WHEN I awoke in Buckingham Palace in 2011, where as deputy chief of staff to the then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton (HRC) I was staying as part of an official visit, it was as if I were still in a dream. I turned my head to the tall, narrow windows where sunlight was just beginning to peek through the grey clouds.
I had drawn the heavy drapes the night before so I would rise with the first light and see the view of the Queen Victoria Memorial and gardens. At the palace gates, the Queen’s Guards stood erect in their red-and-black uniforms. The balcony where the Queen stood annually to inspect the Trooping of the Colour Parade and where Prince William and Kate Middleton had waved to fans on their wedding day three weeks earlier was just down the hall from the bedroom where I lay.
It was early, but the fatigue I had been experiencing over the past few weeks felt like a distant memory. I pulled the sheets down to stare at my belly. My long fitted gown for the evening’s white-tie dinner hung on the bathroom door, and I hoped I would be able to get the zipper all the way up.
At the foot of the bed was an elegant chestnut-brown writing desk where I had left the briefing book I had started reading the night before. On top of that was the secretary of state’s private schedule, which noted the evening’s dinner hosted by Queen Elizabeth II in honour of US president Barack Obama’s state visit to the UK.
Among the many staff members on this trip, I was one of a fortunate few invited to stay at the palace and attend the dinner, a decision made by the White House. Next to my formal invitation to the dinner was a stack of pale blue palace stationery. I climbed out of bed, wearing one of the delicate white nightgowns I had been given at my bridal shower, impractical until this trip, and I sat down at the desk to begin my day.
When I had caught up on emails, I pulled out a single piece of stationery and wrote a letter to my husband, the Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner. “Dear Anthony, is it possible for any two people to be happier or more blessed? Some days, I cannot believe it. We must remember to be grateful to God that He has given us so much. I love you. Huma Weiner, May 24, 2011.”
I hadn’t legally taken Anthony’s name when we were married and never used it except for this one single time. He had never asked me if I wanted to or would. And since in both Islamic and Middle Eastern custom, a woman retains her maiden name when she marries, the question had never occurred to me until we were applying for our marriage licence and the official asked if I planned to take my husband-to-be’s name. I declined without even considering it.
In this moment, though, I felt more connected to Anthony than ever before. I placed the note in the matching envelope, got dressed, and went into the adjoining sitting room which connected our two bedrooms to meet up with my boss, who was seated in a wingback chair reading some papers as the palace staff wheeled in scrambled eggs and properly brewed tea. For a moment, I thought I would tell her but I stopped myself. It was too early to share the news.
I first got my period when I was 11 and, in a panic, ran to my father for help. He calmed me down, patiently explaining that it was a natural process in a woman’s body. He then gently passed me off to my mother to show me how to use what he referred to as the “necessary napkins”. From that day on, I have been down-to-the-day regular. So when, four weeks earlier, I had to struggle to zip up my skirt – feeling bloated, but not menstruating – I knew.
“Oh my god, I can’t wait! I am going to be a father! We are going to be parents! Are you craving anything?”
I didn’t share my suspicion with Anthony, but stopped at a pharmacy to pick up two pregnancy tests, both of which almost instantly developed a faint pink line. I handed Anthony an old black jewellery box with one of the sticks in it, and he looked down at the box, then at me, thunderstruck.
“What is this?” he asked, and then “Are you sure?” as he lowered himself onto our white sofa in Washington, his eyes instantly beginning to water. Anthony, never at a loss for words, was, for a brief moment, speechless. He kept staring at the stick, then at me, stuttering, “I can’t believe it.” As the news began to sink in, he went right back to being himself. “Are you okay? How do you feel? Have you been sick? How long have you known? What can I do? Oh my god, I can’t wait! I am going to be a father! We are going to be parents! Are you craving anything?”
No, I wasn’t craving anything in particular, and I felt fine. Those were the cursory answers to his questions. On a deeper level, I was uncertain about what this meant for my life. I had gone from dating a man – my first serious relationship – to engagement to marriage and now to pregnancy in the blink of an eye.
Whenever I visited friends and family who had small kids, I was comfortable holding, playing with, feeding and baby-sitting them, but I was always happy to return them to their parents at the end of the day. I also couldn’t quite register how quickly I had gotten pregnant, since I had been so often warned about the challenges, especially since Anthony and I were “old” to be new parents: I was 35 and Anthony was 46.
