Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Train Wreck Named Desire

Anthony Weiner Self-Destructs

After Twenty Years in Politics;

Turns Out We Didn't Know Ye

This afternoon we watched Congressman Anthony Weiner's four-minute swan song, in which he showed the skills he had honed over twenty years as a public official. The Council Center for Seniors in Sheepshead Bay was crowded with over a hundred reporters and 40 TV cameras, a larger media scrum than he had ever assembled while he was politically alive. It made more than one viewer wistful for what Weiner might have been able to do for New York if he had had his head screwed on right.

Unfortunately, beneath his "YAVIS" exterior (Young, Attractive, Verbal, Intelligent and Successful) there lay a nest of aggression and insecurity so deep that the Congressman propelled himself into a prolonged and repeated pattern of personal behavior which is completely inconsistent with acting as a tribune of the people in a democracy.

Who can say what any of us have in our minds? Mostly, we wisely keep our thoughts to ourselves, particularly if they are socially or politically unacceptable. For an elected official to engage in reckless conversations with numerous strangers, while identifying himself to them as a Member of Congress, a substantial part of his mind must have wanted to be discovered and for the charade to end. When last month he inadvertently pressed 'reply to all' and set off the firestorm which devoured his career, he was possibly, at one level or another, opting out of a lifestyle which, to say the least, papered over a conflicted brain.

Although he was no genius, Weiner was a smart, diligent and basically moderate politician. He had the potential to be the outer borough middle-class successor to the Manhattan aristoi. He had difficulties with his staff, but that is not unusual when intense, demanding and self-important public officials employ decent, honorable people at modest wages who are unprepared to calibrate their lives to their boss's ambitions. That is putting it in a kindly way, but today is not the day to jump on a man who has just departed a life that he may find more precious than his own.

Weiner first ran for Mayor in 2005, and adroitly dropped out, leaving the thankless task of taking on Mayor Bloomberg to Fernando Ferrer. He was considered a likely candidate in 2009, but deferred to Comptroller Bill Thompson after the Mayor and City Council extended term limits. One line I recall being bruited about in those days, less than three years ago, is that Mayor Bloomberg was reportedly willing to spend $100 milllion on his campaign, of which $20 million could be spent on "oppo research", digging up dirt on his rivals. That was far more than would have been needed to discover Congressman Weiner's indiscretions, so the rest of the $20 mil could have been spent on enough media to ensure that all New Yorkers could consider the fruits of the negative research.

Probably the Mayor didn't threaten to do that, just as Marie Antoinette never said: "Let them eat cake." But if enough people say you said it, or think you said it, or think it reflects your views, it can lead to a one-way ride on a tumbrel.

The teachable moment that emerges from this personal tragedy and public farce is that, with many people who we think of as leaders, emotion can overpower reason, and people can and do perform incredibly self-destructive acts. When one such person gains access to a weapon of mass destruction, our civilization will be at stake. We should do our best to minimize that possibility.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) said in 1962, "Since Adam and Eve ate the apple, man has never refrained from any folly of which he was capable." Lord Russell, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1950 and was regarded as a brilliant philosopher and mathematician, was forbidden to teach at the City College of New York in 1940 by a lower court decision which objected to his views on sex outside of marriage. Mayor LaGuardia refused to appeal despite pleas from Albert Einstein and John Dewey, among other individuals considered wise. LaGuardia was running for a third term (which was then allowed by the City Charter) in 1941. Russell was an avowed atheist, which gave offense to many believers.

Anthony Weiner's self-destructive behavior was not a threat to world peace. It was a ticking time bomb, but he and those who love him, are the only victims. Nonetheless, it should be a wake-up call for those seeking an honest, rational, perceptive and moderate candidate to run for Mayor of the City of New York in 2013, which is not as far off as people may believe.

Those interested should be judged on their character and achievements, rather than their promises, intrigues, race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. The same principle that forbids discrimination on those bases should also forbid favoritism on the basis of what is called "identity politics". The amount of money that each man or woman has already collected from those who hope to benefit by their election should not overwhelm merit as the basis for choice between candidates.

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