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Anthony Weiner and Us

books and culture

Anthony Weiner and Us

A new documentary about the former Brooklyn congressman and mayoral candidate points up the vapidity of New York City politics. June 1, 2016
Arts and Culture
Politics and law
New York

Take the sex—or the lack of it—out of the new Anthony Weiner documentary and you have something far more compelling, and bleaker. Weiner, directed by Elyse Steinberg and former Weiner staffer Josh Kriegman, is a story about New York City’s 2013 mayoral race, the contest that gave us Mayor Bill de Blasio. The movie reminds us that the election lacked any deep discussion of real issues—and the city suffers for it today.

Weiner resigned from Congress in 2011 after his Twitter blunder exposed the fact that he and multiple female “pen pals,” as he calls them, had privately exchanged sexually explicit messages and photos. In resigning, he showed that he had more integrity—or less media stamina—than politicians such as former Louisiana senator David Vitter and former Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank. Both men stayed put after prostitution scandals involving real sex with real people. Weiner’s 2013 try for the Democratic nomination for mayor, which the film chronicles, was his chance at public rehabilitation. “To clean up the mess that I had made, running for mayor was the straightest line to do it,” he says, without explaining the reasoning behind this conclusion.

To try to avoid having “my scandal,” as he calls it, overwhelm everything else, Weiner stuck fast to the issues—and it’s worth revisiting them, as the movie allows us to do. Weiner’s biggest strength in running for mayor, Weiner reminds us, was that he represented a classic constituency, the same one that elected mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. Weiner spoke to those voters slipping from what he called the “decaying foundations of middle-class life in the Big Apple.” His smaller-bore policy ideas reflected this strategy. He understood that middle-class New Yorkers had quality-of-life concerns. He said, for example, that he would end tourist-helicopter flights over the city, reducing noise for hundreds of thousands of people. Weiner was relatively nuanced, too, on the issue of the NYPD’s stop, question, and frisk tactic. He notes on a campaign stop that one reason to reduce stops—something the Bloomberg administration was already doing—was to make younger black residents more comfortable about approaching the police with crime complaints and tips.

The film also captures Weiner talking about his most intriguing policy proposal, one that had the potential to change the tone of the Democratic primary. Speaking of New York’s public-sector workforce, he tells voters that “every dollar available for salaries is being eaten up by healthcare costs.” This was true. By 2013, employee and retiree health-care expenditures and other “fringe” benefits were costing New York taxpayers $8.9 billion annually, up from $4.9 billion a decade earlier. (Next year, they’ll cost taxpayers $9.9 billion.)

To address this crisis, Weiner proposed asking city employees to pay a portion of their own health-care costs. The other candidates, terrified of the public-employee unions, wouldn’t dare float such an idea. They instead stuck to their line that they wouldn’t negotiate union contracts in public. The press should have pushed them to take a position on the issue.

Weiner’s idea to make union members pay more didn’t cost him politically. He led in early polls. In the movie, we see him romp through the real work of campaigning: not policymaking or explaining, but having the energy to get through dozens of city parades, press interviews, and neighborhood town halls, plus all the car rides, phone calls, and pizzas in between.

We get an inside look, too, at campaigning’s hardest task: the soul-deadening work of fundraising. Both Weiner and his wife, Huma Abedin, then and now a top Hillary Clinton aide, are seen dialing for dollars. We see the cynicism behind the flattery. “You’re a leader in the community so they’re willing to listen to you,” says Weiner via phone to one unseen potential donor. “Are you married?” Weiner asked one target. A married couple can give $9,900 instead of $4,950. The candidate who won the election—Bill de Blasio—excelled at making such calls. We’re seeing the results now: the mayor has acted on goals that top donors pushed, from trying to ban horse carriages to finessing real-estate deals.

A new set of “sext” messages crippled Weiner’s campaign. After Weiner announced his run, Sydney Leathers, one of Weiner’s pen pals, leaked her dirty exchanges with Weiner—or “Carlos Danger,” as he ludicrously called himself—to a website. She then decided that it would be a good career move to come to New York and tell the world—in between self-deprecating giggles—about her text-ventures with Weiner the previous year, after he had resigned from Congress. Make no mistake: voters understandably refrained from voting for a candidate who engages in compulsively risky behavior after similar behavior has already ruined his Congressional career. And both voters and the press were understandably angry with Weiner for having lied about when he stopped engaging in this behavior.

Still, though, reporting and commenting on the news often crossed the line into plain meanness. Weiner is right to note that acting morally superior to a person who has e-mailed photographs of his penis to female strangers is “not that hard, and I just don’t respect it all that much.” Anchors and journalists went well beyond reporting the news so that voters could make up their own minds. MSNBC anchor Lawrence O’Donnell, for example, eerily tells Weiner in an interview that, “I’m looking at the totality of your life,” as if he were omniscient.

At one press conference, Weiner gets no questions from the press on the topic at hand (a “nonprofit czar,” probably a silly idea). Reporters only want to badger him about how many women he sexted, as if the voters hadn’t heard enough. Weiner compares his relationship with the press to that of the scorpion and the frog. The frog agrees to carry the scorpion across a river, but the scorpion stings the frog halfway across, even though they will both drown. The scorpion just does what is in his nature. The voters, though, should also have a say. At another event, in the Bronx, a woman exhorts the press to stop asking Weiner about the texts. Instead, she says, she wants to hear what he has to say about housing in the Bronx.

Weiner’s sexting scandals effectively made him a superficial candidate, but others ran superficial campaigns, too. The movie shows a debate in which Democrat John Liu and Republican George McDonald spend more than a few minutes criticizing Weiner’s morals rather than putting forth their own policies. “I’ll contrast my values with Anthony Weiner’s values any day of the week,” says McDonald to a chorus of boos. Liu, as city comptroller, well-positioned to talk about the fiscal pressures the city faces from its union contracts, instead promised that he wouldn’t be taking pictures of himself at night. Running on his “tale of two cities” theme, de Blasio won. Nearly three years later, New York is just as unequal as ever—and we’re not saving the money we need to make the right investments in transit and elsewhere, to improve the city’s quality of life.

While few passed up a chance to condemn Weiner for his self-involvement and self-destructiveness, comparatively fewer noted the cruelty of someone like Sydney Leathers—an adult woman who engaged in private interactions with an adult man and then chose to violate his confidence in order to harm him. In the movie, she says blithely of Weiner’s mayoral-race comeback that she “ruin[ed] that for him, so, sorry, except I’m not.” At Howard Stern’s behest, she chose to stalk Weiner at his election-night headquarters, preventing his wife from accompanying him to his speech. Why would one human being choose to humiliate another in such a fashion? Leathers still does porn movies as a result of the notoriety she gained. “I hate bullies,” Weiner says. He has a point, the viewer thinks, as the filmmakers watch Leathers chase Weiner through a McDonald’s back entrance and up the stairs of the Manhattan office complex where he will give his concession speech.

New York’s Democratic voters didn’t think that Weiner was their best mayoral choice. But the Upper West Side audience in whose company I attended Weiner two weekends ago laughed hardest, not at Weiner’s antics and the headlines and visuals they produced, but at an image of then-candidate de Blasio marching grimly in a pre-election parade. They groaned, too, at the film’s final scene: de Blasio taking the oath of office in January 2014. De Blasio doesn’t appear to have a sexting problem, but he’s a poor mayor—and his own burgeoning scandals should remind us that lust is not the only fatal character flaw.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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