At first blush, it’s tempting to shrug off the debacle of Anthony Weiner’s attempt at a political comeback as an isolated, bizarre case of political ambition combined with massive hubris. Unfortunately, while it’s getting even more bizarre than first thought, it’s not an isolated issue in American politics, nor is it a harmless diversion. It exposes a lack of seriousness in electoral politics that appears to be worsening – a trend of treating politics as just another form of entertainment.
The former Congressman and current mayoral candidate in New York City achieved his zenith of notoriety in the summer of 2011, after allegations arose that the married Representative had been conducting R-rated communications and sending X-rated pictures with young women who were not his wife, former Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin.
After first repeatedly lying about the pictures and social media conversations by claiming his Twitter account had been hacked, continuing exposures of material forced Weiner to finally admit that he had a serious problem in judgment and ethics. He resigned from Congress in disgrace two years ago, presumably to return to oblivion.
Last year, though, Weiner began a campaign to rehabilitate his image. Despite the fact that he had already been married for two years and was 47 years old when he resigned his office, Weiner and Abedin set out to paint a picture of normal family life that presented Weiner as someone who had grown up through the adversity of the scandal. They posed with their infant for a People Magazine puff piece in July 2012 that emphasized their claim to be “a normal family” a year out from the scandal. “Anthony has spent every day since [the scandal] trying to be the best dad and husband he can be,” People quoted Abedin at the time.
As Weiner entered the mayoral race in April 2013, The New York Times also ran a sympathetic profile of the couple. Weiner and Abedin needed to “clear the decks” on the scandal, and what better way than to run for public office? That should have been the first red flag for New York City voters, but instead of questioning why they should vote to rinse Weiner from his scandal, polls immediately put him in the lead or close to it in the Democratic primary.
MORE DIGITAL DIRT
This week, the inevitable occurred. A new torrent of messages and pictures tumbled onto the table from TheDirty, showing that despite the disgrace and humiliation showered on Weiner in June 2011, and despite the “normal family life” he claimed to resume afterward, his extramarital engagement with young women continued. In fact, Weiner began an online relationship complete with photos and explicit “sexting” just as the People Magazine profile went to print, and it lasted for months afterward.
Thus, we came to the truly strange spectacle of the press conference from Weiner and Abedin on Tuesday. Weiner claimed that he had warned New Yorkers that more such communications might come out, which Weiner did say when he announced his candidacy – but left the impression that those would be from the period before the 2011 exposure, not more than a year after scandal, when the Weiners were having a supposedly normal family life. He also told the media that some of the new allegations were not true, but oddly declined to specify which was which. “I'm prepared not to dispute anything that is out there,” Weiner declared.
Abedin made her public debut at the presser, offering support for her husband. “Anthony's made some horrible mistakes,” Abedin said, “both before he resigned from Congress and after, but I do very strongly believe that it is between us." Except, of course, that it wasn’t.
These weren’t intercepted love notes between a husband and wife, but sexually explicit social-media conversations between a 48-year-old man who’d been burned once before and a 22-year-old woman not his wife. They took place during the time that Abedin actively assisted in assuring the public that Weiner’s judgment had greatly improved from the previous scandal by participating in the earlier media profiles. Asking for yet another chance at redemption under these circumstances is the height of narcissism and hubris.
IF POLS COULD GET EMMY’S…
It’s easy to shrug this off as an entertaining but isolated farce, especially those outside of New York City, and perhaps especially with disgraced former governor Eliot Spitzer on the same ballot looking for similar redemption through public office. That, however, would be a mistake. We seem to have gotten into the habit of occasionally treating elections as entertainment and promoting clowns instead of serious public servants.
In a ten-year period in my own state of Minnesota, for instance, we elected a professional wrestler as governor and a comedy writer to the US Senate. South Carolina just returned Mark Sanford to Congress despite his going AWOL as governor to conduct an extramarital affair. Every cycle, the media starts speculating on which Hollywood stars will run for public office as if singing, dancing, and acting prepare them for the job rather than just the campaign and media attention. This year it was Ashley Judd, who almost decided to run against Mitch McConnell for Kentucky’s US Senate seat despite living in Tennessee.
Voters may find entertainment in politics, but public service has serious responsibilities; ignoring them has disastrous results. That lesson should be driven home by the news last week that Detroit had to declare bankruptcy, thanks to incompetent and corrupt leadership. The consequences of electing public officials more interested in themselves and their careers than their communities by voters more concerned about entertainment than good judgment and integrity are vast and far-reaching.
Detroit has a $20 billion sinkhole on its ledgers with nearly no tax base to service it, entire neighborhoods that have to be demolished, and a manufacturing base that has all but evaporated. Its workers now face severe damage to mismanaged and underfunded pensions thanks to corruption and fraud by public officials as well as the structural issues that plague other public-sector pension systems. Hundreds of thousands of residents have watched their city collapse, and now will have to pick up the pieces thanks to poor decisions made in elections – even without serial Internet trollers or Client Number 9s among the candidates.
That’s what happens when voters don’t take public service more seriously than entertainment: we end up with clowns rather than public servants. To paraphrase Broadway maestro Stephen Sondheim, New York City needs to send out the clowns in this upcoming election. And the rest of us throughout the country need to take that lesson as well.