Some part of my mixed emotions was sheer disbelief. But the obstetrician pointed out that I was healthy, had no family history of difficult pregnancies, wasn’t a smoker, didn’t consume alcohol. She was not at all surprised that it was so easy for me to conceive. I could finally allow for the possibility that God really was granting us this gift. Walking out of the doctor’s office that afternoon, reassured that all was and would be okay, I was so excited that it seemed almost impossible to contain this new secret.
By the time I got to Buckingham Palace, I was about eight weeks along. We had told our parents and siblings but no one else, and now I sat at the very end of the long formal banquet table in my orange gown, which had thankfully zipped but was definitely snug.
While the palace staff reviewed with us all the dos and don’ts of royal protocol – wait till Her Majesty extends her hand before you attempt to shake it; if you run into the Queen in the hallway, only speak to her if she speaks to you first, otherwise, simply carry on, this is her home after all; wait for Her Majesty to stand for the toast before you stand; no one will leave dinner before the Queen and the president – I was fixated on only one thing. What if I felt sick? I worried that getting up mid-meal would be a breach of protocol. At the end of the briefing, I asked if it would be acceptable to use the restroom during the multi-course meal. Yes, they assured me, it was perfectly okay.
This was a working visit, but staying at Buckingham Palace made it singularly special. That afternoon, HRC and I had explored the Queen’s private gardens with one of her gracious ladies-in-waiting. Over the course of my career with the Clintons, I had been privileged to sip tea and eat meals at royal palaces, to attend elaborate functions at grand hotels and mansions, to tour monuments and cultural attractions few other people had ever seen, all around the world, from the Middle East to south-east Asia to Europe. Nothing, however, quite compared to this visit to Buckingham Palace, which was particularly welcome after an intense month.
Before we left for the trip, a woman had been arrested and jailed for driving in Saudi Arabia. The rules banning women from driving were premised on guardianship laws instituted in 1917 that required women be granted permission from their male guardian to marry, or to study or travel abroad. Driving fell under the travel category. The arrest seemed like a warning to all Saudi women. This was of course an internal matter involving a sovereign ally which we could not be seen to be interfering with.
The way HRC generally dealt with situations like this was through a private conversation with her foreign counterpart. The young woman driver, whose name we learnt was Manal al-Sharif, had been arrested in the midst of launching the Women2Drive movement to challenge the guardianship laws, and was jailed for nine days. As the movement began to gain steam, HRC wanted to do more than make a private call, so she made a public statement commending the woman’s bravery. Eventually al-Sharif had to leave her family in Saudi Arabia and move abroad [to Dubai, and later, Australia] for her safety. Only later did we find out that her release had been conditional on her promise never to drive on Saudi land again.
The most consequential of the month’s developments was the death of Osama bin Laden. The raid was authorised to take place the night of the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which the media and most of Washington, DC’s political and social elite attended each year. It had been a big night for me because it was the first time I was going to an event after learning I was pregnant, and I worried that people would notice my belly.
When President Obama waved casually to me from the stage, I carried my little secret, not knowing that he was carrying a far bigger secret: the mission to get bin Laden was to begin in a matter of hours. I had gleaned that something was up when HRC started attending meetings in the White House Situation Room about which I was told nothing. That was unusual. For Principal Committee White House meetings, the secure phone on my desk would ring and I would be told the agenda so I could inform the National Security Council (NSC) who on the team would accompany HRC.
For these recent meetings, the NSC had offered no topic and I wasn’t asked who would join HRC. I didn’t press her for more details. If there was anything more I needed to know, she would have told me. HRC called me as she left the White House after President Obama announced the death of bin Laden. I could hear the note of vindication in her voice and my mind was transported back to Ground Zero, the many trips we had made there since the day of the attack, watching the rubble being removed, then the slow rebuilding. How right this moment felt, how completely right.
Two days after the state dinner with the Queen of England, we flew to Islamabad. The US had carried out the raid on bin Laden’s compound without giving any notice to the Pakistanis. Under any normal circumstances, our country would not send Blackhawk helicopters into another sovereign nation that happened to also be an ally. The purpose of these meetings with the civilian and military leadership was to smooth over any ruffled feathers.
President Zardari had lost his own wife in a terrorist attack and was supportive of the US action. When I looked at the faces of the military leaders as we walked in for meetings, however, I sensed tension. Even the tea they served us was lukewarm. On our last trip to Pakistan, HRC had said publicly that she believed bin Laden was hiding out there, possibly with at least tacit protection of some of the leaders, but the government and the military always denied it.
After a long, full trip, we returned home, and I dragged myself into my DC apartment at a little after 1am and climbed straight into bed.
