Cindy McCain did not hesitate as she stepped toward the microphone, taking her place in the history of political wives who stood by their men in the face of rumored or alleged marital infidelity.
“Well, obviously, I’m disappointed,” she said, her voice low but clear and self-assured. “More importantly, my children and I not only trust my husband, but know that he would never do anything to not only disappoint our family, but disappoint the people of America. He’s a man of great character.”
She and her husband, likely Republican presidential nominee John McCain, emphatically denied suggestions in published reports that he had an affair with a lobbyist.
A coterie of wives has confronted the public pain of such an accusation. Smaller still is the band who, like Cindy McCain, have spoken out.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former first lady who is battling Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination, memorably insisted to CBS’s “60 Minutes” during the 1992 campaign, “I’m not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.” She sat beside husband Bill.
And there was her cool demeanor, six years later, at the news conference where her husband declared of Monica Lewinsky: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
Mrs. Clinton made this barbed observation to the journalists who were present, “I’m pleased to see so many people in attendance who care about child care,” a reference to the reason the news conference had been arranged.
Few political wives are considered strong women, said Stanley Renshon, a political psychologist at City University of New York.
“Hillary Clinton would certainly fit. Michelle Obama would certainly fit. Cindy McCain would certainly fit, from all indications,” Renshon said. “You don’t expect them to feel either shell-shocked or look like a deer caught in the headlights. It’s not in their nature, because they’re strong women.”
Cindy McCain is certainly no shrinking violet. Just this week, she tweaked the wife of Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama for seeming to suggest she didn’t have much pride in the United States until Obama’s campaign gained steam.
“I’m proud of my country,” she said in Wisconsin on Tuesday. “I don’t know about you, if you heard those words earlier.”
On Thursday, Cindy McCain struck a balance between strident and shocked as she calmly helped her husband confront the allegations. She was no Hillary Clinton, but neither was she silent, like the wives of New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey and Idaho Sen. Larry Craig. The first announced he was gay, the second said he was not.
The New York Times had strongly suggested there was an inappropriate relationship between her husband, John McCain, and a female lobbyist, including favors for her clients. The Washington Post quickly published a similar story. The Times story also said top McCain aides became “convinced the relationship had become romantic.”
At a news conference hours later, McCain denied any romantic relationship and insisted he had never done anything to betray the public trust.
Cindy McCain stood with her shoulder pressed against her husband’s, watching him and his questioners intently, her expression pleasant and composed, as usual. Asked for her thoughts, she moved to the microphone without pause.
As she finished, her husband, obviously appreciative, said, “I should have had you conduct this.” Cindy McCain smiled and briefly placed her hand on his arm.
The scene has played out time and again in politics, although the circumstances vary:
_Suzanne Craig stood silently as her husband, Larry, denied last summer that he had propositioned a man in the stall of an airport bathroom. Her expression was obscured by large sunglasses.
_Louisiana Rep. David Vitter apologized last summer after being linked to a Washington escort service. As reporters demanded to know whether he had any sexual relationship, his wife, Wendy, seized the podium, calling her husband “my best friend” and saying that forgiveness “is the right choice for me.” Ironically, Wendy Vitter had predicted years ago that she would act more like knife-wielding Lorena Bobbitt than Hillary Clinton if her husband strayed.
_Carlita Kilpatrick, seated next to her husband, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, touched his knee as he publicly apologized to his family amid a scandal over intimate and sexually explicit text messages involving him and his top aide. “Yes, I am angry, I am hurt, and I am disappointed. But there is no question that I love my husband.”
_Dina Matos McGreevey stood, obviously shell-shocked, next to her husband, then-Gov. McGreevey, as he announced in 2004 he was “a gay American” and would resign. He said later he stepped down rather than succumb to a $50 million blackmail threat from a male former lover. She wrote a tell-all book after they divorced.
_Lee Hart, after husband Gary Hart was linked to model Donna Rice during his presidential campaign, insisted to reporters in 1987: “When Gary says nothing happened, nothing happened.”
How they responded “depends on the allegation, and it depends on the spouse,” Renshon said.
Their comments are an important part of any candidate’s response when such an accusation arises, he said.
“The allegation of infidelity is still a powerful allegation, and it remains powerful because it’s about trust and responsibility, the idea that if you’re cheating on your spouse, what can we expect of you in the presidency,” he said.