The sainthood standard
Why we shouldn’t be all that concerned about Weiner’s sexual shenanigans
By Barry Gordon 06/30/2011
The recent pseudo-scandal over Rep. Anthony Weiner’s puerile explorations of Twitter sex has forced me to examine the one question worth discussing about all of this – “Why should I care?” Clearly, pundits, politicians and the 24-hour media channels, as well as numerous editorial writers across the country, tell me that I should care and have offered ample reasons. The truth is that I don’t find any of them persuasive.
If you’re horribly shocked by Weiner’s antics, I can only assume that you haven’t been to the movies lately. The affair (not in a literal sense) has certainly been fodder for the late-night comedy shows — none more hilarious than the dramatic verbatim reading of the R-rated exchanges between Anthony and a blackjack dealer as intoned by Bill Maher and “Glee’s” Jane Lynch — but the truth is I’ve heard and seen far racier stuff in a Judd Apatow film. The level of disgust that was aimed at Weiner was just a little over the top, especially when his actions are compared to former US Sen. Larry Craig’s airport escapades and US Sen. David Vitter’s solicitation of prostitutes, both of which were illegal acts. And I won’t even mention the web of adultery, extortion and bribery that apparently enmeshed former US Sen. John Ensign and could well lead to a criminal indictment (Well, I guess I just did).
“No, no, you don’t get it,” they tell me. “It’s not what he did, it’s the fact that he lied about it.” You’ll have to forgive me if I’m not terribly surprised that people lie about their illicit sexual activities. Not only lie, but twist themselves into pretzels in trying to get out of admitting what they’ve done. I have a vague memory of some Walter Matthau movie in which he’s in bed with a naked woman when his wife walks into the room. When his wife accuses him, he looks blankly at her and says, “What woman?” and then gets up and starts making the bed with the girl still in it. As Henrik Hertzberg said in the New Yorker, lying is “an inherent part” of illicit sexual activity.
“Yes, but if they lie about this, won’t they lie about something else that’s more important?” Maybe. And maybe not. And if they never lie to get out of personal embarrassment, does that mean that they won’t lie about other things? The people in the Bush administration may have been models of marital fidelity, but that didn’t keep them from lying about weapons of mass destruction or the fact that Saddam Hussein had a direct link to al Qaeda. It didn’t keep dozens of Republican congressmen from claiming with a straight face that Obama wasn’t American or that his health care plan included “death panels.”
Perhaps the silliest complaints came from journalists and commentators who, in effect, made the argument that it’s one thing to lie to your wife, but you should never lie to them. As the sentinels of truth, they whine that now they’ll never be able to trust anything Weiner says. As if they ever did. It is the job of the media to question and to doubt the veracity of virtually everything that comes across their desks, and they do it very well. Naturally, every journalist wants to believe that his or her sources are credible. But a healthy skepticism comes with the territory, and do we really think that because Weiner lied about his wiener we can no longer trust him to tell the truth about his position on the debt ceiling?
Finally, I’m told that Weiner “violated his trust to his office.” To his wife, maybe, but his office? The only thing I truly find shocking is the number of Democratic congressmen who wanted Weiner’s head on a platter. Shocking, that is, until I think about the real reason they went after him — to cover their own behinds. Weiner, in the polite jargon of the Beltway, was a “distraction.” In other words, he needed to resign so they could talk about something else, namely their reelection. From a purely partisan point of view, I can see the attraction.
The real problem lies in the willingness of the media and the American people to believe that there is no longer such a thing as privacy for anyone in office. It’s our penchant for treating politicians as though they should have no secrets, no peccadilloes, no personal failings. In other words, people who represent us should somehow be more than human — they should be candidates for sainthood.
That’s a dangerous standard to set. It would have precluded Thomas Jefferson, who may have fathered children with a beautiful mixed-race slave, Sally Hemings. It could have precluded Abraham Lincoln, who, recent scholars have suggested, may have been homosexual or bisexual. It might have precluded Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and possibly the first George Bush, all of whom have been accused of committing adultery (though some accusations are better documented than others). But that was when we had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, when all we wanted to know was whether someone was good at the job for which he or she was elected. Perhaps the real question to answer about Weinergate is not why we should care. It’s why we shouldn’t.
Barry Gordon is the co-host of “City Beat” and teaches political science at Cal State LA.