NEW YORK CITY MAY 29, 2013
Images of Anthony Weiner’s face, to say nothing of his other parts, have achieved a certain ubiquity in the last few months—but TV images and newspaper stills don’t do him justice. In the flesh, he is all beak and sharp angles, the narrowness of his cheekbones and shoulders seeming to knife through his surroundings. I spotted him over the winter at Penn Station, in line for a Washington-bound Acela. This was months before Weiner’s comeback announcement, and he was still visibly an exile. He hunched defensively under the weight of a shoulder bag, and though he wore a Mets cap yanked low over his face, you could sense an animal survivalism about him as he shot glances left and right. It was clear that he was desperate to get out of the public waiting area and into the sheltering snugness of a train car. I felt bad for him, the fugitive. This surprised me, because it has long been my policy to hate Anthony Weiner. Now that he was inching back into the mayoral race, my policy was changing.
In 2005, the year of Weiner’s first run for mayor, I worked as the press secretary for Jerry Nadler, the U.S. representative from Manhattan’s West Side. It was my first big-boy job in politics, and it was good fun: We Democrats were a shrunken minority in Tom DeLay’s House, in George Bush’s Washington, and it was exhilarating to work for a liberal bomb-thrower from that distant rebel-held capital. The major downside, I discovered, was that with 13 House members representing New York City, all but one of whom were Democrats, the tug of war for exposure in the hometown papers never let up. The trick was to work in coalitions, and then to wrangle behind the scenes to make sure that your office got the most credit. Generally, this strategy worked fine. But it did not work where Congressman Weiner was concerned.
Having started out as an aide himself, Weiner—known belittlingly as Anthony to all of us who vied with him for attention—was that strange and dangerous hybrid of politician and staffer, at once a miniature of his old boss, Chuck Schumer, and an overgrown press secretary hammering his own message. When he wasn’t in New York battering Freddy Ferrer, Anthony was always on the House floor—shouting, joking, physically reeling in outrage. In the hallways of the Capitol, he was standoffish and brooding. I didn’t know him in any real way, but I would see him frequently enough. While Nadler and Eliot Engel and Gary Ackerman stood around kibitzing about grandkids and the like, Weiner would skulk by on his way to another press conference or histrionic committee-room soliloquy.
There was also the widely discussed rumor that Anthony was an ogler and a skeez, that he would hit on anything with legs. In my eyes, this unreconstructed bro-ishness was only deepened by the fact—frequently touted by Anthony and his people—that his real passion was the recreational hockey league he played in at Chelsea Piers. In a way, he seemed to me some sort of dick-ish, more effective version of the politico I was trying to be: more aggressive, more ambitious, less sensitive to criticism, totally un-self-conscious around women, and for a while there, certain to be mayor—that race or the next. Outrageous.
And yet, eight years later, as a New York City resident, I’m pretty much ready to vote for the guy. How can that be?
First, let’s consider the political context of Anthony’s second run. For years now, we have been prepped for the Student Council election in which head of the class Christine Quinn takes on all comers. “You’ll end up holding your nose and voting for Chris,” one dismayed city operative told me a few months ago, and it definitely looked like I would. While I sometimes find Mike Bloomberg annoying as a national political player, I am exactly the kind of law-and-order square who quietly appreciates his corporatist approach to governing. Quinn’s theory is that I’m supposed to see her as the most direct heir to Bloomberg’s legacy, by virtue of the fact that she worked alongside him for so many years as City Council Speaker.
With Weiner in the race, this theory no longer holds. What makes Bloomberg Bloomberg is his stubbornness, his suppression of political considerations in favor of, as a friend put it, the larger Bloomberg-ian worldview. What I think Quinn and rivals like Bill DeBlasio miss in their constant tacking between interest groups—teachers unions versus school reformers, say—is that the city’s tradition of constituency politics is, broadly speaking, boring, fruitless, and needlessly strident. My own theory is that most New Yorkers are busy as hell and just looking for someone who seems like she or he will have a good idea of what to do at the wheel, while the rest of us scrape together the next month’s rent. They value conviction over human touch. You can trace that thread of personality, and even obstinacy, from Bloomberg to Rudy to Ed Koch, and so on. In this respect, Anthony Weiner is a natural. His sharpest personal contrast with Bloomberg is probably an improvement: Unlike the emotionally distant incumbent, Anthony is, by his own recent admission, desperate to be liked. He gets there, though, not by pandering, but by talking sense.
Take a few minutes to listen to Weiner’s interview last week with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer, one of the City’s tougher interlocutors. Anthony is wonderfully fluid and intelligible, navigating between orthodoxies—not really opposed to standardized testing but uneasy about its proliferation; cognizant of the need for cops to act on their suspicions but largely critical of stop-and-frisk—without appearing to triangulate. I know absolutely zero about the proposal for a waste transfer station at 91st Street, but when Weiner says he opposes it—“I understand the social justice rationale … I don’t see an economic rationale; it’s seems to me more of a talking-point rationale to have the transfer station there”—I’m more than ready to trust him on this one. More support for parochial schools? Sounds good to me. Expanding DNA fingerprinting as a check against wrongful imprisonment? That seems smart, actually. But mostly what I find so appealing about the guy is his rank forcefulness. In the orderly bike-share of the campaign as envisioned by Quinn, Anthony Weiner is the heedless express bus careening down the shoulder. Who could look away?
Still, there is the enormous question of how each of us chooses to process Weiner’s terrible online habits. Is it immoral just to want to forget about it all? Perhaps. But even if we’re forced to relive those episodes in vivid, cotton-bulging detail—as no doubt we will be—the major takeaway for me is what I already knew: The guy’s kind of a dirtbag. I don’t doubt that some people will find Weiner’s past just too unpalatable, and I certainly respect that. But when it comes to forecasting these things, all of us spend too much time wondering whether the generic voter could ever accept thus and such a flaw. The only important question is, could you? Anyone who runs for elected office is, by definition, somewhere on the spectrum of deranged narcissism. We still have to choose one of them.
I don’t think I mistook Anthony in any fundamental way in those years that I worked in his orbit: Even his wife, Huma Abedin, remembering their courtship during the 2008 presidential campaign, told the New York Times Magazine recently, “I would think, My God, he’s such a jerk.” It’s possible, though, that his jerkiness is subsiding just a bit, and that his image is softening, ironically, for the very reason it is reputed to be most offensive. In his earnest, widely discounted quest for the mayoralty, with its attendant rehash of his dalliances, Anthony Weiner may finally be proving that he cares about something beyond Anthony Weiner. There wouldn’t appear be much reason to put himself through all of this, were he simply the vain popinjay I had for so long taken him to be. Yes, it may be that he craves redemption, or just attention, or that his thirst for power is stronger than his sense of shame. But I think I’m okay with that. To me, he seems to care a great deal about the city.
As Weiner’s own brother said of Anthony in the Times piece: “I wouldn’t stand for other people saying this about him, but there was definitely a douchiness about him that I just don’t really see anymore.” For me, it’s not that I don’t see it. It’s that I think I’m finally ready to get over it.
Reid Cherlin is a contributor to GQ and a former White House spokesman.