The Incredible Shrinking Weiner
A stupid, bungled scandal—with no sex!—neuters a Democratic star.
If you get elected to Congress, tweet a photo of your erect penis straining at the seams of your underwear, lie about it, then hold a press conference to confess and say you're sorry, you have to face a lot of uncomfortable questions. So it was that Rep. Anthony Weiner concluded 30 minutes of teary and abject apologies by hearing—and ignoring— this question from Benjy Bronk of Howard Stern's radio show.
"In the gray panty photo, were you fully erect?" yelled Bronk. "Were you fully erect or are you capable of more?"
Weiner, who has one of the more cartoonishly expressive faces in Congress—he looks like Jim Carrey if Carrey had a bar mitzvah—bit his lip and walked off camera. His head was turned down at an appropriately ashamed angle. And why not? One Friday-night Twitter #fail, the sort of mistake that countless Web geeks make every day, and he became the first national politician since Bill Clinton whose penis dimensions are a matter of public record. (Clinton officiated Weiner's 2010 wedding, a fact that was always going to be high up in his biography, and still will be, for entirely different reasons.)
Weiner's disclosure went further than anything he'd been accused of so far. Even so, he insisted that this was a sex scandal with no sex. There's no reason to disbelieve him, apart from the fact that he spent 10 days lying. The picture of Weiner that emerged this week was of a publicity hound who was more concerned with celebrity and status than with actual sex.
"I've engaged in several inappropriate communications with women I have met online," Weiner said. "I've exchanged messages and photos of an explicit nature with these women over the past few years. For the most part, these communications took place before my marriage."
The details of Weiner's online life, as they trickle out, are absolutely pathetic. Based purely on what he's admitted, and what ABC News has confirmed, Weiner spent some real time flirting with female fans, taking photos of his body, and passing them on. We know that Clinton talked on the phone while receiving blow jobs at least three times. Weiner isn't accused of any behavior that interesting, but now everyone who's dealt with him can ruminate: What the hell was he doing as we talked, or after we talked? It's pure humiliation.
Anyone would be embarrassed by what Weiner did. Had a blogger not grabbed the photo quickly, it would have disappeared from the Internet and Weiner would have been safe with his lies. But no one forced Weiner to spend a full week claiming someone had committed a crime against him and assuring reporters that the truth would come out. When ABC's Jonathan Karl asked Weiner, politely, if it was appropriate to follow a bunch of young women on Twitter, the congressman blew up at him.
"It's really outrageous," he said. "The implication is outrageous. First of all, if you ask the question, if it's outrageous, I have a right to say it's outrageous."
It was outrageous. It was true. Reporters are lied to all the time, but these lies stick for the same reason that Weiner got thrills from flirting that he couldn't get any other way.
Weiner's fate isn't up to him—not for a while. House Democrats have asked for an ethics committee investigation, to determine whether he used public resources to carry out his shenanigans. He says he didn't ("I welcome and will fully cooperate with an investigation"), and if he didn't, he'll be exonerated. If every woman he talked to is in her 20s, that's another bullet dodged. He can survive, but he doesn't matter as he did just a couple of weeks ago, as the made-for-cable Democrat who was dogging Clarence Thomas over why his wife's political work didn't show up in financial disclosure forms.
The scandal still matters. And if it ruined the reputation of one man—that would be Weiner—it helped repair another's. Andrew Breitbart, who became a conservative in part because of his respect for Clarence Thomas, saw Weiner drop a stick of dynamite on the ground. He hurled it right back at him. At 4 p.m. on Monday (that's 1 p.m. in Seattle), Breitbart took the podium at the Sheraton where Weiner was about to speak, and fielded 11 minutes of questions about his role in this scandal. The rest of the media, which had showed signs of Breitbart fatigue, has to take him seriously again, after questionable editing and judgment on videos about NPR and Shirley Sherrod. The evidence of Breitbart's return to influence was in the middle of ABC's interview with a 26-year-old woman who communicated with Weiner.
"Breitbart, who first published details of Broussard's story on BigGovernment.com, shared her identity with ABC News."
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of Anthony Weiner by Andrew Burton/Getty Images.