As was my norm, I woke up in the middle of the night to scroll through my BlackBerry, groggy from jetlag but driven by the nagging compulsion to check on any emerging world crisis. I was one of the main points of contact for the secretary of state on any news, information or messages coming from or going to her, which left me essentially on call all the time. In this job, I couldn’t afford to wait until 7am to check in, too much might already have happened by then. As I scrolled through my new emails, a text appeared from Anthony, who was in New York.
“Yes,” I replied. It took a few minutes for the next message to come through.
“My Twitter was hacked and someone posted a photo. There might be a story, but I am working on fixing the problem. Nothing for you to worry about. See you soon.”
He told me not to worry, so even though the concept of being hacked was unsettling, I didn’t. I just saw this as yet another item on the unending stream of incoming mail. Anthony was the problem-solver in our relationship, and since he said he was handling this one, I was sure he would. Besides, there was nothing I could do about it, so I moved on to the next 10 issues in my inbox.
In the past year with HRC, we had visited 53 countries, spending 481 hours travelling. Now we were almost halfway through a year where we would plan and execute visits to 46 countries and spend 570 hours travelling. There was so much work, it always felt like I was just scratching the surface. I put the BlackBerry down and tried to catch a few more hours of sleep before boarding the noon shuttle to LaGuardia Airport the next day.
When I walked through the arrivals area after landing in New York, something was amiss. For nearly two years, without fail, anytime I landed, Anthony would be in baggage claim waiting, chatting up the airport staff or taking a picture with a constituent or pacing back and forth on a conference call. I’d walk out, he would envelop me in a hug and grab my bags to carry them out to the car. Anthony had never been late until today.
Puzzled, I called him and he said he was outside. I walked out and sure enough, our grey Ford Escape was idling in the taxi lane, Anthony at the wheel, slightly slumped over. He was wearing an old, grey T-shirt that I always thought was too short, like it had shrunk in the wash, and a pair of mustard shorts I had bought him. He looked exhausted and gaunt and like he hadn’t showered. He gave me a weak hug.
He had predicted correctly that there might be news. That morning, the New York Post had reported that an indecent image of a man wearing grey boxer briefs had popped up on Anthony’s Twitter feed before being quickly deleted. Just as Anthony had said in his message to me, his spokesman was claiming the photo was the work of a hacker who had stolen Anthony’s password. But Andrew Breitbart, the right-wing provocateur who had threatened to come after Anthony, was sharing details about the deleted tweet on his news site, demanding a “full-scale investigation” and later saying that he had even more photos.
Anthony would sometimes tell me about the combat he engaged in online, and he seemed to enjoy the virtual version of it just as much as he did the in-person bouts. Still, I’d never felt like he was online too much. I was on my phone as much as he was, if not more, rarely putting it down for more than 10 minutes during waking hours. Sometimes we’d talk about the comments he was getting on his feed: lies, vitriol, threats directed at him, President Obama, our party. I couldn’t understand why he would wade through that garbage voluntarily. “They’re just cyber trolls,” he’d remind me. “But I’m not going to let them bully me.” If anything, they seemed to egg him on. “Why don’t you just quit Twitter?” I’d asked one day as we were sitting on the couch in the living room, sharing the paper.
Hillary Clinton had been accused of everything including murder, so scandal based on fabrications wasn’t exactly new territory for me.
As we drove home to Forest Hills from LaGuardia Airport, his right hand resting on my belly for the 10-minute ride, I went into consoling mode. “Are you okay? Have you guys made any progress figuring out who did this? What is the plan?” He gave me short answers. He told me he was on it and that he might need to hire a firm to get to the bottom of it.
I felt violated, angry for him, but also confident that he would get past it. HRC had been accused of everything including murder, so scandal based on even the wildest of fabrications wasn’t exactly new territory for me.
The next morning we left the city as planned, to spend a night with friends on Long Island. It was Memorial Day weekend, the two-year anniversary of our engagement. The city was unseasonably hot and I was glad to have a break from it. On the drive, we chatted about how we would tell people I was pregnant once I passed the 12-week mark, though that was still nearly a month away. As the weekend progressed, and the story moved beyond the tabloids and exploded onto cable news, Anthony seemed more distracted. Still, I was sure he would be able to figure out how to battle his way out of this; the Anthony I knew always did.
