On June 7, 2011 Democratic Representative Anthon Weiner admitted to sending explicit text messages and photos to six women through Twitter and Facebook. The coverage has been astonishing. Not only does every news service seem to have discussed it in some detail, but Weinergate (a delightful play on words that emphasizes the very littleness of our political catastrophes) has quickly become fodder for television programs and stand-up comedians. Jon Stewart, Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Craig Ferguson, and Jimmy Fallon have all incorporated the scandal into their routines. And in the opening number of the Tony Awards, hosted a couple of days ago, Brooke Shields referred to a man who liked watching her perform so much that he sent a Tweet pic of his crotch, a more oblique, subtle version of what comedians have been doing for the past week. The prevalence of Weiner-related news on entertainment programs and talk-shows, I figure, is an accurate barometer of national interest. If that is true, then my question is this: scandals really are not what they used to be, are they?
Before I launch into my diatribe, I do want to give some additional context. The scandal is not all fun-and-games, after all. Nancy Pelosi has berated Weiner’s conduct, and her problem has more to do with political honesty than personal lasciviousness. Her issue, it seems, is that Weiner was not forthright when confronted about his activities. A Democratic Representative of Pennsylvania, Allyson Schwartz, has called for Weiner’s immediate resignation, but, unlike Pelosi, her reasoning is clearly based on his acts rather than his words. She repudiates his online activities and, according to what can be gleaned from The New York Times, there is little mention of a breach of honesty. President Obama recently weighed in on the issue and suggested that If it was me, I would resign, because public service is exactly that. It’s a service to the public. According to the President’s logic, the representative’s individual actions reflect on his ability to represent his constituency. So he is closer to Pelosi in interpreting Weiner’s actions as obstructing his political effectiveness, than he is to deriding him simply because of his alleged immorality. The last two sources are separate from the political sphere proper and, as such, are my favorite. One is a blogger, a role which does not (in my view) connote legitimacy. Andrew Breitbart, characterized by ABC News and The New York Times as a conservative blogger (is this really a thing?), led the original investigation and confronted Weiner when the possibility of his elicit online activity had been discovered. The other source is a woman who claims to have had an online relationship with Weiner. When asked about her feelings when Representative Weiner sent her pictures of his genitalia this woman, Meagan Broussard, told the reporter that she thought it was risky, real risky.
We are not in the world of poetry and romance. Ms. Broussard would have scoffed the speaker of Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress, who claims that Had we but world enough and time,/This coyness, Lady, were no crime, along with his assertions that she will become ugly and unappreciated unless they have sex soon (lines 1-2). Doubtless, too, there is little similarity between Weiner’s affair and the inter-body sentimentalism of Romantic literature. Laurence Sterne’s Yorick, who traipses around France and Italy touching female hands only to evoke modest blushes, is utterly out-of-place in this environment (A Sentimental Journey, 1768). In twenty-first-century America, Jane Austen’s Darcy and Elizabeth do not circle around each other for three-hundred pages before getting together in the novel’s final chapters (Pride and Prejudice, 1813). No. Now a Representative sends a picture of his penis to a young attractive woman, only to have her respond in a cold, calculated way that has more to do with political danger than sexual attraction. His actions were risky, real risky.
First of all, the poor man. I mean, ouch, that really hurts. Secondly, and more importantly, how should Representative Weiner’s conduct resonate with the American public? To take a step back even further, should it resonate at all, or should the story suffer a quick death after the fifteen minutes of even-William-Hung-got-this-kind-of-attention publicity? If this really is our version of Watergate, then what I can only call American ADD really has done us a gross disservice. By rewarding news programs for covering the most immediately appealing, but frankly irrelevant aspects of modern politics, the American public has made mountains out of molehills.
If anything can be taken away from this political debacle, it is the fundamental question: what is the relationship between a politician’s words and his actions? For someone like Weiner, where is the breach, and when do his lies become the business of the American public? And when does the business of the American public become the business of politicians, like Schwartz, Pelosi, and Obama? I cannot help but think that the Weiner scandal, which seems to have garnered enough political interest and theatrical sex-appeal to render it a persistent national issue, has received far too much attention. I also cannot help but wonder what makes sexual scandal so alluring to spectators with an interest in the political. Why take sex, one of the most individual aspects of life imaginable, and invest it with political value? Obama says that Weiner will be less effective because of the distractions presented by the sex scandal. These distractions, I presume, have nothing to do with the sex itself, but everything to do with the political and media-based coverage of the issue. Maybe, then, something is fundamentally wrong with the Weiner scandal. But, I propose, this thing that is fundamentally wrong concerns the coverage of the story, and not the tweeting of salacious photographs.