Will Anthony Weiner Mount a Political Comeback?

Weiner is acting like he might run for something again. Can he follow the likes of David Vitter, Barney Frank, and Bill Clinton and win a second act? Michelle Cottle looks at the precedents.

New York Daily News Archive / Getty Images

How adorable is this?

The upcoming issue of People magazine features a chat with disgraced New York ex-congressman Anthony Weiner—driven from office last summer over his naughty habit of texting pics of his package to strange women—as well as Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, the drop-dead gorgeous deputy chief of staff to Hillary Clinton.

The piece is sweetness and light: Weiner talking about their 6-month-old son, Jordan’s, first steps; Abedin gushing about how Anthony does all the laundry and “has spent every day since [the scandal] trying to be the best dad and husband he can be.” The spread could be dismissed as little more than an excuse to run a heart-warming photo of the happy family. Except…

For the past week or so, the New York media have been floating reports that Weiner is itching for a return to politics, possibly even a run for mayor next year. Friends and staffers say he misses the game. And it has been noticed that, after months of media silence, the former congressman has been popping up (and piping up) in a smattering of outlets. For his part, Weiner told People that he currently is “not doing anything to plan a campaign,” but the magazine noted that he remained “noncommittal” about rejoining the fray in the future.

Welcome to the early stages of the Anthony Weiner Political Rehabilitation Tour.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed, “There are no second acts in American lives.” This, of course, is total bunk—even within the supposedly unforgiving field of politics.

Oh, sure, plenty of pols behave so appallingly (ex-Rep. Mark Foley’s pursuit of young House pages) or ridiculously (ex-Sen. Larry Craig’s “wide-stance” defense) that they are driven from the business altogether. Others suffer a nasty twist of fate that balloons their garden-variety misbehavior into a superscandal. (Think ex-Rep. Gary Condit, whose romp with young Chandra Levy landed him in the eye of a murder probe when the Hill intern went missing.)

In many cases, however, a savvy lawmaker can rise from the ashes of even a seemingly fatal scandal. Not in a pathetic Eliot Spitzer, persuade-desperate-network-execs-to-give-you-a-talk-show way, but in a triumphant restoration of political prowess. If Weiner is indeed hoping for a rebirth, he would do well to study how some of his noteworthy predecessors managed such a feat.

Without a doubt, shamelessness is requirement No. 1. How else could these guys face their friends and family ever again, much less ask the American people to let them keep running things? Almost exactly five years ago, Sen. David Vitter showed up in a brothel owner’s little black book. What did he do? Held a press conference at which he and, better still, his wife informed America that this was a private matter and scolded the media for their nosiness. Vitter then shuffled on back to the Senate as if nothing had ever happened. And there he sits still today.

Indeed, when the going gets tough, having a tough spouse standing up for you (as opposed to standing weepy-eyed and red-nosed behind you) can be a major asset. Arguably, Hillary Clinton remains the reigning champion in this department. How many times did she bail out Bill’s sorry butt? Hillary was so effective that not only did she save Bill’s political career, she went on to become the most respected woman on the planet, cheered by Democrats and Republicans alike. (Though, apparently, not so beloved among certain segments of the Egyptian populace.) So what if she didn’t wind up president? It’s a thankless gig, and at this point Hillary is bigger than politics. To paraphrase John Lennon, she’s damn near bigger than Jesus.

Having a constituency that accepts you for who you are, warts and all, is invaluable. In the late 1980s, Rep. Barney Frank found himself in a tough spot when it was discovered that his housemate—a male prostitute Frank originally had met through a sex ad—had been running an escort service out of the congressman’s apartment. Frank pled ignorance of his companion’s illegal activity, copped to the embarrassing roots of their relationship, and refused to resign.

Frank did more than survive; he thrived. But it took literally decades for him to achieve full redemption, requiring patience and determination on his part. Smart as a whip and mean as a honey badger, the fallen congressman gradually worked his way back up the House ladder. By 2007, he was chairman of the financial services committee, where he presided over Congress’s efforts to deal with the subprime mortgage disaster.

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In the resurrection of Newt Gingrich, endurance and shamelessness played equally important roles. After a political ascent that installed him as the first Republican House speaker in four decades, Gingrich crashed back to earth thanks to a toxic combo of arrogance (that government shutdown did not help his party’s Republican brand), an ethics reprimand (using a tax-exempt college course for political purposes turned out to be a no-no), and a long-term affair with then–Hill staffer Callista Bisek (now the third Mrs. Gingrich). Leaving office after the 1998 midterms, Gingrich spent the next decade-plus writing books, consulting, and speaking. A few years back, he started making noises about a presidential run. This year, with much of the GOP longing for someone to stop Mitt Romney, he went for it. Did he ultimately topple Romney? No. But his fiery, in-your-face debate performances made him a political star once more.

Among the most impressive comebacks of modern politics was that of Marion Barry, D.C.’s infamous “mayor for life.” In early 1990, the then second-term mayor was caught on video by the FBI smoking crack in a cheap motel with an ex-girlfriend turned informant. (Thus was born the immortal phrase: “The bitch set me up.”) But within a year of wrapping up his six-month prison stint, Barry won a seat on the capital’s city council, followed by a third term as mayor, followed by a return to the council. Despite new scandals of varying shapes and sizes periodically surfacing, Barry has kept the loyalty of his Ward 8 constituents, who love in him in part because of his glaring imperfections.

Of course, Barry’s super-buoyancy has long been fueled by his masterful manipulation of racial grievances in the hyper-racialized climate of Washington. Which points, more broadly, to the restorative value of painting yourself as a victim of overzealous political enemies, a strategy that proved useful time and again both for Barry and for Bill Clinton.

Does Weiner have what it takes to join the pantheon of serious comeback kids? Hard to say. He’s not as charming as Clinton, as smart as Frank, as narcissistic as Gingrich, as … well, let’s just agree that there is only one Marion Barry.

Then again, the behavior that derailed Weiner was, while weird, tame by the standards of political sexcapades. He wasn’t stalking minors or soliciting hookers or trolling for action in public restrooms. He didn’t knock anybody up or hook up with a staffer. Hell, the poor guy didn’t even get laid, so far as we know. He simply couldn’t resist sharing his magnificently photogenic penis with a few special lady friends.

Unfortunately for Weiner, this means there is visual documentation of his perviness floating around the Internet—documentation likely to resurface whenever Weiner himself attempts to. This doesn’t preclude a comeback, but it does complicate one.

Interesting to see whether he can rise to the challenge.