The strangest media appearance since Mark Sanford returned from "the Appalachian Trail" took place in New York today.
It was supposed to begin at 4 p.m., but the reporters in attendance got a surprise. Before Queens, N.Y., Rep. Anthony Weiner even arrived, Andrew Breitbart took the stage instead. The conservative provocateur whose website Big Government broke Weiner's Twitter-photo story last week stood at the podium and demanded an apology from Weiner. "I'm here for some vindication," Breitbart said. "If this guy's going to attack me," he said, he should apologize for trying to discredit Breitbart and his blog Big Government.
So that was unexpected. Hanging over Breitbart's statement was the fact that he had claimed earlier Monday to have another photo of Weiner -- an "extremely graphic" one -- which he won't release, on top of the additional photos Big Government posted Monday morning.
Weiner showed up about 15 minutes late. A few in the room, I'm sure, must have been uncertain whether or not he would show at all. But show he did, and Weiner, sniffling and wiping his eyes, proceeded to get it all out.
"I'd like to make it clear that I've made terrible mistakes that have hurt the people I care about the most, and I am deeply sorry," Weiner said. "Last Friday night I tweeted a photograph of myself, that I intended to send. ... I panicked, I took it down, and said that I had been hacked. I then continued to stick to that story. ... To be clear, the photo is of me, and I sent it."
The cameras flashed and clicked. Weiner choked up as he said "I am deeply sorry for the pain this has caused my wife, Huma, my family." Weiner married Huma Abedin, a close aide to Hillary Clinton, last July.
Weiner explained he has had "conversations over Twitter, IM, and occasionally over the phone" over the past three years with women he has met through social media. "For the most part, these communications took place before my marriage, but sadly some have taken place after." The congressman said he does not plan to resign.
He would apologize many, many more times before the press conference ended -- to his wife, both their families, and to the women with whom he had communicated. He denied using congressional resources to converse with them, and he said neither he nor his staff have tried to cover anything up, or coach the women in any way after the scandal broke. "I have mis[led] them too," Weiner said of his staff.
All this made for quite a scene, with New York reporters shouting out blunt questions at the congressman.
Some quick takeaways:
- This was easily the strangest political press conference since South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford returned from his purported hiking trip along the Appalachian Trail, only to reveal he'd been in Argentina with a journalist paramour and shed tears as he took questions. That made for pretty good theater. So did this. The indignant Breitbart, the stunned audience, the buzz of a false alarm as reporters thought Weiner had arrived. It was a carnival of a news conference, plain and simple.
- Good decision to take questions. We may be witnessing a changed paradigm for news conferences announcing a sex-, or quasi-sex, scandal. Since Eliot Spitzer dragged his clearly unhappy wife on stage with him in 2008, appearing without the wronged spouse seems to be the mode of choice for admissions of carnal indiscretion. And it allowed Weiner a chance to get everything out there all at once, take his 45-minute flogging like a man, and get out of there. The advice of Krystal Ball was finally put to use: He disclosed about as much as anyone could have hoped for, and much more than many wished to hear.
- This press conference was unusually revelatory. Weiner more directly addressed the main question -- providing a vivid window into his own thoughts and emotions as he was engaging sextual relationships going back three years -- than most other politicians have when admitting this sort of thing. One reporter told Weiner that everyone was wondering the same thing: "What were you thinking?" And that's what we all wonder when something like this happens. Is it the hubris? Is it an addiction to power? Did he think he could cover it up?
Weiner answered, seemingly, as best he could. "I regret not being honest about this. This was a big mistake. I was embarrassed, I was humiliated, I'm still to this moment. I was trying to protect my wife. I was trying to protect myself from shame," he said. One reporter asked, "Are you going to split up?" Weiner responded, "I love my wife very much, and we have no intent of splitting up over this. We have been through a great deal together, and we will weather this." Had his wife known about this habit? "My wife has known about some of these online relationships since ... before the marriage." What was her reaction? "She was not happy, she told me as much.... She made it very clear that what I did was very dumb and she is not happy about it, and she is very disappointed, but she also told me that she loved me." By satisfying the public craving for detail, Weiner probably saved himself from more probing on the question of his own psychology.
- He apologized to Andrew Breitbart, but in a categorical sense at first. "I believe that everyone deserves an apology here," Weiner said. "Anyone who was misled, all of you who were misled." Pressed again whether he felt he should apologize to Breitbart, Weiner took a moment to look down as cameras once again flashed, and offered a more direct apology: "I apologize to Andrew Breitbart. I apologize to the many other members of the media that I misled> I apologize first and foremost" to my wife and family.
- It sure sounds like Weiner may have had phone sex with at least one of these women. He didn't deny it. When asked point blank whether he had had phone sex with any of the women, Weiner declined to categorize the relationships in more detail, out of respect for their privacy. "I've never, as I said in my statement, I never met any of these women," Weiner said. "I am reluctant to, for their privacy, and since their names are coming out, except to say that these were consensual, but I am not going to rebut anything or dispute anything" that the women say about their relationships with him.
- The whole thing was a circus, start to finish. From the moment Breitbart usurped the podium until the very end, it was surreal. The most normal moments involved Weiner's straightforward apologies. As New York reporters shouted questions at him, the congressman laid it all bare, not defending himself in any way. The press conference concluded with a reporter shouting, "Will you work to support Arnold's love child?" before Weiner took the final question. Then, as Weiner left the room, the same reporter, believed to work for the Howard Stern show, shouted, "Were you fully erect?"
It was that kind of day.