Anthony Weiner Is a Lying Ass — So?
When I heard earlier this week that Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) had, in fact, lied about tweeting a picture of his underwear, and admitted to having online sexual discussions (and exchange of explicit photos), I was angry. When this matter first erupted over Memorial Day weekend, I defended Rep. Weiner both because I like him and because of the history of those from whom the charges originated. So, when the truth came out, I felt betrayed.
But as I thought more and more about Rep. Weiner and his “transgressions” I realized that this “scandal” really shouldn’t be treated as such. Yes, Rep. Weiner should have come clean when the news first broke. Some kind of an “I’m embarrassed by my behavior” statement, issued, promptly, would most likely have prevented the whole scandal from growing and dominating the news cycle. But, when we look at Rep. Weiner’s transgressions, and compare those to the greater realm of political scandals, this one just isn’t meaningful and, in my opinion, probably shouldn’t be treated as a scandal at all. I’ll elaborate on my thinking in a moment, but I do want to add this one caveat: If it turns out that any of the women with whom Rep. Weiner was exchanging pictures and sexual texts were underage, and if he knew (or should have known, through the exercise of reasonable diligence) that they were underage, then this does become a real scandal.
So why don’t I think Rep. Weiner’s transgressions are worth the attention that has been given to them? First, let’s remember this key point (subject to the caveat above): There has been no allegation that Rep. Weiner broke any laws. He didn’t pay a prostitute (like Sen. Vitter or Gov. Spitzer), he didn’t illegally proposition a law enforcement officer for sex (like Sen. Craig), he didn’t use campaign funds to pay off a staffer with whom he’d had an illicit affair (Sen. Ensign), he didn’t molest underage Congressional pages (Rep. Foley), he didn’t sexually harass those who worked for him (Justice Thomas), he didn’t grope staffers (Rep. Massa), and he didn’t lie under oath about sexual relations(President Clinton). Nor was Rep. Weiner’s conduct even physical (President Clinton, Gov. Sanford, Sen. Edwards, Gov. Schwarzenneger, Rep. Souder). He didn’t father illegitimate children (Gov. Schwarzenneger, Sen. Edwards, Rep. Burton), divorce his wife while she was ill or engage in an illicit affair at the same time that he was trying to impeach a sitting president for lying about an illicit affair (Rep. Gingrich), or lie about who he was as he sought illicit sexual relationships on Craigslist (Rep. Lee). Nope. All that Rep. Weiner did was engage in online or telephonic sexual conversations (sexting, phone sex, emails, or whatever). Does his wife have a right to be angry? Of course. Do his constituents have the right to decide that they don’t approve of his conduct and vote him out of office? Again, of course. But what right do any of the rest of us have to be angry with Rep. Weiner? His conduct wasn’t criminal and it didn’t impact us.
And Rep. Weiner was never a “family values” politician that sought to impose his view of morality upon the rest of us. (And it was refreshing to see him not drag his wife onto the podium as he gave his apology; it wasn’t her fault, so there was no reason for her to stand under the withering lights and questions of the press.)
Apparently, the House Ethics committee intends to look into the matter. If Rep. Weiner used the Blackberry paid for by the US government or conducted any of this activity in his Congressional office, then he may have violated House rules. But I seem to recall hearing about other members of Congress making campaign solicitation calls from their offices (which apparently, they are not allowed to do) and I suspect that if we looked into the phone records of members of Congress, we’d find that plenty of them have made personal telephone calls or even calls to solicit funds. If we were to look at the computer browser history of every computer of every member of Congress, I suspect that we’d find at least one or two pornographic images or websites.
The Federal Elections Commission is presently investigating Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Florida) and the auto dealerships he used to own for campaign finance violations. Yet, I haven’t heard the media or other members of Congress demanding his resignation. Think about that for a moment. We have one Congressman who emailed naked pictures of himself. We have another who may have used illegally obtained funds to get elected. Which is the worse violation? Yet which one has dominated media coverage? And which one has given rise to colleagues calling for a resignation? I’d argue that if we are more concerned with legal conduct that … ooh … involves sex than we are illegal conduct that goes to the functioning of our democratic system, then we have a real problem and mixed up priorities.