Over dinner, the conversation turned to children; our friends’ beautiful son was running around, charming us all, and the couple was expecting their second in a matter of weeks. Naturally, they started teasing us about when we were going to have children. Perhaps because I was bursting just being surrounded by this happy family, perhaps because I wanted to lift Anthony’s spirits, I volunteered that I was pregnant. It felt good to share my secret, to make the abstract idea feel real in the world.
The next morning, we both flew to Washington. Anthony was quickly engulfed by press gaggles everywhere he went on the Hill, proof, as if we needed more, that the story wasn’t going away. Anthony called to tell me he’d decided to do a round of interviews to clear things up, and I wished him luck. Meanwhile, I buried myself in work back at the State Department.
When I walked into HRC’s office for my first meeting of the day, she got right to the point. “What is going on?” she asked.
I assured her that it was nothing and that Anthony’s team hoped to discover the perpetrator soon. From there, we shifted to discussing plans for the next trip. That whole week had the quality of a cold coming on, when you feel achy and drained and never know if you’ll be better tomorrow, or worse. On Wednesday, Anthony sat down for four hours of back-to-back TV interviews, once again denying that he had sent the message or any others like it. Everything he said, or didn’t, seemed only to add gasoline to the fire.
The next weekend, we went to the same friend’s house where we had hosted our first Thanksgiving as an engaged couple with Anthony’s family. Our little apartment had begun to feel very claustrophobic. We didn’t talk much on the two-hour drive. Once we got to the house, there were flashes of the usual Anthony but also stretches of unusual silence. Gone was the light-hearted mood of celebration and anticipation about becoming parents.
When I woke up on the morning of our departure, alone in bed, I realised that Anthony had never joined me in the bedroom. I walked past the small guest room at the end of the hall and noticed that the bed there had been slept in. I walked down the stairs and found Anthony standing in the door frame with his head down, bags laid at his feet. Not in. Not out.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
And then, just like that, life as I’d known it was officially over. “It’s true,” he said. “I sent the picture.”
I still remember everything about where we were in that moment: the white shaggy rug, the wooden staircase, the front door ajar, the sofa to my left. Anthony opened his mouth to speak, and as though a dam wall had burst, words came flooding out. He said that he couldn’t stand lying anymore. His body shook as he tried to choke back tears.
I felt something explode inside my chest, and suddenly it was hard to breathe. I was simultaneously filled with rage and stunned.
Over the next few minutes, he admitted he had intended to send the picture as a direct message with someone he had befriended over Twitter, but had accidentally posted it publicly and tried to delete it, that it had been a tawdry joke, a dare, it didn’t mean anything and he was ashamed and embarrassed and sorry that he had brought this upon us.
I felt something explode inside my chest, and suddenly it was hard to breathe. I was simultaneously filled with rage and stunned to my core. It felt like a bolt of lightning had struck me and run straight through my body. That bolt was the only thing keeping me standing upright.
Whatever personal pain and betrayal I felt, I instinctively set aside. I didn’t break down in tears or collapse on the sofa. The first thing out of my mouth wasn’t, “How could you do this to me?” or “I thought that you loved me.” The first thing I said was, “You mean you’ve been lying to the whole world for a week? Anthony, you have people counting on you. You owe them the truth!”
“I know,” he said. “I have to go back and deal with the consequences.”
His first impulse was to drive back to Manhattan right away, but I stopped him. There was no point waiting a single minute longer. He needed to get on the phone with his senior team, tell them the facts, and start arranging for a press conference where he would tell the truth. We both stood in the living room as his advisers got on the phone, then we endured the silence on the line as they digested the news, followed by the quick pivot to arrange a press conference so that he could come clean to the world.
I left Anthony to deal with the details and walked out to the deck overlooking the pond. I breathed in the warm air as I looked out at the placid water, every fibre in my body screaming: What is happening to my life?
Perhaps if he had told me that he was secretly seeing someone, I would have been so hurt and angry that I would have walked out on him then and there. But at that moment it seemed to me that my husband had done something infuriating, deeply inappropriate, juvenile, crass and stupid, but not something that fundamentally altered our relationship.
The shock, the fury travelling through each cell of my body, was more for my child than for myself. Or for the joy that was slipping away when we had just begun to feel it. These were supposed to be the days when we revelled in the arrival of this miracle, days of bliss and blessings. And they had been for me. What had they been for him?
The drive back to the city was stony, silent. Him remorseful, me armoured with mute anger. What was eating at me more than the betrayal was the full week of lies. He repeated how sorry and ashamed he was, how much he loathed himself for what he had done.
“I just want our baby to be proud of their daddy,” he said. Then why did you do what you did? The words raged in my head.
