I recently sat down and watched Weiner, a documentary about the improbable attempt by disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner to run for the office of Mayor of New York City in 2013.
Mr. Weiner’s problems with sending sexual text messages and crude selfies to women other than his wife Huma Abedin, a Hillary Clinton aide and confidante, followed him right into this foray at political redemption. The New York news media had a field day publishing articles during his failed campaign about his continuing problems with probity, as it turned out he was still sending lewd text messages and selfies. The documentary is, at its core, an excruciating examination of a deeply troubled narcissist, his sexual pathologies merely the most visible manifestation of his desperate and demented need for affirmation and attention.
We are, of course, now finding out that Anthony Weiner was not an aberration—he was a harbinger. The recent flood of sexual abuse scandals among elected officials has become a fixture of political discussions. Apparently many of those entrusted with the highest offices in our nation possess the social graces and sexual maturity of 13 year old boys, the now famous photo of future U.S. Senator Al Franken mugging for the camera while reaching for a sleeping woman’s breasts perhaps best encapsulating the puerile idiocy of behavior that runs the gamut from insulting to assaultive.
The question we need to ask as we confront the startling dimensions of the sexual abuse scandals enveloping our elected officials is just how did we end up with these exceedingly damaged individuals leading our country?
It may be possible that the public attention afforded by national electoral politics—which with the decline of political parties has become much more of a one man (or woman) show—has now become the drug of choice for those with unhealthy needs for self-aggrandizement that many times manifests as misconduct. Where once politicians were vetted by powerful party structures and bosses, which meant those who rose to the top often were loyal and dull—although there were still plenty of jerks to be found—we now see more and more candidates who chase the bright spotlight that follows the powers inherent in national elective office in just the way that an addict hunts for a fix. Rather than stolid back room operators, much of our current crop of leaders rises to the top thanks to an ability to capture all the attention of the electorate with their antics, which is perhaps not the most helpful skill when it comes to actually governing a country.
The operatic and outrageous nature of so much of our current national political discourse is obviously a function of a 24/7 news and social media cycle that craves controversy and disdains complexity. Judicious, measured, and cautious individuals are put at a disadvantage when flamboyant, shocking, and sometimes outright goofy comments and behavior are now the all-access pass to political fame and—amazingly enough—electoral success. Unfortunately, this deeply destructive outcome of 21st century communications technology is catnip for ambitious but troubled individuals who need the personal recognition the non-stop media attention provides in order to fill the gaping holes in their own damaged psyches.
This is the new reality of contemporary American politics that perhaps helps to explain why we now have a reality television star in the White House. However one feels about Donald Trump’s policies, it must be acknowledged that he is a master of 21st century political theater, and those who are still stunned by his upset victory last November must recognize that he is a genius at manipulating the full spectrum of the sprawling media environment. Even when the coverage is negative, it is all about him all the time—and this type of attention seems to be enough for a lot of others who are now running for (or currently occupying) national elective office.
Love or hate his tweets, bombastic comments, or arguments by insult, Donald Trump dominates our national discourse and robs his political opponents of the spotlight that he keeps firmly upon himself. He will lose political battles, but he will always win the war for media coverage, which provides him with the platform he needs to whip up the enthusiasms of his loyal base and reduce his enemies to sputtering and ineffectual rage. Given all this, as much as we may desperately wish for more leaders like George Washington to help us through these troubled and dangerous times, we are today far more likely to end up with elected officials who share much with Anthony Weiner—sad to say.
To be moderate and modest is to be a “loser” in a news and information landscape that rewards the sensational while shunning irksome rationality and details. The earnest and enlightened leaders waiting in the wings, carefully crafted position papers lined up inside their briefcases, are likely going to be in for a shock when they find themselves losing elections to shameless provocateurs who excel at tossing off entertaining put downs and pithy yet empty comments—and know just what to say to always keep the cameras pointing their way.
All of this may somehow work out well despite the wounds it inflicts upon our national dignity and world standing (though I still well remember wincing my way through the “blowjob years” of the Clinton administration) because the mythic common sense of the American voter will eventually drive the idiots from office—just as it did in the case of Anthony Weiner. This may be true, but it does little to repair the long-term damage done to the credibility of our country by fools and their foolishness.
We need sober and serious leadership to face the many challenges ahead, but our bizarre celebrity and scandal-obsessed media culture might saddle us with a long and dismal line of “Weiners” as we stumble through this difficult point in our nation’s history, which probably means yet more embarrassing scandals until we learn to stop confusing fame and flippancy with either virtue or competence.