Count me as being in the camp that thinks the press’s fixation on Anthony Weiner’s sexual misdeeds was not worthy of the live cable deathwatch before his latest confessional press conference: in fact, it was the raw equivalent of inadvertently wandering into a pornographic chat-room and the browser breaking down. That’s not to excuse the most brazen or lurid elements of Weiner’s actions, or to venture into the parlor game over what Weiner’s conduct, particularly if it persisted after the implosion of his career, says about his judgment or some other cryptic zone within his psyche.
But I’ll hold onto a broader point that I made over a year ago in the context of a set of similarly unbecoming revelations about a figure decidedly more consequential than Weiner: the late John F. Kennedy, who—if we believe an woman who stayed silent for almost 50 years until a book deal incentivized her—gave Weiner a run for his money in promiscous crudity and unlike Weiner, poached on his own official staff and even shared his spoils with another member of his entourage. My argument, then and now, is that given a choice between trying to extrapolate character from sordid private conduct that gets unmasked and the readily available public record, I’ll take the latter, because it almost always gives off fewer false positives and tells us infinitely more about just how a particular personality would use or misuse power.
In the context of JFK, his public courage on civil rights and forging a détente with the old Soviet Union struck me as more dispositive of what and who he was than the considerable evidence that his presidency would not have survived if the door had come off the hinges of his private life. The opposite is just as true for, oh, several thousand public figures whose private pristineness has never much interfered with their pursuit of enrichment at the public’s expense, or their trading of reelection for the price of failing to lead, or their mediocrity in wasting a role of responsibility out of laziness or disinterest.
Weiner is obviously no Kennedy, and but for highlighting the wrong handle and sending a dirty tweet to the wrong twenty-something, would have stayed stuck in obscurity. Therefore, he is like those thousand or so other mortal politicos who don’t require a deep character dive to understand. In fact, the public profile of the former congressman tells any discerning observer plenty: therein lies the thin record of a legislator of genuine intelligence who still managed to avoid shaping any major bill in the decade or so he spent in the House; who routinely subordinated his hearings and floor time to his cable appearances; and whose penchant for verbally abusing staffers and changing staff leadership was noteworthy even in an environment where petty, whim-driven browbeaters are a dime a dozen.
If Weiner’s “narcissism”, the sin people with keystrokes keep assigning to him, is the fault that legitimizes the dig into his personal misdeeds, there is just as probative an exhibit in the first couple of months of his candidacy for Mayor: the Sunday Times profile that sounded weirdly but exactly like an ex athlete touting how easy it is to get free stuff, and bragging about the sale price of his jersey. And on a routine day, his stump speeches and debate performances have resembled more a mash-up of his extemporaneous speeches on the House floor than any deeply thought out platform for the world’s greatest city. He seems, for example, under the spell that a city that, if it had to keep books like a company would be insolvent, could sustain its own publicly run health insurance program: that, more than his sex talk, is what unmasks him as a fantasist.
I might cut the press voyeurism some slack, and might even justify the elevation to mainstream discourse of a website whose disclaimer mentions that it does not get in the weeds of discriminating between the true and the untrue (I avoid a link in the interest of not abetting their traffic) if dirty messages were actually necessary to unearth the real Anthony Weiner. But they aren’t. And that’s no ad hominem kick on a guy I admit I liked when I served with him: no, it’s instead a sober reflection about going into dark places on the flimsy excuse of finding light.