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Joanna Weiss

Marriage and divorce on the political stage

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / May 15, 2011

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ONE SUREFIRE sign that the institution of marriage is as healthy as ever is the shock we all have when a marriage ends.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a new marriage, an old marriage, a private marriage, or a political marriage. So it was big news last week when Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver announced a tentative split: a time for voyeurism, sadness, and all-American speculation.

Since the lowest point in the Schwarzenegger-Shriver public union was the oldest of political clichés — he was accused of groping women, and before a big election, she defended him — people wondered how much of their 25-year marriage was a calculated ruse. Did they stay together for politics? And would he have had a political career without a firm, forgiving wife to stand beside him?

We are cynical about political marriages, yet we fetishize them, too. Nearly every campaign, for an office large or small, touts a picture of the candidate beside a happy family. When Congressman Ben Quayle, the childless son of former Vice President Dan Quayle, sought his Arizona seat last year, he sent out mailers with a picture of him cuddling his nieces. Critics howled about deception: they weren’t his kids.

The clamor for a wholesome family portrait cuts two ways. As Stephanie Coontz, the author of “Marriage, a History,’’ points out, a female politician with a family is suspected of neglecting her kids. A male politician with kids and a supportive, loving wife is seen as a provider, a stand-up guy.

And if a man has a supportive, loving wife he met through the institution of adultery?

There’s not a great roadmap for that.

Which brings us to Newt Gingrich, who, as he runs for president, is touting his partnership with his third wife. She’s a former congressional staffer 22 years his junior, who embodies another cliché of the helpful political wife. Her “career’’ is with her husband’s political machine. She’s writing a children’s book (about American exceptionalism!), due to come out at the peak of primary season.

And their relationship began with a six-year affair — ending his marriage to another woman he had also met through adultery.

Gingrich has half-apologized for how he met his wife, saying he was working so hard for America that, you know, mistakes were made. (His work, at the time, included impeaching a sex-scandal-ridden Bill Clinton.) And yet, to hear him tell it, Gingrich is also in love. His wife plays in the local orchestra, and he carries her French horn to concerts.

The loving political marriage — the loving marriage of any kind — is a relatively recent institution, Coontz notes. For centuries, marriages were made for the sake of governing or economics: aligning the nobles, creating kids to work the family farm. A prince had courtesans for love and companionship. His wife was for producing alliances and heirs.

Our intolerance for affairs is also fairly new. In the late 18th century, Coontz says, men would brag about affairs to their fathers-in-law. The 19th century brought an epidemic of venereal disease, as men went to prostitutes and infected their wives.

Today, we value true and monogamous love, even as we recognize that forgiveness is possible. So when there is philandering, we take our cues from the wronged spouse. John Edwards’s career is sunk because his cancer-stricken wife, whom America loved, signaled that she now thought he was scum. Clinton survived his scandals in large part because Hillary stood by him.

People understand that marriage is complex, and they root for its success — which is why people take notice when Hillary and Bill are spotted holding hands, and why many are probably hoping for a Schwarzenegger-Shriver reconciliation.

That’s why opposition to gay marriage is steadily fading: more and more people agree that an institution worth cherishing, a symbol of stability and good citizenship, ought to be available to all.

Not Gingrich, of course. He wants the president to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act, though if there’s anything that marriage needs defending from, it’s him. Now, his campaign will test how much unmarriagelike behavior his supporters are willing to overlook. Will he get to have his soulmate — for the third time — and his culture-war soapbox, too?

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.