Critic's Notebook: Hillary Clinton's Shadow Looms Large Over TV's Political Spouses

Juliana Margulies, Robin Wright and Bellamy Young Split - H 2016

Melania Trump and Heidi Cruz may be grabbing headlines, but portraits of political spouses on shows from 'The Good Wife' to 'House of Cards' and 'Scandal' have distinct shades of Hillary.

The latest Republican food fight, with Donald Trump and Ted Cruz sniping back and forth about their wives, highlights one of the great hypocrisies of American politics: the belief that candidates' spouses should matter. Campaigns cling to the obsolete notion that a solid marriage indicates good leadership and should therefore be a selling point for someone running for office.

Luckily for us, we have television to offer some perspective. When it comes to political spouses, current shows weigh in with a range of messages, from the realism of The Good Wife to the unexpectedly retro first ladies of Scandal and House of Cards to the political husbands of Madam Secretary and The Family.

The best of those series, The Good Wife, is based on a premise we accept with a wink and a nod in life but never condone out loud: that political marriages are often convenient fictions. Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) is the ideal, independent heroine for the age of Hillary Clinton as presidential frontrunner. Alicia’s trajectory has taken her from stunned wife standing beside her husband (Chris Noth) at a press conference as he acknowledges a sex scandal (closely mirroring Eliot Spitzer admitting his history with prostitutes) to a candidate for office herself. Through it all, she and her husband have remained in a marriage of mutual political convenience: Peter needed the image of a stable marriage in order to win the governor’s race; Alicia needed him to lift her own career. So they agreed to secretly live separate lives; how sane, and how thoroughly credible. Alicia is an empathetic heroine because the show depicts her marital arrangement as a sign of some lingering loyalty to Peter and a lot of clear-eyed ambition. She is not judged or punished for that — and why should she be?  

The Good Wife acknowledges that the Florricks better not go public with their personal deal, though. Alicia’s demand for a divorce on Sunday’s episode — her boyfriend and her husband are both jealous; apparently no arrangement is perfect — was quickly followed by Peter’s request to support him publicly one last time if he is indicted. The ending was a cliffhanger, but whatever she decides won’t change the political astuteness of the show over its seven seasons.

The Good Wife seems so real that the visceral new documentary Weiner (opening in May) feels like its counterpart. The film follows Anthony Weiner’s 2013 campaign for mayor of New York City two years after a sexting scandal forced him to resign from Congress. The cameras stick around when a second sexting scandal erupts during the campaign.

Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, who has long been one of Hillary’s Clinton’s top aides, is the film’s most sympathetic yet enigmatic figure. When news breaks about more sex tweets, she stands next to her husband at a press conference looking — like Silda Spitzer and Alicia Florrick before her — as if she has been emotionally hit by a truck. But here is where reality and fiction depart: Although her pain is evident, Abedin is cautious and hyperaware of the documentary cameras. In an especially dramatic moment, she glares at her husband in silence until he asks the camera people to leave.

When she backs away from the campaign, we hear none of the calculations behind that decision. But we watchers of The Good Wife can guess how some conversations might have gone, based on talks between Alicia and Peter, or Alicia and Eli (Alan Cumming), the Florricks’ political consigliore. Will she save him or save herself? Is there any way to do both? How much loyalty does or doesn’t she owe him?

Other political wives on television are more entertaining than they are realistic, and even send backward-looking messages. In the recently released fourth season of House of Cards, Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) has morphed from Lady Macbeth into her husband’s vice-presidential running mate. How did she get there? First by using dirty tricks to undermine his campaign, and then by threatening to divorce him, which would mean his political death.

Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young), former first lady on Scandal, is a senator running for president in the current season. She did divorce her husband (Tony Goldwyn's President Fitz Grant) while he was in office, and won his support for her campaign as payback for all the years she put up with his infidelity. 

Both series revel in their over-the-top melodrama, including murder. But they also hope to remain tethered to political reality. (Look at how hilariously Scandal has turned the character of the rich blowhard Hollis Doyle, played by Gregg Henry, into a shadow Trump.) Beneath the ostensible feminism of Claire's and Mellie’s careers, though, is a (perhaps inadvertent) retro assumption: Political wives are still so much an extension of their husbands that they can only get ahead by scheming against and blackmailing those men. What does Hillary think of these shows, one has to wonder?

Speaking of men: Those poor onscreen political husbands. There is so little precedent in reality for male political spouses that television can’t get beyond the question of whether or not the guys are emasculated. On ABC's new show The Family, Joan Allen plays Claire Warren, a conniving small-town mayor whose son, abducted a decade before, returns just as she is about to launch her bid for governor of Maine. (Or, as the last episode seemed to confirm, the returned boy might be an imposter.) Claire has no scruples about exploiting her family trauma for sympathetic votes. Her weakling husband, John (Rupert Graves), long ago fled into an affair with the detective covering the case (Margot Bingham), a woman to whom Claire is warm when reporters are around and threatening in private. John doesn’t stand a chance against his wife. Naturally, the Warrens' fractured marriage is presented to the voting public as solid.

Meanwhile, CBS' Madam Secretary insistently does the opposite, creating a strong husband for Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni). Henry McCord (Tim Daly) is more than a university professor; he occasionally is lured back into his former life in the intelligence service, and in recent episodes the president has given him a high-powered anti-terrorism role and security clearance that matches his wife’s — the better to engage in the kind of how-to-get-the-terrorists pillow talk a political wonk might imagine the Clintons enjoy.

So far, TV hasn’t tackled the unique circumstance — and impending real-life possibility — of a first husband who was once president himself. But it says something about both television and the absurdity of the current campaign that the only series to come close to The Good Wife’s level realism is HBO's Veep, whose biting satire reveals plenty of political truths. Some recent evidence: The Australian prime minister borrowed the fictional President Selina Meyer’s campaign slogan, “Continuity with Change,” turning it into the equally inane “Continuity and Change.”

As the new season starts (on April 24), Selina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her opponent (Brad Leland) in the presidential race are in an electoral college tie. But win or lose, there she is: a single, divorced woman in the Oval Office who did not blackmail a husband to get there. In brushing aside the hypocritical posture that spouses matter, Veep seems slightly ahead of its time — and much more honest than the political landscape as we know it.