Weiner’s Dangerous Resignation

The embattled congressman has stepped down after weeks of scandal. Eric Alterman on why the move will only embolden those who practice the politics of personal destruction.

So the word today from Weinerworld is that Huma’s home and Anthony’s out. I think it’s too bad.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no particular love for Anthony Weiner. I appreciated his feisty defense of liberal policies and his willingness to get down in the mud where conservatives in Congress have set up shop, but I was never under the illusion that he was a politician of particular principle. (He was endlessly willing to suck up to right-wing Jews, whether in support of every Likudnik position possible or his ridiculous pretense that Columbia University was a hotbed of anti-Semitism.) And of course, it’s true that his sexting habits were drawing the media’s microscopic attention span away from actually existing issues—for instance, the Republican attempt to use a routine debt-ceiling deadline to try to destroy Medicare—and making the party leadership meshugeneh by portraying Democrats as a bunch of obnoxious, egomaniacal perverts. But panic is never the proper response. Just ask Shirley Sherrod (or Barney Frank, for that matter).

OK, it’s entirely possible that Huma Abedin did not want her pregnancy and the young life of her first child to be dogged by this impossibly crazy and brainless tabloid tidal wave, and so demanded this move. We can all accept Weiner putting his family first. But this cable-induced panic was the wrong weathervane by which to gauge the political situation on its merits. In the first place, it would be over soon, once Weiner took himself out of the news and into “rehab.” Months, and certainly years, from now, this would be little more than a punchline for Old Jews Telling Jokes. (Trust me on this one.) After all, it’s not exactly a story with, um, legs. And Weiner has no constitutional responsibility to concern himself with the nervousness of his colleagues or even the president. I don’t mind those folks grandstanding for the crowd and denouncing perversion, sexting, and all other manner of sinful behavior. But Weiner broke no laws, nor any congressional rules. And hence, when they started making motions to strip him of his committee assignments in order to pressure him to get out, they stepped over a line they should not have crossed.

Keep in mind the two essential facts about this crisis: Weiner’s sexting did not harm anyone (save himself and his wife, and I suppose his parents), and he is the representative of his district’s residents and no one else. Sure, I find his sexual proclivities rather odd—most politicians willing to risk their careers for sex would expect at least a hand job in return, if not a whole harem. (Remember that fellow married to Huma’s boss?) The problem with sex generally is that it is, by definition, embarrassing. That’s why parents try to remember to lock the door when the kids are home. If Weiner discovered a way to fulfill his needs that didn’t involve any actual infidelity—much less the kind of physical harassment so common among powerful men—well, I admit I find it odd, but it bothers me only in the sense that I cannot for the life of me figure out what the attraction is.

Second and more significant, Weiner undertook an oath to represent his district, and if those people don’t mind being represented by a guy who sends out pictures of his penis, they have that right. Certainly, I think Michele Bachmann’s constituents, for instance, have a great deal more to answer for.

I can’t believe I’m reduced to writing these words, but pictures of Anthony Weiner’s penis do not matter—or at least should not matter—to anyone but himself and his poor, pregnant wife. Weakness invites aggression. With their, um, flaccid response to Weiner’s boner, Democratic leaders have emboldened the particularly perverse form of politics of personal destruction practiced by the likes of Andrew Breitbart and his convicted criminal cohort James O’Keefe. This can only result in an orgy of such stories, each one more personally invasive and less relevant to the actual practice of politics than the first one. For these reasons, Democrats will rue the day they ran away from this particular member, instead of inviting him to stand up proudly for the principle of democratic representation without apology or embarrassment … like the, um, cock of the walk.