Anthony Weiner Comes Clean
Sex scandals are an increasingly prominent, increasingly frequent, and increasingly varied part of American political life. They come in all flavors and orientations. If what the protagonist of the latest one said during his remarkable press conference this afternoon is true, if it’s essentially the whole story, then Weinergate breaks new ground: it’s the first entirely virtual political sex scandal, the first to have been conducted entirely via e-mail, and online social media. (Plus a bit of phone sex, perhaps. But that’s electronic, too.)
In other ways, though, it’s not so new. It confirms a pet theory of mine: the Clinton Rule, which states that when a married politician appears before cameras and microphones and starts babbling absurd lies about some sexual something, the person he is really trying to lie to is his spouse. The lies that get told to the public and the press are side effects. So far this rule has applied only to heterosexual politicians, but gay marriage is still in its infancy. We shall see.
The era of the modern sex scandal began in 1988 with Gary Hart, Donna Rice, the S.S. Monkey Business, and the Miami Herald. It seems almost quaint now, but back then it was de rigueur for the press to maintain that the sex scandal of the moment was not really “about” sex. What it was “about” was lying, which in turn meant that it was “about” something more important than sex, i.e., “character.”
The problem is that lying is an inherent part of adultery and, by extension, of any illicit or potentially embarrassing sexual activity or proclivity. By itself, the fact that a person has lied about sex tells you nothing about that person’s general propensity to lie. Unlike most citizens, prominent politicians like Gary Hart, Bill Clinton, and Anthony Weiner make speeches by the hundred, give media interviews constantly, and have extensively documented public records. If the politician is a habitual or characterological liar, the public record will show it and the lying-about-sex is redundant. If the politician is not a habitual or characterological liar, his lying-about-sex is misleading—is itself a lie, in a way.
On MSNBC, the cable-news “home page” of my political tribe, one commentator said that one of the things Weinergate shows is that powerful politicians assume they can get away with things that regular people can’t. If they do assume that, they’re wrong. It would be more accurate to say that they can’t get away with things that regular people can. Look around you. Consider your friends, your work colleagues, your relatives, maybe even yourself. It’s likely that a nontrivial proportion of them have some sexual secret (at least they think it’s a secret) in their lives. If their secret comes out, if they get caught in an embarrassing lie about it, the whole world isn’t going to hear about it. It won’t be national news.
After Weiner’s press conference, there was near-unanimous agreement among the cable talkers that his political career is finished. One of them predicted that Weiner will not be a Member of Congress two weeks from now. I doubt that. I found his conduct at the press conference quite impressive, given the circumstances. He seemed genuinely ashamed, genuinely sorry. But he also showed some steel, some determination, some discipline, some dignity. I think he'll be around for quite a while. The modern media embarrassment machine is bigger than it ever was, but so is the fatal dose. Weiner may yet be Mayor of New York one day. Just not next time.