June 16, 2011
The rise and fall of Anthony Weiner
What happens when new media scandal meets ancient political calculus?
Anthony Weiner, the Democrat from New York, found out on Thursday, when he delivered his resignation following intense pressure from party leaders.
Top Democrats described for JTA the key factors that led to Weiner’s ouster: Their bafflement with the new media Weiner used and misused to send a lewd photo to a 21-year-old fan, his aloof nature and the need above all to introduce bread-and-butter issues like health care back into the news cycle.
“The Democrats need a debate on the issues, and this was a major distraction,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a public relations consultant who works with the Democratic National Committee. “Even if you’re a huge Weiner fan, he has to be sacrificed so we can get back to this agenda.”
The measure of Weiner’s loneliness in the Democratic caucus was evidenced not just by the party leaders who cut him off, but also by how many of them were his co-religionists.
Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.) was the first Democrat to call for Weiner’s resignation. She was followed by Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the DNC’s chairwoman, the party’s top position. Also weighing in against Weiner was Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), the veteran Detroit-area pol and one of the most widely respected members of his caucus. All are Jewish.
Among the only Jewish members to come out defending Weiner was Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who also represents a New York City district.
“Congressman Weiner was extremely bright, extremely intelligent, he could articulate the issues very well and dramatize them,” Nadler told Talkingpointsmemo.com. “Anytime you lose that kind of talent it’s a loss.”
The 10 days that it took to persuade Weiner to step down, the venue he chose to make the announcement—the Sheepshead Bay home for the aged where he announced his intention to run 20 years ago—and his confident, self-affirming tone suggested that he believes his political career is not over.
“I have never forgotten my neighbors because they represent the same middle-class stories as mine,” he said. “The story of New York is my story.” He said he would look for “other ways to contribute my talents.”
Pundits said Weiner’s dream of becoming mayor of New York City was dead. Rep. Israel told CNN that talk of a political comeback was premature.
“The only kind of recovery that Anthony Weiner is concerned about based on the conversations I had with him is in his personal recovery,” he said.
The very qualities that made Weiner a media star served to alienate others, insiders said. His outspokenness helped guarantee him face time on the cable news networks. One insider said others in the caucus were jealous of the attention Weiner regularly garnered.
Weiner’s aloofness did not help. Weiner did not make appearances at the routine party get-togethers, including those that draw the unofficial Jewish caucus.
“He was happy with his own way,” is the way one top Democrat put it. “He did his own thing,” another said.
Officials did not want to be identified by name because of the party’s eagerness to put the Weiner scandal behind them, particularly in media coverage.
As much as he tacked to the left on economic issues, the congressman leaned to the right on Israel issues, reflecting the values of his heavily Jewish district, which included parts of Brooklyn and Queens. He directly criticized Obama for the tensions between his government and that of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Weiner is married to Huma Abedin, a Saudi-born Muslim who is a top adviser to Hillary Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state. Abedin is pregnant, and Weiner has said their marriage is intact.
Weiner’s defenders noted that other politicians have survived sexual transgressions. They called the pressures placed on him to resign—which came from Obama as well from as the Republican and Democratic leaderships—hypocritical. Many of the same Democrats calling on him to step down defended President Clinton when he had a real sexual affair—as opposed to the virtual one Weiner seems to have conducted via phone, text and Internet messages—and lied about it. Sen. David Vitter (R-Va.) remains in the U.S. Senate after he was revealed to have frequented prostitutes.
Weiner’s problem for the Democratic leadership was the novelty of his transgression, said a source close to the leadership. According to this account, straightforward adultery or an addiction problem would have been dealt with, but there was an “ick” factor to the photos of Weiner’s excited state circulating around the Internet. “We didn’t know what to do with this,” the source said.
More important than that, however, were Weiner’s initial—and indignant—lies about his conduct, such as blaming hackers for sending the picture that sparked the scandal. It was only the continued leak of additional pictures and exchanges, and the emergence of his interlocutors—who numbered at least six, he finally acknowledged—that led him to apologize and seek treatment.
“I’m here to apologize for the personal mistakes I have made,” he said Thursday, “and the embarrassment that I have caused.”