“If you want a friend in Washington,” Harry Truman tartly observed, “get a dog.” Anthony Weiner likely lacked even canine companionship, as the former New York congressman distinguished himself as a cut above the rest in a town teeming with egotistical twits. His character was evident early.
In 1991, 27-year-old Weiner became the youngest City Council member in New York history with the help of a Nixonian stunt: In the election’s eleventh-hour, he anonymously distributed pamphlets linking his principal opponent to notable black leaders who, in the wake of Jewish-black Crown Heights riots, were highly unpopular in the heavily Jewish district. Weiner later fessed up to the dirty trick, but what did it matter? He’d won.
Seven years later Weiner won again, this time a congressional seat. However, his brash personality grated, as did his shameless political opportunism and insatiable appetite for media attention. “He had a style that wore people down,” observed a fellow lawmaker. Weiner’s staff agreed: His office had one of the highest turnover rates on Capitol Hill. The congressman’s spectacular downfall, then, may seem like Karmic comeuppance, but did his Internet peccadilloes really warrant his political demise?
Maybe. But if so, why is David Vitter still in the Senate? Vitter, it might be recalled, became enmeshed in a prostitution scandal in 2007, though last fall Louisiana voters reelected the social conservative to a second term anyway. Or what about Larry Craig? The Idaho Senator served out his term after getting caught soliciting another man in an airport bathroom. Sure, some politicians resign immediately after their disgrace, but for every Representative Mark Foley (sending lurid messages to Congressional pages) who promptly bows out, there is a Governor Mark Sanford (misuse of state travel funds) who toughs it out.
The double standard was laid bare when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was asked why she had demanded Weiner’s resignation given that he had not broken any law, unlike Bill Clinton, who lied to a grand jury but whose right to stay in office she had defended. Pelosi’s response: “I think that particularly because there was an effort to not tell the truth, I think that because he has engaged in some what I think is some very inappropriate conduct that has distracted his ability to do his job and distracted from almost all of our ability to do our jobs and make sure that we can effectively serve our constituents. I think that the best conclusion is that he should focus on addressing his problems and resign from the House.”
A coherent explanation exists for Weiner’s unceremonious defenestration, however. In general terms, it goes something like this: Undoing one’s pants doesn’t necessarily undo a political career, rather the publically-available evidence of having done so does. In Weiner’s case, the conspicuous evidence exposing his own exposing made keeping his job impossible. As importantly, a gutless Democratic Party caved, fearing the political impact of the scandal if Weiner lingered. This begs the question: Do Democrats’ brandish their genitals to compensate for not having spines?
An argument can be made that Weiner’s behavior disqualified him for public office. A high standard, so it goes, should apply uniformly, including to the licentious lot of Vitter, Craig, Clinton, etc. This seems reasonable enough, but it also represents a perverse double standard whereby scrupulous conduct is demanded of public officials with respect to their private lives, but their unscrupulous conduct done in public for private gains is largely condoned.
What unscrupulous conduct? As one book title put it, we have the “best government money can buy.” Politicians are beholden to powerful interests that cough up baksheesh (campaign funds) in return for what’s euphemistically called “access;” a revolving door shuttles these elite between America’s boardrooms and corridors of power in Washington; and corporate lobbyists write legislation that directly impacts their industries, to name a few examples.
Throughout history, the translation of financial power into political clout worried great thinkers, including James Madison. In the Federalist Papers, he wrote that the “most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property…The regulation of these various and interfering [monied] interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.” But we are resigned to our budding plutocracy. It’s accepted. Just don’t get caught tweeting about the size of your penis. That’s unacceptable.