Yesterday’s revelation that New York Congressman Anthony Weiner really did tweet a link to a photograph of his occupied and bulging underwear to a 21-year-old woman he’d never met answers many but not all of the relevant questions.
Politically, Weiner was, is, one of the few reliably progressive voices in Washington, alongside Barney Frank and former Representative Alan Grayson. I’ve never seen him back down from a fight; indeed he had that quirk of personality that made him all the more dangerous when cornered: if he was attacked, he knew he was on to something. His obvious intelligence and political skills, coupled with the good fortune of representing a district and indeed a state that shared his views made him a politician with a bright future. He was mentioned as a possible mayoral candidate in New York, or perhaps as a successor to his political mentor, Senator Chuck Schumer.
Not now. Weiner hasn’t resigned, and, given where he’s from, he might just get re-elected (he won by 22 points in 2010). Still, I think we can take as given that the Republicans will actually nominate someone to run against him (unlike in 2006 and 2008). Moreover, I suspect that his future outside his district is probably not very bright.
Speaking of not bright, just how stupid is it to send a crotch-shot to a stranger young enough to be your daughter, then lie about, then equivocate, then admit it? The answer to this question, of course, is pretty freaking moronic, or, perhaps more accurately, arrogant in the extreme. Like another talented New York Democrat, Eliott Spitzer, Weiner began to believe that rules apply only to other people: whether it’s racking up four figures’ worth of parking tickets (a particularly ironic offense, given his hectoring of foreign governments who don’t pay their New York City parking offenses) or tweeting his… erm… member of Congress to a co-ed.
It is the latter incident for which, in this culture, he is likely to become known. Of course, in real terms this transgression is minor compared to those in the same arena of many who subsequently went on to extended (pardon the pun) political careers: Ted Kennedy, Bill Clinton, John McCain, Newt Gingrich, David Vitter. (On the other hand, it is apparently at least as substantive as the shirtless Craig’s List photo of Representative Chris Lee, which led to his resignation and, ultimately, to his seat flipping to the Democrats in last month’s special election despite Lee’s landslide victory only seven months earlier.) As far as I can see, there was no crime committed, and no one was directly hurt in the way a wife would be in the case of an actual affair.
Weiner’s initial act—the tweet—was puerile, stupid, and incomprehensible. The ensuing actions—the part that has everyone and his great-aunt Tillie intoning Watergate clichés about “it’s not the crime; it’s the cover-up”—consists of precisely this: he lied. He got caught having done something absurd, arrogant, and potentially politically suicidal, and he lied to the press. Of course, you can take it as a matter of faith that a dozen different members of Congress, three senators, two governors, and at least one representative of the federal executive will lie to the press in the time it takes you, Gentle Reader, to finish will this blog post.
But this is lying the press cares about. They don’t care if they get lied to about trivial stuff like warrantless wiretaps, the projected cost of extending the Afghan War, or whether Medicare is actually going broke. No, because, you see, investigating those claims would require actual work, and the people proven to be liars could and would cling to their fabrications, leaving no opportunity for triumphalism. But Congressman Weiner admitted it, thereby allowing the righteous indignation to flow unabated.
Representative Weiner complained that this whole business was a “distraction.” Of course, it was. But it was a distraction entirely of his own making. True, the baying hounds of the alleged journalistic world may have been a little (OK, a lot) louder than the situation warranted. But the man’s been in politics for years—he didn’t know that? Well, actually, he did, but he realized it too late. Hence, presumably, the “I’ve been hacked” tweets and the non-denial denial (“I can’t say with certitude”) that led to the most concise encapsulation of the whole affair, by Bill Maher, for whom the opportunity to talk dirty overrode his natural reluctance to criticize those on the left: “If somebody asks if you tweeted your penis, and your answer is anything but ‘no,’ you tweeted your penis.”
So, what’s to make of all this? There are still unanswered questions, including many of those posed by Stef at Daily Kos: how did conservative blogger patriotusa76 seem to know about the tweet two weeks before it happened? why was the “evidence” evidently doctored? what was Andrew Breitbart’s role in all this?
Indeed, the greatest crime committed by Rep. Weiner may have been to give a modicum credibility to Breitbart, whose previous record was spotless: not a single one of his hatchet jobs provided anything but an intentionally vicious and wholly mendacious version of what actually happened—not ACORN, not Shirley Sherrod, not the two University of Missouri professors, not NPR (although there were needles of truth in the haystack of digital manipulation in that case). But, as Mark Fuhrman demonstrated at the OJ Simpson trial, it is indeed possible to frame the guilty… which doesn’t make it any less of a frame.
More importantly, the questions that have been answered are certainly enough to legitimately raise the question of whether Weiner should resign. And the answer is… probably. There is no evidence of an actual affair, Weiner never ran as a crusader against the very behavior he indulged in (Cf. Gingrich, Spitzer, Larry Craig, et al.) and there appears to be no actual criminality (Cf. Clinton, Kennedy, Mark Foley, David Vitter, John Ensign… and on and on).
On the other hand, the Congressman’s actions have been by turns reckless, immature, and dishonest. As I wrote on the CC Facebook page, “No one over the age of 12 who thinks this is cute or funny or (God forbid) alluring behavior deserves other than contempt.” His ability to represent his constituents has been severely compromised, whether they think so or not. Progressives are better off without him as a spokesperson in the short term, and probably longer. It would be better for his party, for the causes he purports to believe in, and for the country if Weiner stepped aside. He is now the distraction he has railed against. The fact that he might be able to ride the storm out doesn’t mean he should.
I’m not holding my breath.