There's no set formula for how to deal with the cheaters who break their wives' hearts. Especially in the case of politicians' wives, who have to endure the inevitable blaze of prurient publicity when their husbands "come clean." But maybe it's time for the scorned American political wives to take a page from their counterparts across the pond who have dished up some juicy payback, European-style.
Exhibit A is Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose wife's denunciation of his, ah, peccadilloes has triggered almost a daily new humiliating sex scandal. The latest features an audio tape of his session with a prostitute, complete with a discussion of his alleged prowess and him encouraging her to masturbate more often. Even in the land of la dolce vita, this isn't going over well.
When it comes to infidelity, Europeans are supposed to be the nonchalant ones -- so cool, so sophisticated, so understanding. Europeans once viewed cheating like stepping in a puddle when it rains, not the most comfortable of feelings, but no big deal either. It was the Americans who were supposed to be less "laid back" and more prone to "pay back." But in all the recent sex scandals, it's the American political wives who stand by their men more than their European counterparts.
No matter how egregious their husbands' trespasses, these women appear to take seriously their public mea culpas -- whether they confess to paying for "dangerous" sex, discovering their "soul mate" (and love for "tan lines") on a Buenos Aires tango floor, or having a fling while the wife was in remission.
At times, it seems that all these political wives subscribe to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' fundamental assumption about matrimony. "I do not think that there are any men who are faithful to their wives," she once declared. Her husband certainly didn't disabuse her of that notion.
A lot of folks are offering these women gratuitous advice. Like, hit the road, take the kids, and get a lucrative book deal and follow in the footsteps of Mrs. Edwards (except she didn't take the kids, didn't move out and is still with her husband who might be the father of someone else's kid).
Here's my advice: look at the more creative responses of Europe's political wives, who are no longer standing by their men. In fact, they're more inclined to stand anywhere where they can give them a good clean kick in the derriere. These European "first ladies" may be just the inspiration Mrs. Sanford, Mrs. Edwards, Mrs. McGreevy and Mrs. Ensign need.
The Berlusconi saga began when his wife, Veronica Lario, published a letter in a major Italian newspaper itemizing his alleged misdeeds. The first time around, she demanded he publicly apologize for his promiscuous ways. It worked. He publicly begged for forgiveness. More recently, she made new headlines by charging he was filling up parliamentary seats with women more qualified for pole dancing than enacting legislation, and consorting with minors -- in particular, a model celebrating her 18th birthday. By then, it wasn't forgiveness she was after, just a divorce.
Then there's Pavla Topolanek, the wife of the former Czech prime minister, who decided the best way to get back at her cheating husband was to hit him where it hurt most. No, not there. She ran for a Senate seat on the ticket of a rival party. She lost, but she used her campaign to expose his cheating ways. He admitted that she got "sweet revenge".
Of course you can always count on the French for a first class sex scandal. Cecilia Ciganer-Albeniz, ex-wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, knew her then-husband was cheating on her, and decided to trumpet her own affair on the cover of Paris Match magazine, where she appeared with her lover. Touché.
Finally, one of the reasons for Princess Diana's incredible popularity was her famous remark: "There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded." On the same night that Prince Charles publicly admitted that he was still seeing Camilla, Diana appeared in a stunning "revenge dress" at a charity event.
This is not to say that American "first wives" never strike back. In 1973, Barbara "Bootsie" Mandel booted her husband, Maryland Governor Marvin Mandel, right out of the governor's mansion for five months. After making sure he was properly humiliated, she slapped him with divorce papers.
But try to name a recent American public figure's wife who has had the ovaries to do what Bootsie did. Some may make their straying husbands pay in the confines of their own homes, but not when they are in the spotlight.
Not so for the European political wives who take delight in the notion that a bit of public humiliation for a public figure is, well, deeply satisfying. American wives, too, could discover that it's a punishment that fits the crime. They might consider an old adage and slightly amend it: when not in Rome, do as the Romans do--and serve up a nice cold dish of revenge.
Eva Nagorski is the author of The Down and Dirty Dish on Revenge: Serving It Up Nice and Cold to that Lying, Cheating Bastard (St. Martin's Press). She has also written for NBC's Law and Order: SVU, Las Vegas, and Deadline. For more information, please visit www.evanagorski.com.