Spin Cycle

06.01.11

Anthony Weiner's Junk Defense

He doesn’t know if that’s him in the gray underwear? Howard Kurtz on why the congressman’s evasive answers are fueling the media frenzy.

I have just watched a number of respected anchors and correspondents discussing a package that may or may not belong to Anthony Weiner.

It has come to this.

“Is this you?” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked, brandishing said photo.

“You would know if this was your underpants.”

 “Have you ever taken a picture like this of yourself?”

Fox’s Bret Baier: “Is this Twitter picture in question a picture of you?”

“Is there a picture out there of you in your drawers that you are worried about?”

ABC’s Jonathan Karl: “You can’t tell me definitively that is a photo of you or not a photo of you?”

CBS’s Nancy Cordes: “I think any normal person could say with certainty whether a picture was a photo of them or not, whether they had taken a photo of them or not.”

The truth is, they had no choice. The New York congressman’s shifting explanations—his refusal to say whether the bulge seen round the world is in fact his—have stretched this Twitter tale into a weeklong soap opera.

At the outset, I argued that Weiner was entitled to the presumption of innocence. He claimed his Twitter account had been hacked. He insisted that he didn’t send the underwear shot to a 21-year-old Seattle student, who said she had never met the Democratic lawmaker and didn’t think he had tweeted it to her. The guy was married less than a year ago to former Hillary Clinton aide Hume Abedin. He couldn’t be so dumb, could he?

But after listening to Weiner bob and weave and talk about how photographs can be manipulated, and how he’s called in experts to determine whether that is or isn’t his junk, I have to say: he’s not acting very smart. The explanations seem increasingly bizarre. In the court of public opinion, at least, Weiner has forfeited the presumption of innocence.

His continued insistence that some hacker had sent the photo is a bit more suspect in light of his non-denial denials of the other details. The Twitter exchange he had with a porn star sounds a little more incriminating.

It’s the oldest story in Washington: the cover-up—even of a crotch shot—is what trips you up in the end.

If Weiner had confessed from the start, it would not have been a one-day story, not when the perpetrator is a hard-charging congressman widely expected to run for New York mayor when Mike Bloomberg’s term ends. But it would have, forgive me, petered out before long.

Instead, the tangled tale became a cable news and Web fixture precisely because there were so many unanswered questions.

From the moment the tweet was reported on Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government site, conservatives have argued that the liberal media were protecting Weiner, but I think most journalists showed admirable restraint while continuing to report on the story. You don’t want to smear him, or the young woman involved, if it turns out he was pranked.

“I have seen myself labeled as the ‘Femme Fatale of Weinergate,’ ‘Anthony Weiner's 21-year-old coed mistress’ and ‘the self-proclaimed girlfriend of Anthony Weiner,’” Gennette Cordova said. “All of this is so outlandish that I don't know whether to be pissed off or amused, quite frankly.”

Weiner tried to pass the thing off as a practical joke inspired by his last name, hoping the press would move on. That proved to be a spectacular miscalculation, as he must have realized as reporters on the Hill cornered him and challenged his increasingly testy answers.

When Chris Lee, an upstate New York Republican, was caught sending a shirtless photo to a woman on Craigslist, he resigned his House seat within hours. Mark Sanford admitted he wasn’t really hiking the Appalachian Trail. Eliot Spitzer quit two days after the New York Times revealed that he was patronizing prostitutes. John Ensign apologized for having an affair with an aide’s wife, though it took him nearly two years to resign. Arnold Schwarzenegger confessed to fathering a child with his housekeeper after confronted by the Los Angeles Times. None of them mitigated the damage, but they spared themselves the tortured path of continued deceit.

A conspicuous exception was John Edwards, who denied both having an affair with his campaign videographer and fathering her child until he was busted on both counts by the National Enquirer. He now faces possible indictment for misuse of campaign funds.

Sending a young woman a lewd photo is not an impeachable offense, but it is monumentally bad judgment. Saying you’re not sure if that’s you in the gray underwear is unimpeachably stupid.

Yes, the media are enjoying weinergate a little too much. But the congressman has no one to blame but himself.