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A Brief History of the Wife-Standing-by-Her-Man Interview

Brett Kavanaugh is the latest to wield the ultimate weapon in scandal PR—the Wife Boost

Brett Kavanaugh’s wife, Ashley Estes Kavanaugh, sits beside her husband in her conservative Sunday best, her hands and ankles crossed demurely, and says pretty much what you’d expect a wife to say when her man is accused of two instances of sexual assault. Kavanaugh, she tells Fox News, is “decent, he’s kind, he’s good,” and she doesn’t need to interrogate him.

In other words, whatever these women are saying about Kavanaugh just wasn’t compatible with his wife’s image of him, and she’ll be damned if she’ll entertain any notion to the contrary.

It was a familiar setup to longtime viewers of political theater. Ashley Kavanaugh is standing by her man, offering the only assist a good woman can: the Wife Boost. It’s a power-up that tells the world this is a family man who, by design, can’t be capable of a terrible crime like sexual assault.

We may not know what really happened that night in the summer of 1982 to Christine Blasey Ford, or in that Yale dorm room to Deborah Ramirez. But do we really need to when we have Kavanaugh’s wife, the ultimate authority on his character? The woman who “knows his heart” and has loved him and known him for 17 years can clear it all up. After all, the Kavanaughs are people of faith. “At the end of the day,” Ashley Kavanaugh says somberly on FOX, “our faith is strong, and we know that we’re on the right path.”

We’re in the midst of a radical, watershed moment in history. The #MeToo movement hits its one-year anniversary this month, and droves of women are still calling out men who’ve assaulted them. It’s been a smaller point of interest to see how the scandalized wives of the accused men figure out their next steps. As Town and Country recently put it, those women have two choices: look away or walk away.

Among those who’ve walked: Harvey Weinstein’s wife, Georgina Chapman; Matt Lauer’s wife, Annette Roque. The list of those who turned the other cheek is longer. Camille Cosby, who, although notably missing from Cosby’s sentencing hearing Tuesday, has long defended her husband as not only innocent but a victim of mob rule on the level of a lynching. Missouri Governor Eric Greitens and wife Sheena have stuck it out. Al Franken and his wife, Franni Bryson, are still together after he resigned from his Senate seat. And Julie Chen, wife of former CBS Corporation CEO and chairman Les Moonves, who resigned after numerous allegations of sexual abuse in the workplace, signed off her Sept. 14 episode of Big Brother as Julie Chen-Moonves, in case anyone had any doubts about where her loyalties lie.

But the Kavanaugh duet’s public appearance mirrors a couple even more famous stand-by-your-man performances from the past.

Melania Trump, 2016

Way back in 2016, thanks to a freshly surfaced 2005 Access Hollywood tape of Donald Trump chatting with Billy Bush, the country and world at large heard the presidential candidate boast about sexually assaulting women.

Who would marry such a sleazebag? As if on cue, Melania Trump stopped by CNN to set the record straight with Anderson Cooper. She said she was surprised to hear such inappropriate language from her husband, because “that is not the man I know.” Asked to explain the nature of his comments, Melania insisted it was just “boy talk,” just a normal guy making normal comments about grabbing women by the genitals. Nothing to make a fuss over. If anything, it was proof of a smear campaign organized by the opposition—Hillary Clinton. Speaking of whom…

Hillary Clinton, 1992

When a lounge singer named Gennifer Flowers spilled to a tabloid in 1992 that she had been slipping it to Bill Clinton for 12 years, Hillary was called in as the fixer. On a famous 60 Minutes interview, Clinton made clear that she wasn’t some kind of sucker, while still peddling the idea that her judgment of Bill’s character, as his loyal, loving wife, transcends that of anyone else’s.

“You know, I’m not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette,” Clinton said, wearing a conservative green blazer and matching turtleneck. “I’m sitting here because I love him, and I respect him, and I honor what he’s been through and what we’ve been through together. And you know, if that’s not enough for people, then heck — don’t vote for him.”

Unfortunately for the Clintons, Flowers had tapes. Believe it or not, the Monica Lewinsky scandal that would lead to Clinton’s impeachment was still seven years away.

Virginia Thomas, 1991

When George H.W. Bush handpicked Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court in 1991 to replace the newly retired Thurgood Marshall, 35-year-old attorney Anita Hill surfaced with testimony that Thomas had sexually harassed her when they worked together at the EEOC and the Department of Education between the years of 1981 and 1983. The accusations included unwanted sexual comments to Hill, including Thomas talking up his porn interests (bestiality, group sex), a recurring fixation with a porn star called Long Dong Silver and the infamous pubic-hair-on-a-Coke-can joke.

As Vox’s Anna North lays out about the similarities, like Anita Hill, Kavanaugh’s accuser Ford also wrote to her Congress member initially about the allegations against Kavanaugh and got little traction at first. The three days of testimony Hill gave, in which media called her “a little nutty and a little slutty,” are now considered “monumental political theater,” and Clarence called the ordeal a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.”

In a People cover story, wife Virginia fired back at her husband’s accusers. Not only did she believe her husband, her soul mate, but the accusations were clearly a political hatchet job. Luckily, the couple had faith, and began hosting prayer groups in their home and playing Christian music round the clock.

All the men here would still go on to get what they were after. Trump, of course, went on to become president. Bill Clinton would weather all of the above and find himself acquitted of the impeachment charges, while Hillary’s career would permanently suffer, leading to two failed presidential runs. Clarence Thomas was confirmed and is currently the longest-serving Supreme Court Justice, going on 26 years.

Of course, the #MeToo movement still has the above men in their crosshairs, including the relitigating of not only Clinton’s treatment of Monica Lewinsky, but Thomas’ continued seat on the Supreme Court. Trump’s presidency has been dogged by endless scandals, and his approval rating is at a rock-bottom low of 36 percent.

But that’s not to suggest they’ve truly paid a price in any real way. Each holds enough power to seem immune to the consequences. Each underscores that trotting out a loving, loyal wife is a winning strategy. It’s yet to be seen if it will work for Kavanaugh.

It’ll be ironic if it does, though. As often as people quote the Tammy Wynette song “Stand by Your Man” as a retrograde instance of blind wifely support, the song is probably one of the sickest burns in country music. “And if you love him,” Wynette croons, “oh, be proud of him. ’Cause after all, he’s just a man.”

Wynette wrote it in 1968 while going through her second divorce, and would go on to have five husbands in total—i.e., she wasn’t the type to stand by any man for long. She kept her beautician’s license current during her career as one of the most famous country singers in history, because she knew better, even then, than to put her eggs in one husband basket.

Fifty years since the song’s release, Dacey Orr Sivewright revisited the tune for Garden and Gun, calling it probably one of the most misunderstood songs in history. Wynette never meant for it to be some sort of clapback to women’s lib, or a pass to men who behave terribly. That was the label’s idea to promote it that way. She meant it to be a meditation about how hard it is to try to accept men in spite of their very human limitations.

In other words, it’s about how much some women try their best to forgive the men who let them down — and make no mistake, they let them down terribly — and manage to love those men anyway. It never meant the rest of us had to do the same.