The Anthony Weiner Distraction
I’ll tell you what makes me so very, very sad about the Anthony Weiner scandal. Not that it is bad for the Democrats, nor is it bad for the Jews. Both Republicans and Democrats are subject to the temptations of the flesh, even if Republicans are a bit more self-righteous than Democrats about calling attention to the sexual habits, when those come to light, of their colleagues in the opposing party. Nor, in our enlightened age, does anyone think this is an ethnic matter even though the press did regard as disgusting Weiner’s allusion to the fact that Jewish women are not known for giving blow jobs. Wiener certainly had heard of Monica Lewinsky. He was simply trying to get off a Woody Allen joke and the press chose to treat it as a racial slur rather than as a joke. The New York Daily News called him a schmuck on its front page and that clearly got past their standards department. It is a New York term that everybody understands, not a term with just a Jewish connotation. The constant double entendres were extended to include his name, which was called unfortunate because it alluded to the object portrayed in his tweets, even though I had never before made that association with any of the people named Weiner that I have known.
Nor is his treatment by the press a surprise even if it is a worthy object of sadness. It goes without saying that they love to kick someone when he is down, and that is what they did at his press conference. Eliot Spitzer noted “how difficult” it is to go through one of those press conferences, as he had, and how ironic it is that he is now on the journalist’s side of a sex scandal story. The press lives for its double entendres and the Daily News had no qualms about reprinting a particularly raunchy tweet by Weiner, as if personal sexual communications are open for public scrutiny because they concern a public figure, even though he has not been accused, much less convicted of any crime, just said to have violated the trust of his constituents. What trust is that? It is that he is required to be faithful to his wife in a way that is considered to be customary even though we do not know how many men engage with or without their wives or the consent of their wives in sexual practices that are unseemly if they come to light. A lot of people, I dare say, would be caught up in a glare if it became common practice to out private sexual practices.
I also don’t see how it makes a difference whether he used his office cell phone to do these dirty deeds. If they are not illegal, so what? He isn’t allowed to call home on his office cell to say that he is bringing home bread and milk? The journalists are looking around for a crime now that they smell blood, and so they compliment the Republicans for being more disciplined than are Democrats because the Republicans just kick somebody out of the House when the person is caught in a sexual scandal. Not really, come to think of it. They didn’t go after Vitter—but then he is a Senator and each seat in the Senate is a private fiefdom because people generally raise their own money to get and keep their seats while House seats are more dependant on the contributions of the House Reelection Committees of each party. But to the press, shame him first and then find a crime he committed. There is no respect for the idea that the voters after all put him there and it is up to them to get rid of him. And I say this of all members of Congress. I don’t want any of them hounded out because that is the start of a witch-hunt about homosexuality or Communism or, nowadays, what you are and are not allowed to say in a medium that seems to cross the line between being private like a telephone call and being public like a press release. Such transgressions become the subject of recrimination rather than the origin of a new set of privacy laws that might protect consenting adults from the press.
Nor is this scandal sad because it tells us what men are really like. Having been male for seventy years, I don’t know what men in general are like in their sex lives any more than I know what women are like in general as far as their sex lives are concerned. It is a very strong social structure that I cannot explain that keeps secret the sexual lives of people, married and unmarried, straight and gay, young adult and graybeard. Journalists titter and rage as they teeter on the edge of going too deeply into details because to do so would make them the ones who broke the taboo on revealing what goes on between people. Maybe it is because sex, obviously, is intimate, but then the question is why sex is more intimate than the thoughts one has in one’s head that, by the way, are also subject to privacy rules. Georg Simmel would say the two things are very alike because both sexual practices and ideas are things that are unveiled only when one wants to take the risk of other people knowing what they are and so giving other people, such as spouses or political opponents, power over you. Does anyone know what Mitt Romney really thinks about universal health care? He takes contrary positions and that is a cover, a way of not saying what he thinks. He doesn’t want the voters to know.
