Most of you are more likely to recognise former Democrat New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner when shown a photo of his underwear than one showing his face.
Does that say more about our media or Anthony Wiener?
Weiner, the subject of this documentary by Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg, seeks to answer this and innumerable other questions about the nature of modern politics and the demands placed upon those who seek to represent us, for good or bad. And given the current uncertainty (not to mention the ‘Thick of It’ inspired agendas) we’re all experiencing, the timing couldn’t be better.
First up, it must be said that Anthony Weiner is a superb politician. The kind of politician many of us hope for when we visit the ballot to vote for our elected representative. An alumnus of New York’s public school system, Weiner spent his early career beating the drum for the disenfranchised across the city’s poorer districts and was famed for his uncompromising rants about single payer healthcare in the House of Representatives. He was a leading contender in the 2011 New York Mayoral elections when he accidentally tweeted the aforementioned picture of himself in an aroused state.
Given that there are less than three inches (see what I did there?) between the button you press for general tweeting and the Direct Message window, combined with the technophobic fog that tends to close in around anyone born before 1970, it’s amazing we’re not more regularly exposed to this sort of thing. Sadly for Anthony Weiner, while the odd footballer and C-list celebrity can be relied upon to be ‘accidentally’ flash their junk at any given moment, a controversial politician doing it is still rare enough for the alert level to rise to five on the Phivolcs volcano scale.
The media went ape shit. The first ten minutes of the documentary is essentially footage of the fallout, including (but not limited to) the now customary ribbing on late night satirical talk shows, crass newspaper headlines, posses of paps following his every move and intense scrutiny on his marriage.
In the early stages of the backlash, it could be argued that if Weiner had come clean about the whole indiscretion, which, let’s remember, was texting adult women pictures of his junk, he may have fared better. But by that point, he could have probably argued that it was nominative determinism at work and come out with more of his reputation intact. The fact that he hemmed and hawed, denied it was him and then, eventually, admitted it, does not cast him in a positive light and contributed significantly to the eventual collapse of his Mayoral campaign.
By contrasting the effect on his public life with the impact on Weiner’s private life – specifically his wife Huma Abedin – the documentary makers leave little ground for sympathy for the man to proliferate.
And yet somehow, it does.
Maybe it’s Huma’s dignity. An aide to Hillary Clinton during the latter’s campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2008, Abedin is an incredible diplomat and it would be both insulting to her and wildly misguided to insinuate she stayed with Weiner because she benefited from his position in public life. Indeed, the reverse is true. If he doesn’t consider himself extremely fortunate that she’ll give him the time of day, he’s more of an idiot that the film gives him credit for.
But, for me, at least, it’s nothing more than the fact that Weiner is so fantastically good at representing his voters. During one particularly powerful scene, Weiner is expressing nerves about a public meeting he is required to attend in City Island. By this point he’s been busted twice for sending inappropriate photos of himself to women who aren’t his wife and his political reputation is in tatters. He knows he’s going to be hammered but does it anyway and by simply facing up to his misdemeanours, taking responsibility and arguing his case that the people should have the right to decide for themselves whether they want him as their elected representative or not, he turns an almost completely hostile crowd into a support crew within ten minutes.
Which begs the question, where does professional responsibility end and private life begin? Are politicians entitled to a private life or is their conduct within that indicative of wider failings? Should Anthony Weiner be excluded from politics because he sent photos of himself to a woman who wasn’t his wife?
It’s a tough tough question, but with the line between personal and private increasingly smudged by social media, one we’re going to have to engage with at some point.
An easier way to frame the question might be appropriate. How about: In an ideal world, no, Anthony Weiner’s indiscretions would not not be outweighed by his talent, nerve and guts. In a world where Donald Trump is the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee for the US presidency?
I’ll take Weiner every day. And twice on Sundays.