Wife puts troubling face on the Spitzer scandal

Times Staff Writers

It was the way she stood there, enduring.

Silda Wall Spitzer did not say a word as her husband, Gov. Eliot Spitzer, brusquely apologized to his family and the public after he was allegedly caught on a wiretap doing business with a high-priced prostitution ring. Her face was drawn. But she took her husband’s hand as they left the room.

This scandal has many salacious details, but it was the image of Silda Wall Spitzer at her man’s side that dominated conversations across the country Tuesday.

That moment of public humiliation stayed with people -- men and women, Democrats and Republicans. At a beauty salon in Brooklyn Heights, at the Mellow Mushroom pizzeria in midtown Atlanta, at a Denver office building, at a bar in the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the same questions came up:


How could she?

Why did she?

Haven’t we seen this play one too many times?

Why do we go through this ritual of public shame and repentance, with the political wife standing mutely before the TV cameras as her husband admits his sexual indiscretion?

“I find it nauseating . . . phony and awful,” said Leah Schanzer, 38, a doctoral student who stopped for coffee at a Starbucks in New York City. She gave an exaggerated shudder.

“It makes it seem like she’s Susie Homemaker,” said her friend Leslie Heller, 47. “She shouldn’t be standing there, next to him.”

As attorney general and -- for a little over a year -- governor, Spitzer set himself up as a crusader, bent on exposing unethical behavior. The allegation that the Democrat frequented an international call-girl ring has proved an irresistible twist.

“The story is juicy because of the sex, but it’s really about betraying the trust that you hold,” said Roz Perlmuth, 66, a retired teacher from Palm Desert, Calif.

Newspaper websites have been swamped with thousands of comments on the case; gleeful barbs are being tossed around the blogosphere.

But to many -- especially women -- the tawdry details added up to more than another generic scandal. When they looked at Silda Wall Spitzer’s weary face, it felt personal.

“She should’ve said, ‘This is your fight. This is your battle. You stand there and get yourself out of it,’ ” said Linda Walters, 61. The Denver resident said she divorced her own cheating spouse.

In the Seattle airport, traveler Jim Thorpe said he had not cared a bit about Spitzer’s sexual proclivities -- until he saw a clip of the one-minute apology. “The only disgusting part is the consultant who advised him to trot out his wife by his side,” said Thorpe, 53.

“I’d have paraded in front of the microphone with a knife,” said Cassandra Horton, 43, who works at an escrow firm in Phoenix.

Easier said than done, said Kathleen B. Jones, a professor emeritus of women’s studies at San Diego State University.

“ ‘I am woman. Hear me rage.’ That’s easy to write on a blog. . . . But if I’m in that situation, do I really want to add to my humiliation in that very public moment?” Jones asked. “What choice does she have?”

Standing with a disgraced husband may be seen as “one last spousal duty” in a political marriage, said Tobe Berkovitz, of Boston University’s College of Communication. After years of making compromises and sacrifices to advance a spouse’s career, “people just sort of do it,” Berkovitz said.

They may want to put up a united front for the children. They may be so stunned they can’t think through other options. “I don’t think most people have the fortitude to do otherwise,” Berkovitz said.

The Spitzer apology followed the script established by New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey, who declared himself “a gay American” with his wife smiling at his side; Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who brought his wife with him on TV as he tried to explain away suggestive e-mails to his chief of staff; Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, who admitted to “very serious sin” after his phone number was found in a madam’s little black book; and Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, whose wife hid her face behind oversized sunglasses as he spoke of his arrest for soliciting sex from an undercover officer in an airport men’s bathroom.

“That’s what politicians’ wives do,” said Sherman Smith, 53, an accountant in Atlanta. “It’s about wealth and power. She loses too if she abandons him.”

Above all, the Spitzer scandal drew comparisons to President Clinton’s affair with intern Monica S. Lewinsky -- and the way his wife stood by his side.

Hillary Rodham Clinton is now a senator from New York and a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, leading right-wing talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh to conclude that “these [scandals] can be resume enhancements in the Democrat Party.”

Late-night comics made much of the parallels between Spitzer and Clinton, even though the former president was not engaged in illegal prostitution. From Jay Leno: “This means that Hillary Clinton is now the second-angriest wife in the state of New York.”

From David Letterman’s top-ten list of Eliot Spitzer excuses: “I thought Bill Clinton legalized this years ago.”

In conversations, many casual observers struck a more muted tone.

In Atlanta, Cicely Garrett and Tyeise Huntley said people should not presume to judge Silda Wall Spitzer.

“People get upset when these politicians drag out their wives, but it would look worse for her if she didn’t do it,” said Garrett, 28, a nonprofit manager. “Can you imagine if she got all belligerent and went on Maury Povich’s show and got out all her dirty laundry?”

“Her being there makes me more sympathetic to the situation,” said Huntley, 27, a sales representative. “You just think, ‘Man, if that was my husband. . . . ‘ “

“Still, I don’t know if I’d go in front of the media and hold his hand,” Garrett said.

“I probably would,” Huntley said. “Then I’d close the door and have a real conversation.”

“The whole thing is a charade,” Garrett said, laughing.

Huntley nodded. “Those wives know the show before they get into it.”

Silda Wall Spitzer -- whose first name is derived from a Germanic word meaning “armed female warrior” -- has often expressed ambivalence about her role as a political spouse.

Educated at an all-women Baptist college in North Carolina, she went on to Harvard Law School and built a career as a top corporate attorney. She married for the first time while in law school, but that union lasted less than a month. In 1987, she married Spitzer, also a Harvard Law graduate (and heir to a real-estate fortune). They have three teenage daughters.

Silda Wall Spitzer left the workforce when her husband decided to run for attorney general. “It was, for me, a very difficult decision,” she told the New York Observer in 2006.

In an interview last year with the magazine 02138 -- for an article entitled “Power Couples” -- she laughed at a question about whether she and her husband spent much private time together. “It’s hard to say that we do,” she replied.

Feminist writer Linda R. Hirshman has written harshly about “opt-out women,” her term for well-educated, successful professionals who quit jobs to advance their husbands’ careers. To her, that’s a risky and degrading choice.

“These women always look like deer caught in the headlights,” Hirshman said. “They were dependent on men to be their booster rockets, and now you see them starting on a downward trajectory.”

Just look, she said, at the pain on Silda Wall Spitzer’s face.


Times staff writers Andrew Blankstein and Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Los Angeles, Nicholas Riccardi in Phoenix, Stuart Glascock in Seattle and DeeDee Correll in Denver contributed to this report.