Weinergate

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I'm not with those who admired the views, or the macho bluster, of the pre-scandal Anthony Weiner, and I'm certainly not with those who find what he did inoffensive. (Andrew Sullivan called it "on-line flirting." How sad.) Weiner showed such lack of judgement I even wonder about his mental health. I think he should resign for the reason Joshua Green and Jim Fallows say: he has let his allies and his constituents down. As Josh puts it:

Weiner had so little regard for his office, his constituents, and his duty as a member of Congress that he apparently thought nothing of tweeting pictures of his genitals to random women. Does the analysis really need to go any further than that?

Only in this respect: the leering sanctimony of the US media is worth noting and deploring. Writing about the DSK scandal, the economic historian Harold James said in passing that the US is a country both more prudish and more prurient than France. Yes, I thought at the time, like Britain, only worse. Weinergate has carried this to a new extreme.

What Weiner did was sleazy--but more pathetic than wicked. To luxuriate properly in his downfall, however, his accusers had to fit the crime to the punishment. No problem. He lied about what he'd done: so much worse an offence than the texts and photos themselves. But this is such nonsense. All lies are not equal. Lying about an essentially private transgression is not the same as lying to conceal a crime. Lying to the press is not the same as lying to your spouse, or lying under oath. Weiner's dishonesty is not the reason he is in trouble. Does anybody believe that if he'd confessed at once, there would have been no scandal? "But he lied" is just an excuse for the outcry.

Hendrik Hertzberg goes so far as to say, in effect, that lying about sex is hardly lying at all.

By itself, the fact that a person has lied about sex tells you nothing about that person's general propensity to lie. Unlike most citizens, prominent politicians like Gary Hart, Bill Clinton, and Anthony Weiner make speeches by the hundred, give media interviews constantly, and have extensively documented public records. If the politician is a habitual or characterological liar, the public record will show it and the lying-about-sex is redundant. If the politician is not a habitual or characterological liar, his lying-about-sex is misleading--is itself a lie, in a way.

Hmm... Not an easy position to defend (though it might actually be true). But Hertzberg is certainly right to underline a different misconception.

On MSNBC, the cable-news "home page" of my political tribe, one commentator said that one of the things Weinergate shows is that powerful politicians assume they can get away with things that regular people can't. If they do assume that, they're wrong. It would be more accurate to say that they can't get away with things that regular people can. Look around you. Consider your friends, your work colleagues, your relatives, maybe even yourself. It's likely that a nontrivial proportion of them have some sexual secret (at least they think it's a secret) in their lives. If their secret comes out, if they get caught in an embarrassing lie about it, the whole world isn't going to hear about it. It won't be national news.

I didn't think I could feel sorry for Anthony Weiner, but I do.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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