The times are few and far between these days when news hounds and junkies—almost all devotees of Twitter—turn away from its blinking columns of information, away from the breaking story going through mitosis at the hands of a thousand bloggers and pundits, and focus their attention on the mother medium of television. A thousand ergonomic office chairs swiveled toward the boob tube late yesterday afternoon to watch the biggest boob in New York City—and that’s saying quite a bit, since I’m pretty sure Geraldo lives there—try to explain himself and his naughty texts to young women, rife with gonad selfies and the misuse of a certain Latin preposition.
We all know what to expect at such press conferences. The warped tableau of the wicked—shirtsleeves and downcast eyes and fluorescent lighting and off-script rambling. Anthony Weiner’s life has turned into bread and circuses for the political masses—the fragile ego of the featherweight former congressman is ripe fodder—but when his wife, Huma Abedin, who had been shifting from side to side next to him, took the podium and delivered a set of perfectly scripted remarks of support, well, that made everyone sit up and take note. Abedin’s words struck a tone both endearing and empowering, from her prefatory admission that speaking at press conferences made her nervous to the money quote: “It was not an easy choice in any way, but I made the decision that it was worth staying in this marriage. That was a decision I made for me, for our son, and for our family.” While Weiner may not come out of this scandal alive, his wife sure will, with political capital to spare.
With her smarts and her looks and her poise, Abedin is, as Mary Poppins might say, practically perfect in every way—like something out of a movie or a TV show. In fact, as I watched Abedin, the construction of a harried wife—hair pulled back, a rumpled campaign-trail cardigan thrown over her designer dress, I couldn’t help but imagine what political “fixer” and creature of Washington, Olivia Pope—the main character of Shonda Rhimes’s hit D.C. drama, Scandal—might have done in the same situation. Exactly the same thing, I think. Exactly the same thing.
The fictionalized versions of Washington popping up all over television the past few years have, by and large, revolved around the machinations of powerful women, from those of Sigourney Weaver as a scheming former first lady turned secretary of state in the truly awful mini-series, Political Animals, to the hilarious and at times dark ploys of Julia Louis Dreyfuss’s vice president on Veep. We have Hillary Clinton to thank for these depictions of ambitious political women, of course, but the more fascinating creatures of screenwriters’ imaginations are always those that dwell in the shadows. Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington, is beautiful, yes. The secret mistress of the president, yes. But her most marked trait is her absolute control, both of her own emotions and of the scandals and crises that she is hired by famous and powerful clients to manage. One wonders if Rhimes looked for a muse in Abedin when molding the contours of her TV heroine.
Pope and Abedin have more than a few things in common—both are women of color, both are objectified for their beauty and style (Pope is always outfitted in silky blouses and cascading cashmere sweaters and Abedin is pretty much Vogue’s dream girl), both are consummate insiders and considered to be far and away much savvier than their significant others. They are creatures of the campaign trail, cutting elegant figures, glued to their phones and powerful friends—operators. The ultimate brunettes in towns filled with stiff competition for such a title. The Lady Macbeth moniker is bandied about often in stories of political intrigue both real and fictional—Robin Wright plays such a part with particularly taut panache as the cold wife of the House majority whip in House of Cards—and yes, the allusion is sexist and reductive, but there’s a reason the part of the fierce Scottish lady has always been one of the most sought-after roles in Shakespeare; the audience is both repulsed by her do-anything-for-love-and-power ambition and admiring (or at least in awe) of her chutzpah.
Weiner’s political future is far from certain, but it is his wife’s that will be watched with the most fascination, and I don’t think that’s simply my TV-addled brain talking. Abedin could just be a woman doing what she can for the man she loves—and no doubt, that is part of it—but I can’t help but wonder what the behind-the-scenes story is. If she’s any shade of Olivia Pope, we’ll never know.