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Blame the Nearest Woman

Originally published by Rebecca Davis O’Brien and Reid J. Epstein for The New York Times

It is a tale as old as Adam and Eve: A husband, faced with accusations of misconduct, blames the wife.

It is also a time-honored, bipartisan political strategy. This week, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey pointed ringed fingers at their wives for episodes that have landed each man in political or legal trouble.

“It was briefly placed by Mrs. Alito,” Justice Alito, one of the Supreme Court’s most conservative members, told The New York Times in explaining an upside-down American flag — a “Stop the Steal” symbol of protest by Donald J. Trump’s supporters — flying on a pole in the family’s front lawn in the days before President Biden’s 2021 inauguration. The justice’s wife, Martha-Ann Alito, was in a feud with neighbors at the time over an anti-Trump sign, The Times reported.

In the case of Mr. Menendez, a Democrat, it was his lawyer who did the finger pointing. On Wednesday, in a federal courtroom in Manhattan, the lawyer, Avi Weitzman, blamed the senator’s wife and her financial troubles for what prosecutors have described as a bribery scheme involving foreign governments and hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts.

“She tried to get cash and assets any which way she could,” Mr. Weitzman told the jury. “She kept him in the dark on what she was asking others to give her.” (Ms. Menendez also faces charges in the case but will be tried separately, after a breast cancer diagnosis. She has pleaded not guilty, and a lawyer representing her declined to comment.)

Casting blame on a spouse for perceived misdeeds may help relieve the immediate pressure on a public official, but it does so, necessarily, by exposing the most intimate of partnerships to scrutiny and scorn.

And, of course, there’s the reputational and interpersonal fallout from throwing your wife under the bus.

“Given how the public generally holds women to a higher ethical standard than men and expect them to take raps for behavior men routinely get away with, I could see how men might think blaming their wife for a misdeed could shield them from criticism,” said Jennifer Palmieri, a political strategist who knows about spousal controversy from working on the presidential campaigns of John Edwards and Hillary Clinton. “But not when it involves your wife. You just look like a coward.”

Sidestepping political controversy and pushing your wife directly into it is a move bound to prompt accusations of sexism, as it often plays on negative stereotypes of manipulative, ambitious or status-obsessed political wives with uncontrollable emotions and an outsize sense of entitlement.

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