-aged couples but must chat and argue and fight and debate and chew the fat far into the night – but on the election trail there can be no hint of that. Instead the partners must just stand there, visible but mute, as useful as a stuffed sausage but still somehow necessary to the process. For it seems no single candidate could ever be elected to the White House. Hard enough to be black or female. But single? Not a chance.
Here, it’s all so different. Our own First Husband, Peter Davis, pops up only when absolutely necessary. And because here, too, it’s election year, PR requirements will mean we’re bound to see him pottering amiably in the next few months, keeping the home fires burning while Helen does her thing. Mrs Key? I don’t even know her first name. I could bump into her at the supermarket and be none the wiser. And I have no idea if there’s a Mrs Hide, or a Mrs Peters, or a Mr Turia. What a good thing. How lucky we are.

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