Bruni: Sex and the sorriest pols

New York TimesJuly 9, 2013 

Frank Bruni

Bruni

THE NEW YORK TIMES

Virginia is for lovers. New York is for penitents.

There are two in the headlines, Anthony and now Eliot. “Here We Ho Again!” trumpeted The New York Post. If this doesn't save the tabloids, nothing will.

But before we go too far in lumping the men together or draw too many conclusions about priapism and punishment, let's get our bearings.

Eliot Spitzer doesn't have a quarter of the gall that Anthony Weiner does. He doesn't have an eighth of it. Out of office for more than five years, he isn't asking for a restoration of his prior glory. He isn't even asking for a particularly sexy job. Comptroller of New York City? Most voters don't know what that is or even if it's spelled correctly. It doesn't come with a mansion. It's not a ticket to parades. It's drudgery and decimal points. Audit till you drop.

Weiner, meantime, hadn't been gone from Congress for even two years when he announced his candidacy for mayor of the city, a job exponentially more influential than the one he'd never done especially well in the first place. He's angling for a gigantic promotion. In the narrative he's constructed, his mortification has made him a new man, so we're supposed to give him an extra measure of our trust and hand him the reins of the most important and most complicated city in the country. I know we like our mayors brash, but we needn't accept delusional in the bargain.

In one recent poll he emerged as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, and that, coupled with Mark Sanford's return to Congress from South Carolina, has prompted much commentary about the possibility that voters today are willing to look beyond sexual indiscretions.

But voters have long done so. A sex scandal didn't topple Barney Frank back in the 1980s, Bill Clinton in the 1990s or David Vitter, the senator from Louisiana, who had his own prostitute problems in 2007. And Sanford, a Republican in a vividly red state, had a significant built-in advantage over his Democratic opponent. He benefited less from forgiveness than from partisanship.

As for Weiner, he has nonpareil name recognition in an overcrowded field of unconvincing rivals and in an era when the line between famous and infamous is blurrier than ever. All that he may be in the process of proving is that celebrity, not virtue, is its own reward.

It's being said that he and Spitzer are seeking “redemption.” For the purposes of this duo and this election, let's be careful with that noun. While Spitzer is indeed considering an assignment inferior to his last office, his years in political exile weren't dedicated to the “public service” whose clarion call he says he cannot resist. They were warm baths in his own voice: a show on CNN, followed by one on Current TV. Those gigs are over; he's adrift. What he's seeking is relevance.

Ditto for Weiner, who also didn't use his timeout in any way that showed a greater devotion to the public good than to his own. He sought to convert his political connections into quick profits. He plotted his audaciously hasty return. And here he is in his colorful, look-at-me trousers, with his colorful, look-at-me debate antics, weathering the jokes, enduring us naysayers. Better to be ridiculed than to be ignored.

Already there's chatter about whose infidelities are more forgivable: Spitzer's, which were arguably a crime, or Weiner's, which were creepier? This misses a crucial point. Both men fell as spectacularly as they did not because they got caught with their pants down but because none of their colleagues liked them much even with their pants up.

They didn't have Clinton's reservoirs of charm or good will to tap. Spitzer, though an effective attorney general, was shaping up to be a self-righteous, self-defeating disaster of a governor, and Weiner was a sound bite and makeup kit in search of the nearest camera. Few people had a huge stake or interest in propping up either of them, in doing damage control.

That's the part of their pasts — their particular brands of abrasiveness, the peculiar contours of their egos — more relevant to the present than their libidos. That's what we should focus on, especially when it comes to Weiner. Spitzer's at least overqualified for the post he wants, and his wanting it amounts to an appropriate pantomime of humility.

Weiner can't manage that much. At a high school in Queens recently, he spoke of how setbacks make the man: polio for FDR, imprisonment for Mandela. “Would they have been so great had they not had those obstacles?” he asked.

It's hard to shake the surreal sense that he was putting himself in that company. Sexting, apartheid: just different speed bumps on the road to power.

Email Mr. Bruni at editorial@nytimes.com.

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