Sunday, August 4, 2013

‘Carlos’ in danger:
The shortcomings of Anthony Weiner

CENK UYGUR, the explosively self-confident host of Current TV’s “The Young Turks” and a man given to over-the-top liberalism, recently weighed in on the matter of Anthony Weiner — and speculation on what’s the matter with Anthony Weiner in his probably doomed quest to be mayor of New York City. Others on the “TYT” panel charitably debated Weiner’s viability as a candidate earlier that week, and since, as the fallout from Weiner’s personal online peccadilloes continues — just like the behavior that got him self-bounced from Congress two years ago.

Uygur cut to the chase with an uncharacteristic brevity. “I don’t care what pictures he sent on Twitter, I’ve never cared,” he said. “But to have the incredibly bad judgment, after you got caught, to do it again, then to run for mayor knowing that you’re likely going to be outed again — it’s a level of hubris I’m not comfortable with.”

That in a nutshell is why Weiner’s campaign for mayor, quixotic from day one, is fated to end badly. In both his personal behavior and his public-service performance, there’s a level of hubris about Weiner’s bid to helm the American colossus that’s likely a bit much. Even for New York City.

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We know the back story. On June 6, 2011, in an emotional press conference at the Sheraton Hotel in midtown Manhattan, then-Congressman 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.”

He resigned shortly after that, and has spent the past two years in wilderness, making what appeared to be good progress in righting his wrongs, going to therapy sessions, respectfully laying low and doing right by his wife, Huma Abedin, a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the mother of Weiner’s son.

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THEN ON May 21, with unalloyed chutzpah, Weiner announced his plans to run for mayor of New York City. “Look, I’ve made some big mistakes and I know I’ve let a lot of people down,” he said in a two-minute campaign video. “But I’ve also learned some tough lessons. I’m running for mayor because I’ve been fighting for the middle class and those struggling to make it for my entire life. And I hope I get a second chance to work for you.”

Early reaction from New Yorkers was promising. New Yorkers can be a forgiving lot, and the early polls showed this: Weiner took an early lead in preference polls, with Weiner actually leading City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, New York City public advocate Bill De Blasio, and former comptroller Bill Thompson. Crisis averted, or at least navigated.

Then two months later, almost to the day, Weiner stepped before the microphones with Abedin at his side, both there for a news conference that began the new downward spiral for Weiner and his political ambitions — a spiral that proceeded from the one what did him in the first time.

“I have said that other texts and photos were likely to come out, and today they have,” he said on July 23. “I want to again say that I am very sorry to anyone who was on the receiving end of these messages and the disruption this has caused.” It was a roundabout way of Weiner admitting that he had continued to send explicit messages to women well into 2012, and as recently as April of this year, using the singularly ridiculous alias "Carlos Danger." Weiner admitted that one of those images, a previously unpublished selfie of a penis posted to the Internet on July 23, was his very own.

The picture was posted on the entertainment site, after the recipient of the picture sent it there. And here we are.

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On July 27, Danny Kedem, Weiner's campaign director, told the world he’d had enough when he announced his resignation. Polls suggested that New Yorkers were coming to the same conclusion.

A Quinnipiac poll released the week of July 20 had Weiner actually leading the mayoral race, 25 percent to 22 percent over Quinn.  A New York Times/Siena College poll from about the same period showed Quinn with a sizable 27-18 lead over Weiner among registered voters in New York.

Fast forward one week, give or take. A Quinnipiac poll released on July 29 had Quinn out in front by 27 percent, followed by De Blasio, Thompson ... and Weiner, in fourth place with 16 percent favorables.

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FOR ALL the public justification for either outrage or rejection in the polls, the daily Weiner vilification in the media — Orwell’s “Two Minutes Hate” on 24/7 steroids — is looking a bit unseemly and automatic. Like with the citizens of witch trial-era Salem, Mass., or the burghers in some town in Veddy Ole England — the people who couldn’t resist kicking the man bound hand and feet in the stocks on the town square — the serial media punishments visited on the former congressman say as much about us, our capacity for forgiveness, as they say about him.

The media’s been tut-tutting and piling on for weeks. On ABC News, Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal said Weiner’s actions were “quite clinically sick.” Over at CNN, New York GOP Rep. Peter King, spoke of Weiner’s “pathological problems.” And the tabloids weighed in, of course, with a variety of lurid, childish compressions of headline language, usually playing off of Weiner’s last name.

What’s been almost as reflexive is the willingness of some in the media to positively position Weiner’s campaign against the other candidates seeking the mayor’s office. All the talk about how the field of candidates is “weak,” “dull,” “lackluster” and “unexciting” — validating Weiner’s campaign by inference — misses the point of what’s at stake: the gravity of the job of running the world’s indisputably pre-eminent city, containing the world’s biggest stock exchange and the second-largest city economy on the planet.

