Halfway through Weiner, a documentary about a liberal firebrand congressman and New York City mayoral candidate brought down by two sexting scandals, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell poses to the film’s subject a question beyond answering: “What is wrong with you?” Of course this is the question the audience has also been asking for an hour. But it riles Anthony Weiner just the same, the proposition that there’s something a bit cracked about someone whose busy fingers can’t stop photographing and texting pictures of his private parts to women he doesn’t know while the rest of him is still eyeball deep in the rubble of his career from the last time he did it. Moreover, following the previous scandal, the ongoing 2013 mayor’s race is entirely predicated on voters giving Weiner a second chance. Weiner might be a tragic figure if the behavior weren’t inescapably the fodder of comedians and cocktail party humor, and in Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s documentary, what follows the blowup with O’Donnell is its own revelation: The next morning we see Weiner at home watching the exchange over and over on video, grinning from ear to ear. His remarkably tolerant wife looks at him, shakes her head, and leaves the room.
Let’s place things in context. As venal or egregious or malignant social behavior goes, Weiner’s was pretty softball, though that may not be the best way to put it. Nobody died, nobody broke any laws, nobody was financially ruined. Some might call Weiner’s sexting an abuse of power, but that’s straining the concept—it isn’t clear that Weiner’s role per se as a congressman or candidate had any bearing on what happened—and it isn’t strictly adultery, although others might define it as such in spirit. The truth is that a garden-variety affair may have been forgiven more quickly by the public (if not by the betrayed wife) because an affair would be more easily relatable; what damns Weiner most, besides his last name, is the weirdness factor and his occupation of rarefied moral real estate that manages to be at once creepy and ridiculous. This weirdness taints both the perpetrator as well as everyone in his proximity, including his aggrieved spouse, Huma Abedin (a Washington power player in her own right and an aide to current presidential candidate Hillary Clinton), who some will rather unfairly conclude must be weird, too. More unsettling is Weiner’s view of the sexting as a political problem that needs political management and the extent to which he’s impervious to mortification, not to mention the shame that would overwhelm the rest of us. Moments when he seems genuinely regretful—which isn’t necessarily the same as remorseful—about how the scandals affect Abedin alternate with instances of churlish indignation when she opts to keep her distance. “Right,” he snaps sarcastically. “Someone might think you’re married to me.”
By now it should be old news that politicians aren’t paragons of carnal propriety, weird or otherwise. There’s evidence that the country’s founders, exalted by the more-patriotic-than-thou, had their own passing familiarity with sex. America’s first house genius, Benjamin Franklin, fornicated his way from Philly to Paris. Thomas Jefferson, who had more to do with inventing the American idea than anyone, with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln, had his notorious affair with a slave. Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson’s rival and the rage of Broadway these days, had a prolonged affair with a married woman who blackmailed him. Andrew Jackson had an affair with a married woman, too. Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon Johnson all had mistresses, and between them John Kennedy and Bill Clinton made up for any presidents who didn’t. But if Weiner is a portrait of the political psyche in extremis, it’s also a portrait of our transforming body politic, not in terms of the public’s sexual tolerance but in its evolving interpretation of political character. I’m not being glib when I say that, watching Weiner, I found myself wondering whether a well-known egomaniacal billionaire who’s been running for president in the past year would be fazed by the same scandal in the same way. Donald Trump has done and said things that are, from the standpoint of consequentiality, more outrageous, only to thrive in the process; this is a man who, besides the serial supermodel wives and tabloid infidelities, has made vaguely lascivious comments about his daughter, which seems higher on the creep meter than Weiner’s seminaked photos. For Trump’s followers, a sexting episode in his life would probably just contribute to perceptions of his “strength” and “authenticity.” In other words, a lot of the conclusions that most audiences might have drawn from Weiner even a year ago have been turned on their heads since, the difference being that in his narcissism, Trump brazenly owns his behavior, whereas Weiner can’t bring himself to either own or disown his, despite the apologies and reassurances we watch him rehearse as just one more scene of political theater.
It’s the singer, not the song,” Mick Jagger sang half a century ago. Or in this case, it’s the one who misbehaves, not the misbehavior. In a presidential race focused on what’s called in fascist or communist societies the “cult of personality,” whatever divides our politics from our reality-TV/social-media culture becomes a distinction without a difference—hardly a new observation at this point, just an increasingly inevitable one. People talk about Trump as something that happened to the Republican party, but that’s only if you haven’t been paying attention the last decade or two; otherwise you know the Republican party happened to the Republican party, while “news” outlets have breathlessly covered everything Trump does, particularly during the nearly 20 televised “debates” and “forums” that grew exponentially more preposterous and vicious. Scrambling each week to catch up with the presidential race’s ever-berserk nature, Showtime’s series The Circus is hosted by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, the authors of Game Change, the compulsively readable book about the 2008 campaign that, in retrospect, seems a battle of colossi: an inspirational former prisoner of war, an inspirational African American rising star, an inspirational onetime first lady whose career was the best revenge against a philandering husband. Tellingly, however, the key figure of Game Change—both the book and the 2012 movie based on it—was none of these people. It was a charismatic, photogenic Annie Oakley from the Juneau, Alaska, statehouse who wound up on a national ticket where virtually everyone of all persuasions now agrees she had no business being and who set the tone for presidential politics ever since (this year endorsing Trump).
At its end Weiner asks the other irresistible question besides the what’s-wrong-with-you one, the question that imperils the documentary’s very existence: Why does the candidate continue allowing the filmmakers to record what becomes the crash-and-burn of his political life? As with Trump, Weiner is addicted to the camera’s attention—wherever that camera might happen to be and whatever about Weiner it might happen to be capturing—which so overwhelms every other instinct that only once can he bring himself to ask the crew to leave, when the icy and crestfallen stare of his wife suggests nothing less than a marriage at stake. You can almost see the calculation turn in Weiner’s head. Camera? Marriage? Hmm. By the time these questions collapse into a single deliberation, you recall a moment earlier when the movie offers its greatest insight: Weiner is out bicycling on the Manhattan streets when a passerby at an intersection recognizes him but can’t quite put to his face the name that comes so naturally to another part of his body. She keeps asking who he is. Waiting for the light to turn green, on the verge of running for mayor of the city, Weiner denies he’s anyone at all.