For better or worse: Scandal-plagued unions weather the worst

For those political power couples whose marriages have been through the wringer during the past year, a chocolate-coated holiday celebrating love might be a bit rich.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Suzanne Craig and Wendy Vitter!

As if these two women hadn’t been through enough with their senatorial husbands’ separate sex scandals last year, here comes Cupid bragging about perfect love.

Enter a time-worn cliché — what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger — and you’ll see that, for the dozens of political couples who have been rocked by scandal, many have survived and moved forward.

Or at least that’s how it appears.

Suzanne Craig’s other half, Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), generated a heap of unwanted attention to the couple’s marriage in August when he pleaded guilty to charges of disorderly conduct in a Minneapolis airport men’s bathroom, leading to prolonged speculation over the senator’s sexuality and the integrity of his marriage. Throughout the ordeal, Suzanne Craig played the role of silent supporter while the Craigs’ relationship underwent intense scrutiny.

Last week, Larry Craig gave an update on his relationship with his wife.

“What we’ve been through is never easy, as a spouse,” he said while walking through the Capitol after leaving a policy lunch. “But great love and trust and honesty are the backbone of a strong marriage, and that we have.”

The Craig scandal hit about a month after the Vitters went through what could have been a public marriage buster of their own. In July, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) was outed as a client of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, a woman more popularly known as the D.C. Madam, who was accused of running a prostitution business. Vitter admitted guilt.

“Well, I can just tell you we did,” Vitter said last week when asked how his marriage has weathered the scandal. “It’s a very personal issue, and I’m not going to get into those details. We did [weather it], and now we’re closer as a family. I’ll leave it at that.”

There have been many political couples like the Craigs and Vitters, who have faced the ultimate public humiliation but have found a way to stay together. Former Democratic California Rep. Gary Condit is still married to his wife Carolyn, nearly seven years after controversy broke around his affair with intern Chandra Levy and her death.

Bob Livingston, a former Republican congressman from Louisiana who at one point was in line to be House Speaker, is also still married to his wife, Bonnie, after his admission of an extramarital affair curtailed his political career. But feelings are still raw.{mospagebreak}

“I don’t think I’m even going to bother asking him that, because it’s a very sensitive subject for his wife and him,” said Chris Terrell, a spokesman for Livingston’s lobbying group, when asked whether Livingston would answer questions on how his marriage has held up.

The list of ongoing political marriages runs long. “I have a file folder that I set up probably 20 years ago, and I labeled it ‘affairs in high places,’ ” said Emily Brown, a social worker who has counseled Washington couples with marriage problems.

“It’s packed full, and it’s been a gradual filling. But there’s always something going on.”

So what’s their secret? How do these marriages make it?  

Susan Semeleer, a former Republican crisis communications consultant, explained that people who enter politics are of a different ilk. Political couples generally don’t deal with marital strife in the same way everyday couples might.

“It’s instructive that the wives don’t leave, and it does make one wonder about the deals that get struck between public figures and their spouses,” she said.

Nonetheless, it takes a lot of work to salvage a marriage after it’s been hit by scandal, Brown said. The couple has “to do the emotional work, and for them to continue the marriage, they both need to do it,” she said.

Brown said she doubts that the Craigs have fully worked through the issues their marriage faced last year.

“His wife has got to be hurting,” she said. “He’s probably scared and hurting, but is it OK for a congressman to see a therapist? I think people who are so visible become so embarrassed that it gets in the way of them seeking help.”

Both Brown and Semeleer pointed to the Clintons’ relationship as the most notable disaster in political marriages. Brown predicted that if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) doesn’t win the presidential election, the couple will split.

But sometimes a political bond is stronger than love.

“Wendy Vitter — if her husband was David Vitter the bus driver, she probably would have left him,” Semeleer said. “But when your humiliation is unfolding on CNN, it’s a little harder to walk away. It’s an admission of defeat.”