By Elvin Lim
If Congressman Anthony Weiner loses his job because of a few lewd pictures, he would probably have lost the most among a long line of unfaithful politicians for having sinned the least. Bill Clinton’s encounters happened in the Oval Office (among other places). At least Larry Craig managed to graze another foot at a bathroom stall. But Anthony Weiner didn’t even go much beyond Twitter. There is a chance that Weiner would endure the political storm (as Senator David Vitter and President Bill Clinton did), by waiting the scandal out and hoping that the uproar subsides. But two things stand in the way.
First, Anthony Weiner has no friends. He hasn’t been around long enough, as Charlie Rangel had when he faced his own scandal, to have built up friendships and loyalties in the House. Actually, many Democrats privately believe that Weiner’s an upstart who has adopted a combative style not to further the collective cause of the party but simply to side-step the rules of seniority in the party and to attract media attention to himself. This is why no one has stood up for Weiner; indeed they have done the reverse. Harry Reid was as only as quick to call for Weiner’s resignation as Nancy Pelosi was to call for a formal ethics investigation.
Second, Weiner didn’t go far enough to actually have, at least no evidence is yet forthcoming to the effect, a full-blown affair. And this may count against him because it increases the sleaze factor in his scandal. If Weiner had had an actual affair, he may actually look more like your typical cheating politician. But instead, he now looks like some wierdo who sends pictures of himself to strangers but did nothing to follow up, suggesting that the sexual pleasure consisted purely in the puerile act of sending lewd photos to unsuspecting victims. (I’m not endorsing a hierarchy of sins here, merely pointing out the arbitrariness of what counts as a damning political sin and what is not.)
The sleaze factor infecting Weiner’s scandal was not aided by the fact that his wife did not join him at his confessional press conference. One reason why David Vitter and Larry Craig survived their scandals is that their wives stood by them, literally. For if the wives could forgive their husbands’ indiscretions, who are we to judge?
Put another way, sexual misconduct does not have to become politically damaging. It was for Gary Hart and Eliot Spitzer, but it wasn’t for John Kennedy and Bill Clinton. The lesson for the politicians is not that they should be faithful to their spouses or even that they shouldn’t get caught; but that if they’re going to cheat, they should do it sans the sleaze. D.C. Madam, anyone?
Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.