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Whatever other shortcomings Weiner may have in terms of qualifications, he shouldn’t get demerits for dullness or lack of excitement. Mike Bloomberg hasn’t been exactly swinging from the chandeliers at Gracie Mansion the last dozen years. If it’s bombast and swagger New Yorkers want, if they’re looking for a showman, let ‘em appoint Donald Trump mayor-for-life and be done with it.

At the end of the day, the hard work of running the biggest city in the world probably couldn’t be more dull or unexciting — the difference between campaigning and governing never more obvious. For New Yorkers, then, it comes down to who’s most capable to do the job.

New Yorkers may sense that it’s over for Anthony Weiner, although he has aggressively vowed to stay in the race. But just because they see that coming doesn’t mean they won’t hear the man out. Even if Weiner is finally considered out of bounds, New Yorkers want to be the referees making that call. That’s the parochial, proprietary, purely emotional button Weiner hopes to push and push between now and the Sept. 10 primary election.

New Yorkers forgive, and they’re not alone. Look at David Vitter. Look at Mark Sanford. Hell, look at how far Richard Nixon got with a cloth coat and a dog. Like it or not, it’s what Weiner’s saying now, it’s this kind of passionate, full-throated defense of oneself, one’s civic identity and personal ambition that sometimes gets candidates elected — against all odds.

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BUT WEINER has two bigger problems. One is a matter of lessons unlearned. Between June 2011 and earlier this year, Weiner’s rehabilitation appeared to be well underway. People magazine published an affecting profile of Weiner the family man, husband and father, about a year ago. All the signs were right for starting over. Then it all went south in July, at a news conference, with his wife at his side, looking by turns game and gut-punched.

New Yorkers are cool with redemption. Recidivism? Not so much. They’re used to colorful characters running the city or campaigning to run it, but what’s engulfing Team Weiner now is another matter entirely. His recent behavior reveals something that’s not just iconoclastic; it’s been evidence of the polymorphous perverse. New Yorkers get plenty of that already.

The other problem is politically more substantive, and harder to ignore. Simply put, Anthony Weiner suffers from an achievement deficit. First elected to Congress in 1998, Weiner proceeded to build an image of a cocky, abrasive, ruthlessly intelligent advocate of his constituents, the picture of what one associate called “a pothole congressman.” Over time, it worked to a great degree.

His desire to be New York’s mayor is nothing new; it began with failed campaigns in 2005 and 2008, when Weiner proved to be nakedly strategic in his pursuit of the mayor’s job — even while keeping his day job in Congress.

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He started making the rounds on the cable shows, and in July 2010 he fully established his pepper-pot persona in the public eye with a memorable rant on the House floor, in which he excoriated House Republicans for their obstruction of a healthcare bill meant to aid New York health-care professionals who responded on 9/11.

It looked good for the cameras, but to insiders it was something else again. “Several New York members [of Congress] — most notably Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn Maloney — had labored to craft the 9/11 bill and to win over Republican support, but Weiner had played no meaningful role before the floor debate,” wrote Salon’s Steve Kornacki back in June 2011. “The episode perfectly illustrates the conflicting realities of Weiner’s new role in politics: To activists outside Washington, he’s a refreshing voice shaking up Congress; to his own colleagues, he’s a camera-seeking nuisance who’s interested in gaining publicity for himself — not in doing any substantive work.”

“In 12 ½ years in Congress, he sponsored and wrote only one bill that he steered to enactment: a measure pushed by a family friend who gave his campaigns tens of thousands of dollars in donations,” The New York Times reported in June.

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AND THAT’S likely to be the heavier lift for Weiner: not convincing New Yorkers of what he won’t do again, but convincing them of what more he will do — and do effectively as mayor — than he did when he blazed through the halls of Congress.

Just because he’s no longer in the federal government doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have to work with the federal government if he becomes mayor — on homeland security, infrastructure, immigration, funding for capital construction and any number of other issues where the interests of the city and the nation are intertwined.

It’s harder to do that when you’ve burned your bridges with an acetylene torch.

“I don’t take my cues from the headline writers in the newspapers. I never have,” Weiner said at a photo op/news conference on Monday, doubling down on his identity as a New Yorker. “Those are some of the very same people that didn’t want me to run, that didn’t want New Yorkers to have that choice in the first place.

“I don’t really care if a lot of pundits or politicians are offended by that. I’m gonna let New Yorkers decide!”

The primary election to decide the mayoralty of New York City is 38 days from now.

Also published at Image credits: Weiner top: AP Photo/John Minchillo. Weiner front page: New York Post, June 2011. Quinnipiac University logo: © 2013 Quinnipiac University.  Still image from broadcast of Nixon Checkers speech, 1952: public domain. Weiner family: People Magazine. Weiner on House floor: still from Associated Press video. 

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