When someone asked if I would be going out to the press conference with him, I shook my head, and there was a unanimous “No way” around the room.
I don’t know why I went with Anthony for his press conference. Maybe it was to be sure he did it, maybe because we were now so used to being a unit, any other possibility seemed unnatural. But as I sat in the conference room of his campaign attorneys’ office in Manhattan and listened to him read his statement aloud to his team, I understood for the first time that he had exchanged inappropriate messages with more than one woman.
Risa Heller, Anthony’s no-nonsense communications adviser and a good friend to both of us, looked at him as he said those words, and then at me. When someone asked if I would be going out to the press conference with him, I shook my head, and there was at the same time a unanimous “No way” around the room, with Risa’s voice the loudest: “No f…ing way.” As they all walked out of the room and towards the cameras, I slipped out to the lobby and onto the streets of Manhattan. Free. Anonymous. This was Anthony’s mess. He needed to clean it up.
I didn’t read or watch the news coverage then or in the days thereafter. I had been in politics long enough to have a healthy scepticism about the gossip that appeared in the press, especially in the tabloids. From my White House years on, I had gotten used to reading stories about my boss that were riddled with inaccuracies or hinted that her actions were nefarious. Our approach had always been to avoid responding to the crazier accusations, especially the salacious gossip, so as not to elevate the stories.
Now that it was my husband who was in the headlines, I decided that for my own mental health I would avoid all the news about Anthony. If there were any important developments I needed to know about, I could rely on others to tell me, even if Anthony didn’t. Still, I was well aware that a media storm was swirling around us. The coming-clean statement hadn’t settled anything, it just raised more questions. What was the nature of these relationships? Who were the women? Was he using government devices for these exchanges? Some House colleagues and other political leaders swiftly called for a House investigation, others for his resignation.
On top of everything, it turned out I was wasting my time trying to think up creative ways to tell my extended family, colleagues and friends that I was pregnant. That was another unintended casualty of the week.
The day after Anthony’s press conference, I was standing in our galley kitchen washing dishes when HRC’s press secretary, Philippe Reines, called. “Well, I have never had to make a call like this and it is really awkward but I just got a message from The New York Times saying that they intend to report that you are pregnant.”
“No, they cannot do that. I am not even 12 weeks. You have to explain that to them. There have to be mothers at the Times.”
This second bolt of lightning was more visceral, more vivid, more enraging, and I felt the heat rise in me as I struggled to keep calm. No, no, no. This was my body, my special secret. Isn’t this what women get to do? Isn’t this a rite of passage that people are entitled to – to find the space and way to tell the people they love that they are bringing a child into the world when the doctors tell them it is safe to do so? This is not something a reporter shares with the world amid tawdry headlines and indecent images.
“Philippe! No, they cannot do that. I am not even 12 weeks and I can’t tell anyone until then. You have to explain that to them. There have to be mothers at the Times. They have to understand.”
“Well, first of all, congratulations. I am really happy for you. Second of all, they have two sources, so they don’t really need my official confirmation. They are going to run with it. They’re just giving me a courtesy heads-up. Is there anyone you want to tell personally before it becomes public?”
“No!” I shouted as I sank to the floor. “This is wrong.” Two sources. Who could have told them? My mind immediately went to the friends I had seen the weekend before over dinner. Could I no longer trust my close friends? I felt guilty the instant my mind went there.
“It may be wrong but it’s also news. It’s big news. Do you want to at least call Hillary and tell her?”
“No! This is not how I am telling her, over the phone, sitting on my kitchen floor, screaming. I dare them to run this story. They just won’t do it. I know they won’t.”
Philippe sat on the other end of the phone listening patiently while Anthony stood in the door frame, head bowed.
I reaffirmed that I had no intention of telling anyone until I was safely past my first trimester. We hung up. I had let all the rage and anger blaze out of me, and still no tears had come. I was on the linoleum floor, back against the wall under the small kitchen window. On a low, recessed shelf next to me was a wedding present, a blown-glass decanter in the shape of a U. A few days later, it tipped forward and broke neatly in half. Maybe a gentle breeze had blown it over, or maybe the cats had waved their tails and knocked it. Whatever the cause, it seemed a perfect metaphor for my broken heart.
Abedin gave birth to a son, Jordan, in December that year. She separated from Weiner in 2016 after further sexting scandals; the following year, he was sentenced to 21 months in prison for sexting a minor.
Edited extract from Both/And: A Life in Many Worlds, by Huma Abedin (Simon & Schuster, $35), out now.
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