No ordinary woman

Toby Harnden

The humiliated wife has long been a standard prop in the mea culpa phase of an American political scandal but Huma Abedin is refusing to play the role.

First the husband commits adultery with a prostitute, another man, an assistant, a lobbyist or a family friend. After he gets caught, he expresses contrition and the wife is somehow prevailed upon to stand mute at the press conference as he clings to his job or bows to the inevitable and resigns.

Revelations … Anthony Weiner has apologised publically to his wife Huma Abedin. Photo: AP

But Huma Abedin, wife of the disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner, may have just rewritten the script. For more than a week, Weiner lied to his wife, colleagues and country about whether he had texted a photograph of his engorged member, restrained by a pair of grey briefs, to a 21-year-old student in Seattle.

On day nine of the scandal, when he appeared before the press to admit everything he could no longer deny (and no more), Abedin was nowhere to be seen. When he finally resigned last Thursday – day 21 – she decided to remain home at their apartment a few miles away.

In between these two appearances, the first one full of tearful apologies, the second one couched in defiant I-shall-return insistence, Weiner repeatedly cited his wife’s wishes as a reason why he should keep his job.

The fact that she was almost three months pregnant was leaked.

Abedin, however, was no ordinary wife and this was no ordinary marriage. A longtime personal aide to Hillary Clinton, who regards Abedin as a “second daughter”, she was travelling in Africa with the Secretary of State while the third week of the scandal unfolded.

Conducting their Long Island wedding ceremony just over a year ago was President Bill Clinton, who described the marriage of the Jew from Brooklyn and the half-Indian, half-Pakistani orthodox Muslim who was brought up in Saudi Arabia as a vision of how “the future of the world should be”.

The joining together of the loudmouth liberal congressman, a cable television favourite who nursed ambitions to be New York mayor, and his discreet, beautiful bride represented the ultimate Washington power couple. When she returned from her Africa trip on day 20, however, she made it clear to friends that she was “disgusted” by her husband’s behaviour and was unconcerned about whether or not he remained in Congress.

Having worked for Mrs Clinton in the White House during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Abedin had decided not to follow the example of her boss. Back in 1992, when Mr Clinton stood accused of having a 12-year affair with Gennifer Flowers, Mrs Clinton had appeared beside her husband on television as he apologised for having “caused pain” in their marriage. Her protestation that she was not “some little woman standing by her man” rang hollow.By all accounts, the Clintons grew more and more livid about Weiner’s transgressions as his belated admission of “sexting” at least half a dozen women was followed by lurid revelations of an even more explicit photograph of Weiner, online assignations with a former porn star and virtual contact with a 17-year-old schoolgirl.

The fact that the congressman’s surname was a synonym for Vienna sausage and a certain part of the male anatomy was a bonanza for tabloid headline writers.

It could well be that a small band of conservatives calling themselves the bornfreecrew, who had been monitoring Weiner’s Twitter account for months and warning women of his predatory habits, prevented a serious crime being committed. As Weiner’s career collapsed, his wife’s stature grew. James Carville, Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign manager, described her as “one of the most popular people in the Democratic party”. The feminist writer Ann Friedman even suggested she run for her husband’s vacant seat.

Having been accused at different time of being Mrs Clinton’s lesbian lover, a Saudi Arabian agent, a link to the Muslim Brotherhood, not to mention her ordeal over the past three weeks, Abedin is nothing if not battle-tested.

She has been featured in Vogue and is as charming and polished in private as her husband is abrasive and provocative in public. In the nearly two decades after she stood by her man, Mrs Clinton has carved out her own separate life and political career. All things considered, she remains the most likely first female American president as the 2016 election campaign comes into view.

Weiner may appear to have bought himself a one-way ticket to oblivion but in American politics a second act can never be ruled out. Within hours of his resignation, which was notably lacking in remorse or any sign that his undergoing “treatment” had been anything more than a ruse to buy time, the cable host Chris Matthews was praising him for showing dignity and a “measure of class”.

Whether or not Weiner can re-enter public life, the woman who refused to be Huma the Humiliated seems to have an assured future in politics. And in the process of making her silent stand, she has set a new benchmark for how an elected official’s wife should respond when her husband errs.


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