JUNE 1, 2016
LESS THAN A WEEK before a second sexting scandal ended Anthony Weiner’s political career for good, Howard Dean appeared at a tony Brooklyn bar to help fundraise for one of the former congressman’s rivals in New York City’s 2013 mayoral election. In a moment not captured in Weiner — a documentary about the disgraced politician’s surreal campaign — Dean declared that all of the other Democrats in the race were in a fight to reach a runoff with the improbable front-runner. “He has 100 percent name recognition; he’s not going much higher than that. Everyone knows what the deal is, right?” Dean asked. “But there’s going to be a runoff, and Anthony Weiner is going to be in that runoff. And he’s going to lose that runoff. So what this is is a race to see who gets in the runoff with Anthony. That’s how it’s going to work.”
This was the state of affairs in New York on July 18, 2013, when Weiner, who had resigned from Congress two years earlier after accidentally tweeting a photograph of his crotch, was at the front of the pack, gobbling up media oxygen like some kind of proto-Trump. At that point, Weiner’s redemption seemed like a fait accompli, as voters appeared ready to flock to the charismatic Brooklyn boy with a barnyard chicken’s build, his élan and gusto for vote-getting far outshining any of the other Democrats vying for one of the most prominent elected offices in the United States. As a reporter tasked with covering the mayoral circus, I couldn’t help but root for Weiner because almost all journalists are biased toward a convenient narrative arc, in search of the heroes and villains who can make dull news copy approximate the art of fiction. None of the men (and one woman) running against Weiner had his story, let alone his verve. Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, the documentarians behind Weiner, couldn’t have stitched together such a compelling film about the rise and fall of Christine Quinn, the original mayoral front-runner campaigning to become New York’s first female and openly gay mayor, or Bill de Blasio, the ladder-climbing career operative who Dean stumped for at the Crown Inn that July night.
An imperfect documentary that nevertheless deserves most of its plaudits, Weiner befits our compelling and plenty terrifying political moment. Its limited release began shortly after Donald Trump, a fellow New Yorker, effectively won the Republican nomination and Hillary Clinton, who counts Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, as perhaps her closest aide, moved closer to ending the Democratic contest. Weiner is a center-left Democrat in the Clintonian mold. A wunderkind city councilman who became a congressman at age 34, he voted for the Iraq War and vociferously defended Israel, while rising to liberal stardom for his fruitless fight to make single-payer healthcare a reality. On substance, he and Trump have little in common: One is Tom Wolfe and Sinclair Lewis’s fever dream, a Master of the Universe for the end times; the other is Philip Roth’s, a real-life Alexander Portnoy obsessed with self-exhibition. If Trump is the ultimate media alpha dog, Weiner is the flawed prototype, equally repulsed by and addicted to his notoriety.
As a sly nod to what Americans are grappling with now, Weiner includes a snippet of a 2013 Trump declaring on camera, “We don’t want perverts elected in New York City! No perverts!” The clip, included in a montage of reactions to Weiner’s decision to run for mayor, elicited knowing giggles from the audience. If we’ve reached no consensus on what constitutes the great American novel, we have found our great American politicians in Trump and Weiner. Since goblin-faced Richard Nixon perspired on camera in 1960 and the nation fell in love with John F. Kennedy, we’ve remained trapped in a seemingly permanent era of celebrity politics, a country addicted to election cycle spectacle. Weiner offers plenty of supporting evidence, showing the crush of cameras and microphones that infested his early campaign stops, the breathless newspaper headlines, and the grandstanding of a news media that wanted to play moral arbiter while reveling in Weiner’s transgressions. In one of his quasi-confessionals to the fly-on-the-wall Kriegman, Weiner says as much, blaming the media for wanting to build him up just to tear him down for their own enjoyment and profit. As Weiner and his overwhelmed aides attempt to manage the press horde — his press secretary Barbara Morgan said in a recent interview that cameras frequently thwacked her on the head — the future mayor of New York de Blasio is seen galumphing unmolested through the Israeli Day Parade.
In 1967, Guy Debord presciently defined modern society by way of the spectacle: “The spectacle is not a collection of images,” Debord wrote, “rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” American politics today — and our relationship to it — is entirely mediated by images (dick pics and all). Campaigns are cyclical orgies of cash-swamped sound and sense, in which stagecraft is the only craft. They are soap operas that won’t go off the air, parades without end. (Of course, presidential campaigns, dragging on for as long as three years, prolong the spectacle — Abedin’s ties to Clinton’s nascent presidential campaign, still two years away, are a media fixation in Weiner.) In his happier moments, Weiner excelled at parades of the municipal variety, and the documentary shows the former congressman at his best: glibly flag-waving and hand-shaking at street fetes for Israel, Ecuador, gay rights, and the Caribbean.
