CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK | Political wives from Italy to the United States are publicly airing their pain and anger at husbands behaving badly.
One reason so many Italians — and possibly at least one U.S. ex-president — love Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi lies in his response to his wife, Veronica Lario, after she complained publicly about his womanizing and demanded a divorce.
“Veronica will have to publicly apologize to me,” Berlusconi, 72, said grandly. “And I don’t know if that will be enough.”
Politics Italian-style looked particularly comical and benign this past week as Americans relived John Edwards’ marital betrayal on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in all its sad, sordid detail. Elizabeth Edwards, who has written a book, “Resilience,” about her personal trials, told all to Winfrey while her penitent husband slunk to another part of their North Carolina mansion, waiting his turn to answer to Winfrey.
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It’s tempting to see these two political scandals as a contrast of corrupt Europe and puritanical America: an aging, wily Italian statesman using sex, and sexism, to boost his image, while an American politician wrecks his career — and unforgivably wounds his wife — for a brief, forbidden dalliance.
But that only works under the sexist assumption that it is the men who matter. Elizabeth Edwards’ appearance on “Oprah” doesn’t fit the template of naive New World idealism; it looked more like an exquisite form of revenge, the kind of well-oiled comeuppance that the Marquise de Merteuil concocted in “Dangerous Liaisons.”
Edwards, who spoke bravely about her cancer and her husband’s deceit, said she didn’t want his misstep to define her or their 30-year marriage; she made sure, however, that he will never live it down.
Lario, 52, thought she could exact revenge by shaming her skirt-chasing husband. Instead, the skirt-chaser made a fool of her.
Lario should have known better. She is not without experience: She, too, was once a comely starlet cavorting with an adulterer. The couple met in 1980, when he was a married real-estate tycoon and she was on stage in “The Magnificent Cuckold.”
Not that Lario doesn’t have a point; Berlusconi does flirt with younger women, he does bestow political patronage to beauty-pageant contestants and starlets, and he did travel to Naples to attend a birthday celebration for an 18-year-old aspiring model, whom he described as the daughter of a friend. (“This surprised me,” said Lario, who has three children with Berlusconi. “Because he never attended the 18th-birthday parties of his children, even if he was invited.”)
But it’s the second time Lario has publicly upbraided her husband; she wrote her first open letter in 2007 demanding that he apologize publicly to her for offending her “dignity.” Berlusconi complied with great flourish. But that kind of brinkmanship only works once.
There is no opera buffa to Elizabeth Edwards’ pain and anger at a husband who betrayed her twice: first by having an affair with Rielle Hunter and then by assuring her it was only a one-night stand until The National Enquirer proved him a liar a year and a half later.
Edwards said her cancer played a role in helping her through a second wave of rage. “Being sick meant a number of things to me,” she told Winfrey. “One is that my life is going to be less long, and I didn’t want to spend it fighting.”
For those who think John Edwards has not been punished enough, there is consolation in the inevitable “Oprah” aftershocks. The Enquirer, which broke the scandal and printed rumors that Edwards is the father of Hunter’s baby, is reporting that Hunter was so offended by Elizabeth Edwards’ dismissive words that she said she would allow a paternity test for the child.
Elizabeth Edwards’ disclosures illustrate the curious silence of Silda Wall Spitzer, who stood by Eliot Spitzer’s side when he admitted to hiring call girls, and stayed there after he resigned his post as governor of New York. Eliot Spitzer spent a few months in isolation, and is back on the circuit, writing articles and giving interviews about the credit crisis and corporate greed.
Silda Spitzer has not broken her public silence, but she is apparently still speaking to her husband: The couple were seen not many days ago having a cozy, chatty dinner with friends in Manhattan.
Spitzer would be wise not to let down his guard completely, however. As America saw last week, revenge is a dish best served in public.