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Does New York City Need a First Lady?

The city’s gone much of the last three decades without one

Adam Chandler
July 25, 2013
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While New Yorkers decide–again–whether twice-disgraced mayoral hopeful Anthony Weiner’s sexless sex scandals are weird or problematic enough to disqualify him, Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin has come under media fire for her role in the circus. On Monday, she not only joined her husband at the press conference where he acknowledged there was more yet to the sexting/tweeting story we’d already heard enough of, but also chimed in with support for her husband.

You won’t read a story about Weiner without hearing about the immensely popular Abedin. When, in last week’s cover story for New York Magazine, Mark Jacobson’s otherwise banal coffee date with Weiner is interrupted by Huma, HUMA, H-U-M-A, nary a flourish is spared:

She approached in a knit white top and navy-blue business skirt, her dark, almost black hair down to her shoulders. She wore bright-red lipstick, which gave her lips a 3-D look, her brown eyes were pools of empathy evolved through a thousand generations of what was good and decent in the history of the human race. The harsh, cheap buck lighting in the coffee shop couldn’t lay a glove on her. By the time she sat down, the harmony of angels had vanquished the tinny background music from every corporate space on the planet. Of course, you’d seen pictures before. But you’d also seen pictures of the Taj Mahal. It didn’t quite come up to actually being there.

A few paragraphs later, Weiner, derided for his fantasies, shares another.

“Huma will be a kickass First Lady,” Weiner threw in, adding that the position has “been vacant for a long time.”

Despite the exaggeration and elevation of nearly everything in New York (including its personalities and media glare), the idiosyncratic personal lives of Big Apple mayors remain a footnote. At this point, it hardly seems strange that New Yorkers have been without an anointed First Lady for roughly 25 of the past 35 years. Last month, Republican mayoral hopeful John Catsimatidis made a special point of declaring that he wanted his wife Margo to end the drought. In the context of Huma, Margo, and the other spouses in this year’s mayoral race, there’s not much of a contemporary blueprint, which itself is intriguing for what it says about New York.

To help make sense of this, I spoke to Michael Greenberg, who’s lived in and written about New York City seemingly from the womb. I asked him his thoughts on the newest sexting subplot and the curious history of New York’s relationship with its leadership.

“The romantic lives of mayors have been scratched at, but not met with much interest from New Yorkers because New Yorkers are enlightened bunch. With Weiner, it’s not the sexual transgression, it’s the ridiculousness of it that’s damning him. Also he wasn’t mayor so he doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt of having been mayor. It’s the absurdity of the man who does this that’s hurting him, not the sexuality of it.”

Greenberg mentioned former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who infamously dumped his wife, Donna Hanover, via press conference in 2000. Plagued by rumors of infidelity in the preceding years, Giuliani and Hanover had seemingly stopped behaving publicly as a first couple near the end of his first term.

“She learned of it while on a running machine in their bedroom in Gracie Mansion watching television. This was callousness on a grand scale, but it was also Giuliani sort of having a personal breakdown. He then announced that he had prostate cancer and it became some kind of public confession. His popularity went down quite a bit, but he wasn’t very popular at the time anyway. But he was forgiven all this, all of this is forgotten. There he was having an affair, announcing it on television essentially, dumping his wife without speaking to her, through the press. It was extraordinary.”

How did Giuliani avoid being derailed by this? And what about Ed Koch, whose love life was notoriously “none of anyone’s business,” or Michael Bloomberg, who not only eschewed life in Gracie Mansion, but also went through his dozen years as mayor with a partner upon whom little attention was lavished?

“It’s the image the person presents that’s what’s important. Not the actual deed. With Bloomberg, here’s a man who’s obviously beyond personal consideration. Here’s a man whose personal life is so inaccessible and so impossible to imagine by any normal person. And I include myself in that. Who can imagine Bloomberg’s daily life? It’s impossible.

Whereas Giuliani’s and Koch’s, you could imagine. You could see Koch in his Village apartment, it wasn’t that different from yours. Bloomberg seems to have a good relationship with his ex-wife, his mother, no one thinks about it. No one thinks about Bloomberg in sexual terms ’cause they don’t think about him in human terms. All these things are totally contextual.”

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.