Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer and the death of shame
- 2 August 2013
- From the section Magazine
Sex scandals used to doom a politician. Now, they refuse to back down from evidence of dirty deeds. Have we reached a new age of American politics?
With the volume turned down, the latest campaign advertisement from Anthony Weiner feels more like a hostage video.
He looks tired and haggard, as if he has not slept or eaten properly for days.
Mired in a scandal of his own making, the 48-year-old former congressman appears close to breaking point, a man at the end of his tether.
His message, though, is defiant - almost comically so in the circumstances.
"Sometimes people say to me, 'this campaign is pretty rough, you may want to quit,'" he reflects.
"Quit isn't the way we roll in New York City. We fight through tough things. We are a tough city. There are people all around New York City who get up in the morning with a pretty tough day ahead of them - and they don't quit."
In many ways, of course, the mayoral candidate is right.
New York is, indeed, a tough city. But it's Weiner, rather than the newspaper editors and politicians whom he criticises for misunderstanding New York, who is surely misreading the city's mood.
It is not so much that voters here are shocked by his behaviour. It is more that they are bewildered. How does Weiner think he can possibly survive a second sex scandal that so closely resembles his first?
As anyone who has walked past a newsstand in New York over the past 10 days knows all too well, the latest Weiner sexting scandal feels like a re-run of the one that forced him to resign from Congress in 2011.
Tabloid reporters, who appear to be paid by the double entendre, have revelled in the tawdry details and their effect on his "limp campaign".
There was the graphic, pornographic imagery of the messages he exchanged on a chat site with a young woman. And what of his cartoonish nom de plume Carlos Danger, which could almost have been invented with an impending media feeding frenzy in mind.
What made these details all the more sensational was the timing: Weiner's online affair had started only months after he resigned from office, when he was supposed to be rebuilding his marriage and seeking therapy.
Before the most recent scandal broke he was leading in the mayoral polls. It seemed as if New Yorkers were prepared to give him a second chance. But not a third.
He has slumped in the polls and his campaign is in disarray. At the weekend, his campaign chief resigned.
His head of communications also made the mistake of becoming a story. Recently she launched into an expletive-laden tirade directed at a former Weiner intern who had revealed behind-the-scenes details to the press.
But Weiner battles on.
Of course, the disgraced former congressman is not the only New Yorker looking to make a political comeback.
Eliot Spitzer, who five years ago resigned as the governor of New York following revelations that he patronised prostitutes, is attempting to become the New York City comptroller, its chief fiscal officer.
Spitzer's campaign has so far gone smoothly, and the polls suggest that voters think he's ripe for rehabilitation.
He served five years in the political sin bin. He is seeking a lesser job. He also conveys what feels like genuine contrition. His second campaign ad was particularly effective.
"Look, I failed big time," he says. "I hurt a lot of people."
Certainly, Americans are more forgiving than they used to be when it comes to sex scandals.
Here, the impeachment of Bill Clinton, following his affair with the White House intern Monica Lewinsky, was a turning point.
Despite Republican attempts to force him from office, he ended his scandal-punctuated presidency with the highest end-of-term approval rating on record.
By then, Clinton had already dubbed himself the Comeback Kid after being runner-up in the 1992 New Hampshire Democratic primary election, weeks after revelations of extra-marital affairs which many believed would finish his presidential ambitions.
Americans also know that some of their most beloved presidents, from Thomas Jefferson to Franklin Delano Roosevelt to John F Kennedy, were sinners rather than saints.
More recently, a former governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford, has followed the path of forgiveness back into office. After an affair with an Argentine woman, he was re-elected as a congressman last year.
As with Spitzer, it helped that he sought a lesser office.
What makes Weiner different is that he's a repeat offender, and he may not have demonstrated sufficient repentance for his sins.
As he vows to continue with his campaign for mayor, he appears to be testing the old adage from the gothic politics of Louisiana: it is possible to survive anything other than waking up with a dead woman or live boy.