06.12.11

Weiner’s Well-Timed Rehab

The embattled New York congressman announced he was taking a leave of absence to deal with his junk mail problem. Eric Alterman on how the move just might save his career.

Will Anthony Weiner become the first politician in American history to be forced out of office in a sex scandal without even getting laid?  This is the question that continues to dominate American politics this weekend—or at least did until Weiner came though with his “Hail Mary” pass on Saturday with his announcement, via spokeswoman Risa Heller, of a short leave of absence from the House of Representatives” in order to  “to seek professional treatment to focus on becoming a better husband and healthier person.” 

It was a genius move, given the vice grip of Democrats’ panic that was rapidly engulfing Weiner like bad weather in a Shakespeare tragedy (if the Bard had been on twitter). Weiner was turning into a kind of radioactive Japanese movie monster version of a liberal Democrat—at least as imagined by the Tea Party types. Being a loudmouth, camera-loving, wise-cracking New York Jew who made Chuck Schumer appear debonair was a good start.  Throw in “lying pervert with a pregnant Moslem wife” and the Weiner/Godzilla creature starts to get so big he’s occupying the entire screen, crushing Democratic electoral hopes with every revealed tweet.

Nancy Pelosi tried it the quiet way at first, but lost patience by Saturday and announced her demand that Weiner take the first train out of Dodge, even though she reportedly knew of his plans to seek treatment during a leave of absence. She left it to the new DNC chair, Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, to unleash (what are for Democrats) the heavy rhetorical guns: “The behavior he has exhibited is indefensible and Rep. Weiner’s continued service in Congress is untenable.” This was already a few days behind the rapidly congealing conventional wisdom. Larry Sabato, who briefly overtook Norm Ornstein as Washington’s top quotemeister a while back, tweeted that this kosher frank “was cooked, done, dressed for the table.”  

Thing is, everyone was demanding that Weiner give up his seat except the people who matter most: his constituents. So as embarrassed as the Democrats might have been to have Weiner’s weiner dominating the news, they were putting themselves in another kind of vice by appearing to ignore the democratic desires of the voters themselves.

Weiner won’t be New York’s next mayor; Rudy Giuliani proved that sex scandals are allowed only after you’re safely in office. But twenty years from now, he might be an effective congressman.

Weiner may have solved everybody’s problem with his “treatment” gambit. It makes those who continue to milk the story look like heartless vultures for harassing a sick man (with a pregnant wife). And it takes the story off the front pages of the tabloids, both in print and on TV. The idea that the scandal itself is not survivable is nonsense. Barney Frank—another fast-talking acerbic Jew from the outer boroughs—survived a far more incriminating scandal involving a male prostitute working out of the basement of his own home in times that were far less accustomed to such behavior those we live in today. Frank went on to become one of the Democrats’ most respected and admired elder statesmen.  I recall similar demands from pundits that Frank resign immediately, but again, his constituents decided they preferred to forgive and forget.  If Weiner can tough out the coming week—and put a final period on timelines like this one he’ll be home free. He won’t be New York’s next mayor; Rudy Giuliani proved that sex scandals are allowed only after you’re safely in office. But twenty years from now, he might be an effective congressman. And who knows? Maybe one day Oscar Meyer will name a hot dog after him….