December 8, 2019

Should Anthony Weiner get a second chance?

In a pointed and deeply personal profile by Jonathan Van Meter for the New York Times Magazine, former congressman Anthony Weiner and his wife, Huma Abedin offer an account of life from the “post scandal playbook” — that is, from the trenches of their private life following Weiner’s very public political disgrace.

For those who were out of town that spring: It was May 2011 when Weiner pressed send on that “one fateful tweet,” as he calls it, accidentally tweeting a picture of his  boxer-clad package to nearly 45,000 followers. Soon after that, further revelations of his sordid online life led to a fallout that nearly wrecked his marriage and his political prospects. Weiner explained his lubricious carelessness thusly:

For a thoughtful person, it’s remarkable how little thought I really gave to it until it was too late. But I think a lot of it came down to: I was in a world and a profession that had me wanting people’s approval. By definition, when you are a politician, you want people to like you, you want people to respond to what you’re doing, you want to learn what they want to hear so you can say it to them.

One can only have so much empathy for the affliction of narcissism, though his candor is admirable, however belated. Time, as we know, is a great healer, and in the nearly two years since Weiner's boneheaded bravura, he and his family have come to grips with his gaffe: Weiner now sees a shrink, has become the primary caregiver for his 13-month-old son and weeps with desperate gratitude over his wife's forgiveness.

Prior to the scandal, Abedin admitted that the couple had not spent more than 10 consecutive days together since they had been married. When she became pregnant, they took an otherwise unprecedented two-week trip to Europe. “That was the longest period of time we’d ever spent together,” she told Van Meter. “Later, when we thought about it, we didn’t realize that so much of our lives were kind of these snippets of, we see each other for a few days and then are separated.”

As is often the case with the highly ambitious, especially those who zealously pursue political careers, both husband and wife were so myopically-invested in their work, family life was relegated to a limited realm. Until, ironically, their marriage was tested.

Abedin said that she did not make her choice to forgive Weiner “lightly.” But since granting him the second chance he both wanted and needed, he told the reporter that this time, “I’m trying to make sure I get it right.”

And what does that mean? According to Van Meter:

He seems to spend much of his time within a five-block radius of his apartment: going to the park with Jordan; picking up his wife’s dry cleaning and doing the grocery shopping; eating at his brother Jason’s two restaurants in the neighborhood. This is what happens after a scandal: Ranks are closed and the world shrinks to a tiny dot. It is a life in retreat.


It is also a life lived among family, from which there is no retreat — especially when you share the home corner-office. 

Last week, I asked the writer and educator Erica Brown, who currently serves as the scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, about qualities of leadership. She reiterated the teaching of the 19th century German rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who believed that behavior within a family determines how individuals will behave within community. For Hirsch, this notion is supported by the order of the Ten Commandments, which he divided into two categories: the first five relate to God, and the second five relate to man. The turning point, Hirsch taught, is the fifth commandment: Honor thy father and thy mother. Why? Brown explained: “Because your parents really are the microcosmic form of authority in your life, and they will teach you how to see God as an authority in your life.”

Respect for authority is a pre-requisite for leadership; if one does not adhere to the concept of authority, then leadership is meaningless. And without the humility to recognize forces beyond one’s control, any leader may become vulnerable to the bottomless needs of their ego (see: Weiner, Spitzer, Clinton, Kennedy et al.).    

Family, then, in the way Hirsch sees it, becomes not only a moderating force but a model. “There’s this sense of family being the determinant of how you’ll function in community and it’s meant to prepare you for that,” Brown said. But, she added, “Today we don’t think of leadership that way.” The biblical ideal does not translate particularly well in most of American politics where there is tendency to separate the private individual from the public figure. “And as a result, we have loads of politicians who are not fidelitous [sic] to their spouses and that is somehow separate from their relationship to leadership. We kind of atomize that they lead in one arena and they may not be moral exemplars in another.

“But what if we looked at someone and said, ‘Who are you in all these different situations? What is your identity in the boardroom, in the bedroom, in the playroom, in the family room, in your volunteer context; who are you?’ How can you create a more holistic identity so that you’re leading in any place you are?”

Weiner may be learning this lesson in reverse. He began his career as a dazzling boy wonder who whizzed into political office at 27 with all that blustery boy swagger only to become unglued by 46.  Van Meter tells us, his “pugilistic political persona bled into his personal life and made him, ‘hard to take,’” — that last quote courtesy of his brother, Jason Weiner. 

Only now, at 48, after a humiliating collapse is he confronting the demons of his discontinuous personality and beginning the work of the family. Stripped of her political power role, he is taking turns as husband, father, friend, brother.

It can be granted that Weiner’s lachrymose lament does seem genuine (he refers to himself as an idiot three times in the story), but no remorse is entirely selfless; the need for redemption undergirds repentance. And with a New York City mayoral race  around the corner, and apparently some valuable campaign matching funds set to expire soon after that, Weiner has his eye on returning to politics. Private penitence, it seems, is incomplete without public absolution.

According to the article:

[H]is political committee spent more than $100,000 on polling and research by Obama’s longtime pollster, David Binder… The focus of the poll, Binder says, was the question “Are voters willing to give him a second chance or not, regardless of what race or what contest?”

Barring something truly egregious (which, let’s face it, an explicit tweet is not), Judaism teaches that both God and man are inclined towards second chances. Every year on Yom Kippur, Jews repent their sins and repair broken relationships in order to restore themselves to dignified living.

Still he says, “I want to ask people to give me a second chance. I do want to have that conversation with people whom I let down and with people who put their faith in me and who wanted to support me. I think to some degree I do want to say to them, ‘Give me another chance.’”

He deserves a chance to do that teshuva, literally “return” in Hebrew — a return to fidelity, to rectitude, to goodness and wholeness. Perhaps his reconciliation with his family will prove edifying in his political life. Could error, struggle and salvation accord him the gift of better leadership?

Maybe. As Weiner said of the polling results on his character, “People are generally prepared to get over it, but they don’t know if they’re prepared to vote for me. And there’s a healthy number of people who will never get over it.”