A few breaks with the practices of privacy as those are known in all literate civilizations does not demolish the durability of such practices nor tell us very much about what goes on, in general, under the covers, so to speak. Yes, there has been a rash of male caddishness in the press over the past few weeks, and nobody can forget what the country went through because of Bill Clinton. I suspect that Hillary called up Weiner’s wife, whom she knows quite well because she has worked for Hillary for over a decade, and commiserated about what men are like, but all women, I also suspect, make some compromises about sex with their husbands, just as, I suspect, all men make some compromises with their wives, and that is just the way it is. Neither of the two genders is morally superior to the other and it may be latent sexism on my part to notice that all women in these kurfuffles are treated as the innocent parties whose identities are to be protected unless they give off a whiff of not being somehow respectable. Did the Weiner tweet to a Las Vegas dealer get published because of its salacious nature or because she was in a profession that is not quite respectable in places other than where gambling is a major industry? But don’t tell any of this to the press, which gets on its moral high horse and feels safe because the press would not do this to one of their own. Remember how understanding they were about Marv Albert, even though they were “forced” to cover the story because it was so “scandalicious”?
Well, if the question of whether rules of intimacy are broken by a caddish press is not at the core of the sadness of this incident, then what is? The best I can do by way of explanation is to provide an analogy that is not so much an analogy as an exact comparison, subject to the same formal laws of interaction. There have in recent years been a number of off the field scandals that have sullied the name of baseball. Players take steroids to enhance their performance and that means that some players and teams have an unfair advantage over another in a contest, the game, which is, after all, why baseball fans care about baseball. Season and lifetime records may also be affected, but that is as a byproduct of what goes on in the field. Sports commentators become instant experts on biochemistry and Congressional hearings, on laws and celebrity gossip. This distracts from the game as much as when Phil Rizzuto used to read lists of people from New Jersey who were at the Stadium. Sure, fans talk about other things than the game when attending a game. The glory of baseball is that you don’t have to pay attention to every minute of it. You can go off to buy hotdogs or stare out onto the passing subway train. But the game is the reason for all of these occasions of distraction. Without the game, you wouldn’t be sitting there.
The same is true of politics. The main thing about politics is who is in power and what some coalition of people who have power is going to do with the power: further a cultural agenda; raise taxes; take the nation to war; help poor people. There are some people who are distractions from this process but remain part of it, like Sarah Palin who, as the media pundits now put it, may be a kingmaker even if she doesn’t know much about Paul Revere’s Ride. Nitwits like her have always played a role in politics. Warren Harding was a nitwit and, in my humble opinion, George W. Bush wasn’t much more than that. They are part of the political game, as is sex, a “problem” that afflicted Warren Harding as well as latter day Presidents, not to say numerous Congresspeople whose careers were ended by sexual scandals. And so it is with Anthony Weiner, who may have to end a promising political career because of the tweeter scandal, which is a tragedy for him and a misfortune for those like me who found his straightforward, all out defense of his political viewpoint mighty refreshing. It may also be pathetic that a significant Congressperson proves himself a teenage nerd, though I am not sure why teenagers who engage in stexting are to be excused and Wiener not. We usually think that adults are allowed to do things that teens aren’t, not the other way around.
The problem is that the Weiner business is too much a distraction from the business of government, which is to govern. It distracts from budget negotiations and the question of why Obama has not pressed for more stimulus legislation. It distracts from whether our Arab Awakening policy is working and why Obama is not getting credit for ending one war and bringing the other to a more or less successful conclusion, which is what he is doing, and which is just what he promised to do. How many Presidents can say they did what they set out to do? It disables someone who might have turned out to be a Democratic successor to Bloomberg, the Republicans having done very well in a Democratic city ever since Giuliani defeated Dinkins. Who is there for the Democrats to now rally round? Will Ray Kelly run for Mayor as a Republican? This hot stove league speculation is what political junkies crave, even if we also become conversant with the geography surrounding the bridge at Chappaquiddick and the fact that Monica’s blue dress opened in the front. Let us return to politics for what it is, not for what it descends to when people, as they often do, get bored with the rigors of either politics or baseball.
Some people call on Weiner to resign precisely because he has become a distraction from the political business at hand. But no body calls for Alex Rodriguez to resign. He is too valuable to his team. So is Weiner. If Newt could survive to fight another day and in another decade, why not Weiner?