Anthony Weiner and the Politics of Sexual Misbehavior

Let me begin with a broad observation. When Republican politicians are caught up in sexual scandals, the emphasis in the resulting commentary is typically on their hypocrisy. In contrast, when Democrats are caught up in such scandals, the emphasis is usually on the salaciousness of their behavior. This may seem like a distinction without a difference, but I think that it may help to explain why some Republicans and some Democrats survive sexual scandals while others are ruined by such scandals. Moreover, it may explain why the Republican efforts to conflate the sexual scandals involving Bob Filner, Eliot Spitzer, and Anthony Weiner are unlikely to gain any traction beyond the Far Right echosphere—why they are unlikely to gain the Republicans any traction with voters beyond those who would vote Republican if the party’s national ticket paired Dionysus and Priapus.

Of the three sexual scandals, Bob Filner’s is clearly the most disturbing. Not only has he been revealed as a serial sexual harasser whose unwanted advances to women somehow never came to public notice over a long and ostensibly distinguished congressional career, but those unwanted advances seem to have been so compulsive as to be indiscriminate. Filner seems to have made unwanted advances to women of all ages, body types, and backgrounds. His behavior was so indiscriminate that he even tried to hit on women who were visiting his congressional office because they had been raped while serving in the military and were seeking his support for legislation that would make the adequate prosecution of such crimes more likely. This level of compulsiveness makes his abbreviated “treatment” at a clinic for behavioral disorders seem all the more ludicrous.

I am not sure, however, whether Filner’s behavior legally warrants his being classified as a sexual predator. I am not even sure that he has done anything that justifies some sort of criminal prosecution. But I expect that he will be facing a slew of civil suits that, at the very least, will cost him (and, unfortunately, probably the taxpayers, too) a small fortune in legal fees, regardless of whether any sizable judgments are made in favor of his accusers. When Filner resigns from his office, when he is removed from his office by recall, or when (God forbid) he simply reaches the end of his term, his political career will be over. He is truly the sort of person for whom the word “scumbag” was coined, and even in this age of rabid partisanship, there ought to be non-partisan agreement on that judgment.

Eliot Spitzer had served little more than a year as Governor of New York when it was revealed that he had engaged $1,000/hour call girls while serving as Attorney General of New York and then as Governor. In total, Federal investigators asserted that, in a six-month period, Spitzer had spent $15,000 for a half-dozen “dates” with the call girls employed by an escort service called Emperor’s Club VIP. Worse, investigators indicated that there was evidence that, in all, Spitzer might have paid as much as $80,000 to Emperor’s Club VIP for their escort services. Ironically, Spitzer’s secret sexual life came to the attention of investigators because of the extra steps that he tried to take to make his payments to Emperor’s Club VIP less easily traceable back to him. Unfortunately for Spitzer, the manner in which his misbehavior was uncovered served only to compound the perception of his hypocrisy, for Spitzer had used relentlessly thorough analyses of financial records and the aggressive use of wire taps to convict a number of Wall Street figures of fraud and corruption. Even worse, with each conviction, Spitzer’s disdain for the convicted seemed to become more transparent and imperiously self-righteous. In making his reputation as a prosecutor who was very willing to take on the “fat cats,” Spitzer had taken on and cultivated a persona as a sort of avenging angel. So, it was not simply that he was exposed as a hypocrite; rather, the persona that he had cultivated invited the sort of disdainful response that he himself had made to the exposed failings of others.

But in the end, Spitzer had committed a run-of-the-mill crime. Consorting with prostitutes does not become a worse offense in proportion to the amount that the prostitutes are paid for their services. And in demonstrating his hypocrisy, Spitzer had, in effect, established only that he was no different than most other politicians, at least in the public perception. So, especially in a progressive state such as New York, it was very predictable that Spitzer would eventually be able to resurrect his political career—especially because he was very blunt in admitting his failings, he was willing to wait a sufficient amount of time for the details of his scandal to become blurred by time and by the inevitable parade of other, subsequent scandals, and because he recognized that he needed initially to run for an office that is important enough to become a political credential but has a low enough public profile to seem a humble choice. In a conservative state, there would have had to be more emphasis on public exhibitions of repentance and demonstrations of forgiveness. But, as the career of David Vitter similarly attests, this sort of sexual scandal is politically survivable mainly because, despite all of the media attention and the insistence that our representatives ought to represent the best traits of our national character, poll after poll has shown that we know that they are, ethically, just a notch or two above or below the proverbial used-car salesmen.

So that brings us to the curious case of Anthony Weiner. Weiner has done nothing warranting any sort of criminal prosecution or even a civil suit. In fact, in engaging in sexting, he has done something that millions of other Americans do every day—most without suffering any negative consequences for doing so. Tellingly, Weiner’s standing with voters under 30, presumably the age group most likely to be engaged in sexting, seems to have been damaged less by the continuing revelations than his standing with other age groups. So it is at least somewhat arguable whether he has even done anything for which he ought automatically to be ashamed, and whether the sexting amounts to infidelity to his wife is clearly a matter for the two of them to determine.

One might argue that Weiner’s inability to stop sexting even after it seemed to have cost him his political career suggests the same sort of compulsive and perhaps indiscriminate behavior in which Bob Filner has engaged, but none of Weiner’s digital correspondents seem to have been affronted, never mind traumatized, by his messages or photos. Or one might also argue that, unlike Spitzer, Weiner did not allow a sufficient amount of time to pass between his fall from grace and his attempt to resurrect his career and that, in running for Mayor of New York City, he is seeking, in effect, a significant advancement over the position from which he had fairly recently been forced to resign. But, if not for the revelations that he had continued sexting long after his resignation from his congressional seat, he might very well still be leading the polls for the Democratic primary and even be the odds-on favorite to succeed Michael Bloomberg as Mayor.

So, Weiner’s downfall is mainly attributable, I think, to his lack of judgment, and I would argue that he is suffering, ultimately, more from a lack of political judgment, rather than a lack of moral judgment. Specifically, he lacked the political foresight to recognize that just as his initial sexting had become public, his subsequent, continuing sexting would also become public and ruin any chance that he had at being elected—because it would compound the association of his name with ridicule. To paraphrase the lecherous and vindictive film producer Woltz in The Godfather, a person with serious political ambitions might very well survive looking ridiculous, but he cannot survive his name’s becoming synonymous with ridiculousness.

Indeed, Weiner initially lacked the political judgment to recognize that because his name is “Weiner,” he could not afford to do anything that would, in effect, reduce his name to the set-up or the punch line to crude jokes. And having made that misjudgment, he should probably have simply found another line of work.

Finally, some commentators have suggested that this lack of judgment is revealing and might be indicative of a predisposition to function erratically once in office. I think that this is a very dubious assumption. Illicit sexual behavior seems to have been a common denominator among many of our presidents—Democratic and Republican, effective and ineffective, admired and despised. And I am guessing that it has been even a broader common denominator among Senators and Congressmen. So, even granting that we were ever truly outraged by such behavior, it seems to me that most of what is currently categorized as moral outrage is typically as much a combination perverse curiosity and perverse delight as it is genuine outrage. In fact, I think that this general pattern accounts, to a great extent, for the fact that someone as egregiously offensive as Bob Filner has not yet been driven from office by outrage.

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