Moreover, while I’ve heard Republicans like Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) call for Rep. Weiner to resign, I haven’t heard similar calls for Sen. Vitter to resign, even though he admitted to using prostitutes (which, you’ll note, is illegal). In fact, at a Republican Congressional gathering after Vitter’s admission, he was treated to a standing ovation.
Ah, but Rep. Weiner lied, you say. And so he did. I’m sure that he’s the first member of Congress who has ever lied, right? I’m sure that he’s the first married man to lie about something that would get his wife angry. I’m sure that he’s the first person who lied about something that was, while perfectly legal, nevertheless embarrassing. Tell, me this: Which is more harmful to Congress, a lie about personal (though apparently perfectly legal) conduct like that which Rep. Weiner engaged in or a lie about facts during a debate about policy? For example, compare the lie told by Rep. Weiner to this whopper told by Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana). And what about every Republican member of Congress that repeated Sarah Palin’s “death panels” lie?
Rep. Weiner did stupid things in his personal life. But the more that we demand purity in the personal lives of our politicians, the harder and harder it is going to be to get anyone to be willing to step up and seek office. The politics of personal destruction are not good for our system of government. By all means, if someone breaks the law they should be held accountable. And personal actions can (and perhaps should) have personal consequences and may even be reasons for voters to choose another candidate. But when someone makes a mistake in their personal life, and that mistake is not illegal, is it really the sort of scandal that we should be paying attention to? And when that mistake doesn’t even involve physical contact but just emails and texts and photos, have we gone too far?
Just out of curiosity, how many extramarital affairs and/or divorces is a politician allowed before becoming “damaged goods”? I mean, just between Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani we have 4 divorces and who knows how many extra-marital affairs.
Rep. Weiner did a stupid thing. And he lied about it. That was stupid too. But how many of us have never done something stupid or that we’re ashamed of? How many of us have never done something that we would be embarrassed about should our loved ones (let alone the public) learn about? And how many of us would, if caught, at least try to lie our way out of the situation first? And yet does any of that make any of us bad people? Does that lessen our efforts to provide for our families or to make our communities better? Does that render our opinions meaningless? Does that make us ineligible to serve in an elected capacity?
Another thing that is worth thinking about is the degree of scrutiny applied to politicians who use social media. In Rep. Weiner’s case, a self-described conservative group was following Rep. Weiner’s online activity very closely (perhaps rising to the level of cyber-stalking), I suppose looking for a scandal. Given that social media is largely public, I guess that sort of scrutiny may just be the price of admission. But query how comfortable we would be if those same conservatives were not just following Rep. Weiner online but in person, too. How would we feel if groups that opposed a particular politician began making public every time that the politician went to a bar, every restaurant the politician ate in, every time the politician was seen in the company (however innocent it may in fact have been) of someone of the opposite sex who wasn’t that politician’s spouse. So long as the conduct is not illegal, is that really any of our concern? And why, then, are we uncomfortable with that sort of stalking but are, apparently, fine, if the stalking is merely virtual?
Or ask the question this way: Are Rep. Weiner’s views on taxation somehow “tainted” because he sent sexual text messages? Was his effort to secure healthcare for the 9/11 responders somehow less important or meaningful because he emailed pictures of his penis? Are his political views somehow lessened or rendered incorrect because he is apparently an egotistical jerk? I don’t think so.
Some scandals merit our attention, some our outrage. To me, it is much more scandalous to watch members of Congress lie to constituents about policy and empirical facts upon which political decisions are made than to know that a politician talked about sex with women. It is much more scandalous to realize that so many politicians are bought and paid for by enormous multi-national corporations and banks than it is to know that a politician sent a naked picture of himself. And it is certainly more scandalous to know that some politicians have broken actual laws than it is to know that a politician lied about mistakes made in his personal life.
Let’s stop worrying about silly things like whether Rep. Weiner tweeted a photo of his underwear and pay more attention to whether poor children are getting adequate food and housing, whether Americans can afford health care, whether there is anything that we can do to prevent global climate change, or any of the myriad host of other critical issues that are facing our country. Sorry, but Rep. Weiner’s weiner just doesn’t make that list; he may be a lying ass, but so what?