Thursday, June 9, 2011

In the matter of Anthony Weiner

Jeez, just when you think you know somebody. You’ve gone along believing, on the weight of much available evidence, that the face a man’s put before the public is a real one, more or less; that when he speaks his truth to power there are no skeletons in his closet indifferent to negotiation. You think you’ve got him nailed, or at least defined. To be utterly blindsided by surprise seems to call into question our ability to really know anything about anyone. It so reinforces what Charlie Rich said years ago, how “no one knows what goes on behind closed doors.”

That begins to explain the “bombshell” media status of the matter of Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner, for whom Monday was a very bad day. In an emotional press conference at the Sheraton Hotel in midtown Manhattan, Weiner admitted sending sexually explicit or suggestive photos and messages over the Internet to “about six women over the last three years.”

“Last Friday night I tweeted a photograph of myself that I intended to send as direct message as part of a joke to a woman in Seattle. Once I realized I posted it to Twitter, I panicked, I took it down and said that I had been hacked. I then continued with that story to stick to that story which was a hugely regrettable mistake.”

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“I have made terrible mistakes that have hurt the people I care about the most and I am deeply sorry,” Weiner said. “I have not been honest with myself, my family, my supporters.”

“… [O]ver the past few years I have engaged in several inappropriate conversations conducted over Twitter, Facebook, email, and occasionally on the phone with women I have met online.”

Weiner said he was not resigning because he does not believe he violated his congressional oath or any laws, and then (waxing charitable) said “I welcome and will fully cooperate with an investigation by the House Ethics Committee.”

Later complicating details have made a virtue of pixielation. On Wednesday, Weiner’s office released a statement just as an X-rated photo turned up on the Internet — a photo of a man’s genitals that was posted on a Web site after conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart showed it to the hosts of the “Opie & Anthony Show.” It’s since gone viral, in both pixielated and unexpurgated forms, and will remain so in the ether of the blogosphere until the end of time.

The story also took a poignant twist Wednesday, when reports surfaced that Weiner's wife, Huma Abedin, a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, is pregnant with their first child.

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There was some early encouragement. Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, a friend of Weiner's and a mensch if there ever was one, came to his defense. “By fully explaining himself, apologizing to all he hurt and taking full responsibility for his wrongful actions, Anthony did the right thing,” Schumer said in a statement. “He remains a talented and committed public servant, and I pray he and his family can get through these difficult times.”

But the knives in Wiener’s own party are out, in force. “In light of Anthony Weiner's offensive behavior online, he should resign,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Allyson Schwartz, a ranking member of the Democratic party campaign committee, in a statement. Sen. Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, called for him to step down.

Other reactions weren’t so much piling on as walking away. The White House has had no comment whatsoever. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said “I wish there were some way I could defend him, but I can't.” When asked what he’d say to Weiner if he asked for advice, Reid was blunt: “Call somebody else.”

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Survival isn't necessarily out of the question. Some of the prospects for his political survival depend on the tolerance of his constituents. Weiner has asserted himself in Congress as a full-throated champion of progressive causes and Democratic policies. New York is one of the more socially tolerant and reliably Democratic states in the country, and early indicators of New Yorkers' feelings, and those in Weiner’s district (Forest Hills, Queens) are apparently consistent with this. A flash poll by NY1 and Marist Institute, released after Weiner’s Monday presser, found that 51 percent of New York residents said Weiner shouldn’t resign; 30 percent said he should.

And some states are more tolerant than others. Despite a hue and cry at the congressional level, Republican Rep. David Vitter (who politically survived a prostitution scandal) had to answer to his constituents in the state of Louisiana, whose electoral history (Huey Long, Edwin Edwards) is littered with politicians charitably described as ethically dynamic.

If Vitter can surmount a sex scandal with real sex involved, Weiner ought to have a fighting chance with an episode in which the only precious bodily fluid involved was his own sweat dripping onto the keyboard.

Some think Weiner’s immediate prospects for political survival may not matter. A Democratic insider told the Queens Campaigner, in a story posted today, that Weiner probably will not be in Congress next year, because of redistricting, not the sexting scandal.

Weiner’s district may well be divided between Reps. Joe Crowley (D-Jackson Heights) and Gary Ackerman (D-Bayside), the insider told the Campaigner. “I’d bet a beer right now that he won’t be in Congress in 18 months because of redistricting,” s/he said.

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There’s no question that Weiner crossed an ethical line here, and quite possibly a legal line as well. There’s some question as to whether any House resources were used in his e-escapades.

And political writer Patricia Murphy summed up Weiner’s likely reception by the Ethics Committee on Thursday in The Daily Beast:

“If Rep. Anthony Weiner is hoping to get a sympathetic hearing from his peers by “welcoming” a House Ethics Committee investigation into his bizarre email escapades with women, he will probably be sorely disappointed with the results—if he hangs on that long.

“The panel that would investigate Weiner’s sexually charged online relationships is stacked with Southern, swift-justice Christian conservatives unlikely to relate to a sexting, swearing New Yorker, and liberal Democrats who have dedicated their careers to protecting the rights of women, both in the workplace and online. If Weiner wants to save his hide, he might have more luck in front of an old-fashioned firing squad.”

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But back of it all, there’s a more troubling aspect to the Weiner matter: It’s the fact that there was no sex in this sex scandal, a curious cultural and political lowering of the behavioral bar. Now real sex isn’t the threshold, the tripwire for moral outrage. Pretend sex, wannabe sex will do nicely, thank you very much.

Rep. Weiner is in the docket of the court of public opinion, and deservedly so. But the apparent willingness of politicians, some in the media and in the general public to equalize this lowered threshold of transgression with the real thing says a lot about the role of social media in all our lives, and the distinctions we make, or fail to make, between social media and real fresh-and-blood life.

If online encounters have the moral and legal equivalence of actual, physical violating events; if likes and tweets are the new emotional barometers; if Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare and all the rest have assumed such a dominant position of existential surrogacy in our lives, the matter of Anthony Weiner may say as much about us as it says about him.

Image credits: Weiner top: Los Angeles Times. Weiner II: New York Post front page. Weiner III: Newsday front page. Vitter: Senate photograph.

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