Another Tack: Mary and Sara

Lincoln’s sad experience raises the question of whether a “problem spouse” ought to disqualify a national leader - particularly at times of national crisis.

Mary Todd Lincoln (1861): Would America have benefitted had Abraham Lincoln heartlessly driven her away?    (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Mary Todd Lincoln (1861): Would America have benefitted had Abraham Lincoln heartlessly driven her away?
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Woe to the national leader tested sorely in a merciless existential conflict while at the same time also being worn away by unremitting troubles on the home front. He has no peace of mind, no refuge from corroding acrimony. He never knows when and in what circumstances the other shoe would drop but he expects it come down on his head with a thud.
How, say the cynics baying for their antagonist’s political blood, can he be trusted with the weighty affairs of state when he has an unpredictable liability as his helpmate? So in the guise of exposing a threat to the nation – i.e. the headliner’s distracting wife – the side-swipers distract him all the more.
Poor Abraham Lincoln had to oversee the bloodiest war in American annals without enjoying supportive stability and peace in what should have been his safe haven. Not only were many of his wife Mary’s closest kin Confederates who loathed her husband and took up arms against him, but she was exasperatingly erratic.
The media, such as it was back in the 1860s, loved to bash her. Her spotty public image provided titillating relief from the raging Civil War.
No previous president’s wife came close to stirring up controversy like Mary Todd Lincoln and scandal-mongering about the reportedly shrill and pushy First Lady became a popular national pastime. Her volatile outbursts against some of Lincoln’s leading generals became the stuff of American lore. She was portrayed as tyrannical, shrewish and plain unhinged.
She was also a spoiled southern belle who, at times of unprecedented battlefield losses, chose to lavishly redecorate the White House – public and private quarters. Sparing no cost, she purchased new china and luxurious trinkets while young men were dying by the thousands. Congress had to pass two special appropriations just to cover her extravagant expenditures.
But it wasn’t just excessive spending – she was, according to contemporary accounts, given to bouts of deep depression followed by radical mood swings, excruciating headaches, fierce temper tantrums and sudden screaming fits that could be heard by the entire staff. Nowadays she might have been diagnosed with a type of bipolar disorder but such terminology was nonexistent in her day. She was just called crazy (ten years after she left the White House, her son Robert had her institutionalized due to paranoid and self-harming behavior).
Doubtless, she was a constant embarrassment to the president and a drain on his cerebral reserves at a time when these were most crucial to the national struggle.
Lincoln obviously wasn’t the only leader beset by domestic disharmony. But his sad experience raises the question of whether a “problem spouse” ought to disqualify a national leader – particularly at times of national crisis. Is the conduct or mental condition of a leader’s wife at all pertinent to the central national debate?
This question should perturb us here and now. Should Binyamin Netanyahu be judged and disqualified because of antics attributed – truly or falsely – to his wife Sara? This question is put without making literal comparisons. Netanyahu isn’t Lincoln, Sara isn’t Mary and, most of all, today’s media – printed, electronic and cyber – is strikingly more pervasive and invasive than the Washington press of over 150 years ago.
But the broad outlines of the situation aren’t entirely dissimilar. Israel faces grave dangers – genocidal dangers – yet, rather than turn the spotlight on the dreadful deal in the works with Iran, we are fixated on stories of Sara. Let’s say hypothetically – and strictly for the sake of argument – that Sara displays shades of Mary’s instability. Should that constitute justification for voting against Netanyahu, the issues be damned?
Let’s say hypothetically – and the hypothesis, it must be stressed, is entirely without any factual foundation – that Sara deserves all the mud slung at her, is it Bibi’s fault? Should the electorate think less of him because of Sara? Does he deserve being voted out of office because of her? Would we think more highly of him if he turned his back on Sara during what must be a time of acutely painful tribulation for her? Is that what we want? Do we esteem husbands who don’t stick by their wives for better or worse?
Moreover, do our enlightened postmodern media headliners actually recommend candidates who boast perfect robotic Stepford wives? Probably not. Odds are that they only bother about Sara because they viscerally hate Bibi. They have hated him for the past two decades and their alacrity to smear him through her hasn’t abated one bit since then.
This should give us ample reason to doubt much of what she’s accused of. Maligning Sara Netanyahu is a surefire way to score political points or settle scores, to make money or solidify a career, to sell newspapers or grab ratings.
Indelibly etched in mind is Sara’s humiliating 1999 ordeal at the National Fraud Squad Headquarters in Bat Yam where she was grilled for seven hours straight about a brooch given her by the daughter of the then-Diamond Exchange chairman.
Nonstop leaks, while Mrs. Netanyahu was still being subjected to insistent and prolonged interrogation, kept the public clued in to the ongoing cliffhanger. It was like a live broadcast, sanctioned voyeurism, a collective eavesdropping fest in real-time offered us by publicity-hounds in uniform, eager to suck-up to establishment powers-that-be.
