Bruni: Weiner always sought just a little more love

New York TimesApril 16, 2013 

Frank Bruni

 

THE NEW YORK TIMES

He was a darling of the cable news shows, which indulged his appetite for attention so frequently that he carried his own makeup kit, to be ready and pretty at a moment's notice. But the lights and the cameras weren't enough.

At campaign rallies and other events, he bathed in applause and requests: for autographs, photos, handshakes, hugs. These weren't enough either.

He'd be stopped in the airport, complimented by a complete stranger. Still not enough.

So when he was all alone, with no television anchor to make him feel important, no acolyte to make him feel adored, he trawled cyberspace for fans. For a fix. Maybe someone somewhere was saying something sweet about him. Maybe he could bump up against just a little more love.

Last week, at long last, Anthony Weiner provided a detailed accounting of how he ended up involved, over Twitter and Facebook and email and phone, with a half-dozen women he didn't really know, and of what preceded and prompted the crotch shot seen round the world.

“By definition, when you are a politician, you want people to like you,” he told Jonathan Van Meter in a story in The New York Times' Sunday magazine. Thanks to the Internet and social media, Weiner said, “Not only could I go to a town-hall meeting or a senior center or in front of the TV camera, but now I could sit and hear what people were saying all around. Search your name on Google, begat read comments on your Facebook page, begat looking at what people are saying about you on Twitter, to then trying to engage them.”

That's a lot of begetting, and soon he was misbegotten.

Weiner's testimonial yields the most bracing portrait of love gluttony in politics since, well, the release a few weeks ago of “Fall to Grace,” a documentary about Jim McGreevey, the former New Jersey governor, by Alexandra Pelosi.

Here, from the movie, is McGreevey on what drove him toward the governorship: “It was the need to be acclaimed, the need to be adored.”

“My addiction is to being central in the world, to being accepted and adored in the way that celebrities are adored — by strangers, in abundance,” he adds, reading aloud from his 2006 memoir, “The Confession.” “That's what I loved about campaigning.”

Note that while the statement about campaigning is in the past tense, the one about addiction is in the present. In “Fall to Grace,” McGreevey claims to have looked hard at his failings and grown, but the movie raises the question of whether he has found grace and peace or just a different drug. To reflect on how hungry for notice and approval he once was, he allows Pelosi to trail him for hours on end, and revels in his soliloquies on the redemption of Jim McGreevey. Love, love him. Do.

“People with this need are often drawn to politics, just as they are to religious ministry or to Hollywood,” McGreevey says in the movie. He's now in religious ministry. And while he frames his cooperation with Pelosi in terms of his hope to spotlight the struggles and dignity of the female prisoners he counsels, his agenda doesn't seem quite that neat, clean and selfless.

What a powerful magnet for affirmation junkies the political arena is, especially in the age of cable television, social media and the permanent campaign, which enables the needy, and maybe favors them as well. They suffer its mortifications most willingly, if they suffer at all. It's not difficult to drop to bended knee when you're a serial romancer and you live to hear people accept your proposals and tell you you're the one.

That yearning is palpable in Mark Sanford, who is now groveling for a second chance and a ticket to Congress. It defined John Edwards. And in their cases, as in Weiner's, it expressed itself not just in public ambitions but in private transgressions. What led them to run and what led them to stray were to some extent the same hunger. The same hormone.

That's true, too, of Bill Clinton, who made a startling comment in an interview with Stephen Colbert last week. Colbert asked the two-term former president, a globe-trotting megacelebrity with stratospheric approval ratings, why he doesn't tweet.

Clinton's answer?

That he's “sort of insecure.” That he might not get any response. If a tweet falls in cyberspace and no one acknowledges it, did it really make the rounds?

“There's nothing worse than a friendless tweeter, right?” Clinton said to Colbert.

He's the lord of the love gluttons, as his nearly 50-minute convention speech last year reminded us. But that's actually been his great strength as much as his vulnerability. The gluttony cuts both ways.

What is politics, after all, but the fine art and vulgar craft of winning over voters and fellow lawmakers? That's how victories are sealed and legislation passed, and there have certainly been junctures in Barack Obama's presidency when a bigger, sloppier craving for comrades and a more energetic effort at wooing might have served him well. Who among us doesn't want to be courted?

Weiner has seldom been courtly. That's one of the oddest parts of a story plenty odd already. Although he said in The Times that he was looking for love, he always seemed instead to be spoiling for a fight. Where Clinton bit his lower lip, Weiner bared his teeth. Maybe that's just the difference between the South and New York, a city in which Ed Koch could make the question “How'm I doin'?” sound less deferential than defiant. Tell me I'm doin' great — or else.

Or maybe Weiner just doesn't have a clue. His interview was the beginning of a bid, like Sanford's, for a do-over, a clean slate. And while that called for humility, he couldn't quite manage it. In the interview he presented a laundry list of reasons that his adventures in cyberspace generated what he apparently believed was a puzzling intensity of attention. He blamed not only a slow news period and his surname but also the supposed luminosity of his and Huma Abedin's marriage, which he said had “this kind of Camelot feel to it.” Would he be Arthur or Lancelot?

There's no riddle to unravel. The attention came because he was a presumed front-runner to be the next mayor of one of the most important cities in the world and, in a given instant, that promise paled beside his eagerness to have one more person, in one more way, admire one more dimension of him. The attention came because he threw so much away, but even more so because his ambition and undoing were so thoroughly entwined, and we'd seen that fateful braid before.

Email Mr. Bruni at editorial@nytimes.com.

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