Now that Huma Abedin, soignée aide to Hillary Clinton, is leaving Anthony Weiner following his latest sexting scandal, there is no longer a fig leaf of public justification for prying into his sad compulsions. It is time to give him the privacy he can’t seem to decide if he actually wants.
I’ve felt bad for Weiner since his sexual exhibitionism was first exposed to the world five years ago. Unlike, say, Eliot Spitzer, Weiner broke no laws and betrayed no one but his wife.* There wasn’t even an allegation of hypocrisy, since as a politician Weiner was no puritan. The justification for the scandal lay partly in the fact that he was reckless enough to risk a scandal, which always seemed rather recursive. It never made sense to me that Weiner had to step down while the socially conservative David Vitter, who was linked to a prostitute and rumored to have a diaper fetish, stayed in the Senate. Weiner’s greatest sin wasn’t that he had online sex, but that he was caught red-handed looking ridiculous.
It’s not that Weiner was an otherwise admirable politician brought down by a weird sexual peccadillo. He was an ineffective grandstander with a reputation as a bad boss who was brought down by a weird sexual peccadillo. At Business Insider, Josh Barro aptly described him as the Ted Cruz of the left, a man who annoyed his congressional colleagues with big gestures on issues such as single-payer health care, riling up his base while acting as an impediment to useful legislation. One reason Weiner had to resign from Congress in the wake of his sexting scandal is that he’d alienated too many of his fellow lawmakers, leaving them unprepared to stand by him through the media tempest.
Even jerks, however, don’t deserve the sort of gleeful public shaming visited on Weiner. It was enough to almost—almost—make me root for him when he was running for New York City mayor, simply as a victory for second chances. And then, in the midst of that race, he lost his chance at redemption with yet another sexting scandal. It was excruciating to watch even before the documentary Weiner gave us an intimate look at a man slowly realizing that he’s condemned to be a punch line for the rest of his public life.
It shouldn’t surprise any of us that Weiner, a man with a bottomless need for affirmation, was unable to give up virtual sex in the aftermath of his first epic humiliation, before his attempt at a comeback was fully underway. Think of your worst habit, your most shameful vice. Imagine trying to quit it immediately after losing your job, at a time when your marriage is uncertain and your professional future bleak. Nor should it surprise us that, with his most cherished ambitions thwarted, he’s still trading naughty pictures on the internet. Shame rarely makes people better than they were.
There appears to be some sort of half-conscious masochism at work here: The woman at the center of Weiner’s most recent sexting scandal is reportedly a Donald Trump supporter, and Weiner had to have suspected that she would sell him out. Maybe on some level he missed the public attention, no matter how negative. Maybe he just has an impulse for self-destruction. Either way, the media is all too eager to help.
One slim reed of public justification for this renewed bout of interest in Weiner’s virtual sex life is that his young son was in one of the pictures. Apparently the boy climbed into his bed late at night while he was messaging with the Trump supporter; Weiner sent her a photo in which his erection shows through his underwear while the boy lies next to him. “Daddy sexts while taking care of tot,” announced the cover of the New York Post, which published the picture with the boy’s face pixelated. Online, Weiner is being accused of child abuse. “Man needs help, shouldn't be around kids,” tweeted Luke Russert.
I certainly don’t want to defend what Weiner did: Having your child walk in on you during sex is no crime, but Weiner’s decision to take a picture juxtaposing the boy’s unknowing innocence with his own arousal is disturbing. Still, if this picture is so lewd that it justifies separating a parent and child, perhaps the Post shouldn’t have put it on the cover. As long as the boy was oblivious to what his father was doing, he was unharmed. The picture can only damage him because it was made public, and the only reason it was made public was to put a moralistic gloss on another round of jeering at Weiner.
I don’t begrudge anyone his or her interest in goofy Weiner and his glamorous wife; once you’ve consented to a documentary that’s largely about your marriage, you can’t blame people for wanting to follow new developments. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this story is a tragedy as well as a farce. We’re watching a lonely man undone by his inability to resist the furtive gratifications he finds on the internet, even as people on the internet laugh and laugh.
Correction, Aug. 29, 2016: This post originally misspelled Eliot Spitzer’s first name.