Pro forma the police had to make sure that the brooch wasn’t an official gift which the serial suspect had attempted to purloin, although it must be stressed that the intrepid detectives hadn’t likewise raided the jewelry boxes of other prime ministers’ wives. Eventually it transpired that the sensationally touted pin wasn’t even costume schlock but a tin badge which Mrs. Netanyahu received while touring the Diamond Exchange. Gemologists appraised its value at the whopping sum of five agorot.
No apology ever came. If anything, Sara was treated as one who got away. Smearing her became requisite for every wannabe talking head. Hitting someone who’s down is a never-failing formula for success.
Argumentum ad hominem (Latin for “argument against the man”) is insidiously effective and rife in our midst.  Its essence consists of attacking a given person – or his wife – with a host of irrelevancies in order to discredit his message. There may be no objective fault with said message (which may actually be cogent and excellent) but it’s never properly evaluated because the messenger is spitefully trashed.
Deflecting attention from the issues via character assassination is a dishonorable polemical tradition that certainly predates the state.
Even before becoming Israel’s first premier, David Ben-Gurion was already a master practitioner surpassed by none. He spoke of Ze’ev Jabotinsky as Vladimir Hitler – no less (for the attention of those pure souls among us who, when it suits them, shudder at any Nazi-allusions). Ironically, Ben-Gurion was lots closer to Jabotinsky in no-nonsense realism than is generally acknowledged and he eventually ended up implementing the very policies which Jabotinsky presciently advocated – hence, perhaps, BG’s psychological hang-ups.
When not branding Menachem Begin an abhorrent fascist, Ben-Gurion rendered him a non-person and in Knesset debates referred only to “that man seated next to Dr. [Yohanan] Bader.” This isn’t meaningless ancient history. Ad hominem propaganda is endemic to Israel’s left-wing dialectics, where the merits of an opponent’s assertions are sidestepped by besmirching him.
Netanyahu’s moving eulogy for the Jewish supermarket victims in Paris wasn’t televised here. Instead the talk of the day was his rudeness in imposing himself on the front row of world leaders during the preceding anti-terror march, where he clearly wasn’t wanted.
Now Netanyahu’s projected speech to the American Congress is dissed as harming relations with President Barack Obama.
A visitor from Mars might be forgiven for assuming that hitherto Obama was Netanyahu’s bosom buddy and treated him fairly, without prejudice or animosity. Of course, if Obama wasn’t hostile there would be no need for Netanyahu to make the case against letting Iran off the hook. But what are our survival prospects versus another chance to sabotage Israel’s leading spokesman?
It cannot be denied that the Left’s most primal detestation is reserved for Netanyahu and the Left dominates our media. Its enmity is non-specific, all-encompassing and virtually devoid of coherent triggers. Netanyahu is reviled because he’s clearly the most viable political alternative to Israel’s left-leaning establishment.
As the single most formidable threat to its hegemony, he must be thoroughly and unambiguously delegitimized and in the hallowed “just not Bibi” cause all is tolerable – especially turning on Sara. It’s part and parcel of the premeditated effort to undermine a rival’s reputation, credibility and character via unverifiable innuendo, distortions, half-truths, or even outright lies. The smear can pack a punch even after it’s refuted and it derails energies from urgent concerns.
The basic premise is that when enough mud is slung, some sticks. Ordinary citizens are unlikely to send off muck samples to the lab to determine its composition, origin or authenticity. An indistinct but unmistakable odium adheres to the smear-victim, follows him/her everywhere, and he/she cannot shirk or avoid it.
The more demonizing Netanyahu – and/or stigmatizing his wife – becomes bon ton among the guardians of our collective conscience, the more it emboldens Netanyahu’s own erstwhile appointees and frustrated coattail-riders to wreak petty vengeance. Kicking Netanyahu is patently de rigueur for anyone with ambitions to fulfill or axes to grind.
Anything – recycled bottles, pistachio ice-cream, cigars – provides pretext for nitpicking or a vehicle for trumped-up allegations. These don’t need to be remotely grounded in fact. Indeed, Netanyahu’s travails don’t even need to be as dire as Lincoln’s very real distress. They just need to feature on the front pages and in primetime newscasts.
Besides, it might serve us well to reflect on whether Lincoln’s truly miserable home life detracted from his ability to make tough calls on life-and-death matters. Most historians today agree that it did not.
Domestic difficulties may have made him a very unhappy president but he did admirably well under unkind circumstances. America didn’t suffer because of Mary Lincoln. Would it have benefitted had her husband heartlessly driven Mary away? Would the Union have been better off had he thrown in the towel and resigned mid-strife?
Would America have gained had President Lincoln been booted out because of callous gossip about his wife? Would Israel gain if Netanyahu is punished because of callous gossip about his wife?
Lincoln was right – you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. However, it’s sometimes enough to fool just some of the people to swing the vote.
Debunking the Bull, Sarah Honig’s book, was recently published by Gefen.