Like Trump, Weiner wasn’t a terribly substantive politician, though he wanted you to think he was. He campaigned on a policy booklet he dubbed “Keys to the City,” ranging from the ambitious (single-payer healthcare for New York) to the Orwellian (GPS trackers for sex offenders), even if his legislative accomplishments were notoriously thin. Weiner was a fantastic performer, undone by social media but otherwise well suited for its shallowness of form. Rarely self-effacing and humble — because who wants to watch that? — he boasted in a March 2016 Huffington Post interview that he is “probably the best campaign politician you will ever interview. I’m like perfectly evolved. I’m like the Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator.”
In the society of the spectacle, and the permanent campaign, that’s high praise.
The story of Weiner is also the story of Abedin. Twelve years his junior, Abedin married Weiner in 2010, when he was by any standard a rising star in Congress. As an establishing shot, the documentary shows Weiner hollering about a healthcare bill for 9/11 first responders on the House floor, a tableau of righteous outrage that quickly went viral. Weiner, the wise guy Republican-slayer, and Abedin, Hillary’s Swiss Army knife, were a preeminent Washington power couple. Weiner ran for mayor in 2005 and performed unexpectedly well in the Democratic primary, coming in second, and shied away from standing up to billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s bid for a third term in 2009, two facts that the documentary oddly neglects. But Abedin had every expectation that her husband would eventually fulfill his promise and occupy City Hall, where a Mayor Weiner and a second President Clinton would share a few power lunches in 2017.
Weiner reveals early on why he decided to try to resurrect his political career. “She was very eager to get back to the life I took from her,” he says of Abedin. Nearly self-aware, Weiner later adds, “Politicians are probably wired in some way that they need attention.” All true. People might go into politics to eventually get rich, but the real appeal, in our era especially, is the attention and the power that may come with playing the game. Trump seemed almost as satisfied to spearhead a ratings-winner with The Apprentice as he was to seize the Republican nomination. The White House, like Gracie Mansion, the New York City mayor’s residence, promises relevancy few human beings can fathom. These homes are Valhallas for the attention-obsessed. Shy, with the elite aide’s sense of discretion, Abedin appeared more comfortable with her husband’s extraordinary striving and preening when he was successful.
But when a woman named Sydney Leathers leaks sexually explicit texts she had with Weiner to a gossip website, revealing to the world that Weiner kept sexting after he left Congress, the party is officially over. Weiner’s poll numbers plummet. Staffers are distraught. Headline writers rummage their brains for new penis puns. Abedin doesn’t seem crushed for the reasons you might imagine. It’s not just that she’s ashamed and humiliated — it seems that Weiner has finally, forever, ended the political life that she thought she could have. When Morgan, the press secretary, tearfully tells the beleaguered campaign team that photographers are harassing her, Abedin offers some stomach-turning advice. “Just a quick optics thing?” Abedin says. “I assume those photographers are still outside. So, you will look happy?”
Abedin’s advice begs the question: What in politics today isn’t an optics thing?
Weiner would go on to garner less than five percent of the vote, finishing not far ahead of an anti-gay marriage fringe candidate who once suggested that Mayor Bloomberg was trying to ban chicken wings. Weiner’s denouement comes on Election Day, when the diminished candidate has to outrun Leathers, egged on by shock jock Howard Stern, in McDonald’s to get to his election night party next door. Abedin goes home.
One question that reviewers have often asked but is not entirely answered by the documentary is what drives Weiner? Is he a narcissist? Maybe. Kriegman and Steinberg don’t intrude much, which is for the best. Three years later, Abedin is fully immersed in Clinton’s campaign and Weiner is something of a New York pundit, penning occasional op-eds and appearing on local television. He claims not to have seen the documentary. We’ll have to believe him.
But Weiner’s story isn’t quite over. Odds are better than 50 percent that his wife’s boss will be president. Abedin may end up toting one of the more notorious politicians of the last two decades to the White House with her, and someone may dream up a Weiner in Washington sequel. The film allows an American misfit to seem halfway sympathetic, showing the individual trapped behind the punch lines. How would any of us stand up to the spectacle? How many of us just want to be seen? Weiner, like any once-successful American politician, does not know how to go gentle into that good night.