Silly season comes early in Washington, along with the steamy weather. It is just barely June, and we are already watching the meltdown of Congressman Anthony Weiner, an outspoken liberal Queens Democrat and a one-time candidate for Mayor of New York City. This disgusting and delightful episode began innocently enough with the question of whether the Congressman sent a photo of his filled-out jockey shorts to a West coast co-ed. She assured us that she was not offended by such japery. Stranger things have happened, even in the New York Congressional delegation. The episode seemed like a pleasant, if erotically-charged, diversion. As Claude Levi-Strauss pointed out in another vein, it was “good to think.” Now we learn that the Congressman has checked himself into the Eliot Spitzer wing to deal with a whimsical mental illness that the DSM-5 might label “cad-atonia.” Weiner may be needy, but psychiatry is not likely to provide a cure.
At the time I marveled at how Weiner made such a hash of his own defense. If he did Tweet young women, admit it as ill-conceived teasing and move on. Taking seriously Weiner’s (at first) plausible assertion that his Twitter account was hacked, I worried about the prevalence of Candid Camera politics. I spoke of those luscious gotcha moments in which politicians were upended by trickery of which conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart and his associate James O’Keefe of the famous NPR-Arab donor sting have become so expert. In this case my suspicions of Breitbart were unfounded. Despite being an articulate defender of progressive policies, it has become clear that the Congressman was a fully engaged politician.
Here is yet another instance in which the cover-up proved far worse than the crime. Early on Weiner was accused of sharing lewd pictures of himself. “Lewd” seemed to be something of a term of art, although apparently there is a photo that is more explicit in the mix. Still, the original photo of filled out briefs, the basis of the scandal, would hardly qualify as foreplay in most cultures. Whatever. Still, such sharing is a venial sin, but straight-out lying to blame others edges toward a mortal one. Weiner’s decision was something of a Prisoner’s Dilemma. Had he lied and gotten away with it, that would have been the best of all possible Weiner worlds. The problem is that the worst of those worlds is what happened. Lying and getting nabbed. He made fools of his colleagues and that is unforgivable in politics, and he directed our attention away from pressing matters for more than one wet dream news cycle. The fate of Congressman Weiner is in play, and public attention will not fade until it is resolved through a resignation, through boredom, or through a new crisis. (Pray for a tsunami, Anthony!).
The hysteria is such that now a seemingly innocent connection between the Congressman and a 17-year old Delaware maiden is being questioned by the police. Let’s admit it, the truth is that Anthony Weiner can say with a straight face, “I did not have sex with any of those women.” All the tsuris, none of the tingle.
The dispiriting reality is that discussing policies, even as our nation teeters on the brink of insolvency, is not sufficiently engaging. This is not a new phenomenon. Civil society has never been a seminar room. A careful discussion of the “issues” is not to be found in our history and not in any other society that has an open public sphere. Politics is often a slightly elevated form of gossip. We engage in the personalization of policy, understanding issues through the character – and hypocrisy – of their proponents. And it is here that Weiner is doing so much damage to the progressive cause. He personifies the swamp that Nancy Pelosi once promised to drain. As a friend said, rather than drain the swamp, Weiner swamps the drain.
Perhaps it is unreasonable to think that a large and robust public will ever have a profound debate on the debt ceiling or on Medicare reimbursements. We are not experts, after all. Still it is dismaying that so often the discussion zips to whose zipper is undone, ignoring our collective futures.
Today the Congressman has a choice: will he resign or will he be a punchline? Perhaps he can tough it out (as Barney Frank, David Vitter, and Bill Clinton did), but he harms his cause. As long as he is in Congress, Republicans will not let Democrats forget. Democratic leaders from Nancy Pelosi on down, now calling for Weiner’s resignation, realize this all too well.
Weiner’s fundamental flaw was in embracing the “I’m so special law.” After his New York Congressional colleague Representative Chris Lee was forced to resign over his own hunky photo, one might imagine that politicians would recognize that at least that deviance was off-limits. But now, Anthony Weiner knew, just knew that the rules didn’t apply to Queens.
Neither Lee nor Weiner quite reach the charmed scandal circle of Arnold or Dominique, much less the Sultan of Slime, John Edwards, but they rank high on the ick scale. While ickiness has its appeal in a gossip economy, it distracts us from the business at hand. What might be comic relief becomes slapstick.
The worst deception is that one can have it all. This is the belief that one can create policy and have a rockin’ good time. Weiner apparently thought that he could be in a graduate seminar and a happy home at the same time he was in a junior high locker room. Fantasies of omnipotence have their charm, but they also have their price.