The Tragic Drama of Anthony Weiner

Why the scandal that hobbled the most relevant campaign in this year's New York mayoral race was psychological destiny
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Bebeto Matthew/Associated Press

NEW YORK -- The race to be the next mayor of New York poured itself -- along with the humidity -- into an un-air-conditioned basement meeting room in the Lincoln Houses off 135th Street in Manhattan on Saturday night. Pipes layered with years of thickly-applied paint covered much of the ceiling, while the normally bare walls were adorned with resident-captured pictures of the defects of the New York City Housing Authority project in East Harlem -- trash piles where they shouldn't be, disgusting elevators, a demand to "Fix My Sink Now!"

Older men and women -- mainly women -- waited in the sweltering heat for the candidates to arrive for a Democratic primary forum, which was sponsored by the Reverend Al Sharpton's National Action Network, the Urban Justice Center and Community Voices Heard. It was supposed to start at 6:30, but the candidates dribbled in late for their overnight stays with families in the projects -- just one more adventure in their contest to be the next mayor of a city of dizzying wealth and gritty need, where poverty has risen three years in a row, the median household income is just under $50,000, and the majority of general-election voters are minorities.

Weiner arrived last. Sharpton had already given up on waiting and started the forum. Carrying a duffel bag, Weiner looked distracted and chastened. It was two days before his most recent sexting escapades were revealed. The other candidates spoke one by one, introduced by Sharpton, who had just come off a day of leading rallies on behalf of justice for Trayvon Martin. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn was warm and measured. Bill Thompson, John Liu, and Bill deBlasio were exactly as compelling as you'd expect of people who were, respectively, the city's former comptroller, comptroller, and public advocate. And Weiner? He was, as is his wont, on fire.

"The fact of the matter is for too long people have been ducking responsibility. Way back in 1997 ... I don't know how many of you remember this. Do you remember that the stairwells in public-housing projects were bursting into flames?" he asked.

"Yes!" affirmed the audience. "That's right!"

"I took on Rudy Giuliani back then."

"I did too!" said Carmen Quinones, an East Harlem district leader.

"You did too. We had hearings all around the city."

"That's right!"

"And what did it turn out happened? It turned out Rudy Giuliani's cousin's nephew's brother-in-law got the contract for the paint and it was creating fires all over the place."

"That's right!"

"And we stopped it. We reversed it. We made it better."

"These are good people who are running for mayor," he went on. "These are all good people. We are devoted to change. Reverend Sharpton was right to call us all together because it reminds us, for all the things that divide us in this city -- and how we come from different neighborhoods, we root for different ball teams, we have different religions, different culture, different politics -- we are all unified by one abiding thing that's represented by the aspirations the Housing Authority was built upon. We all want to leave a family, a city, a life a little better than the one we found."

It was another in a long list of Weiner connecting moments, moments that had helped propel him to the front of the pack in polling mid-summer. Watching him on the stump in New York over a period of two weeks, Weiner reminded me of a warmer, rawer, Jewish John Edwards -- all momentum and connection and down-with-the-downtrodden positioning that was at once deeply calculated and totally heartfelt. Quinn, to continue the 2008 comparisons, seemed to be playing the role of Hillary Clinton -- the establishment frontrunner, female, more of an old-school transactional politician. Her remarks, as at the First Central Baptist Church on a Sunday in Staten Island, drew fewer cheers and aroused a less enthusiastic reply, but were peppered with a greater array of references to leading figures in the community she'd had a history of working with. (There doesn't appear to be any Obama in this race, though Thompson has surged with Weiner's collapse.)

The mayoral race is of interest to the national press primarily as a referendum on the comeback chances of the former seven-term congressman from Queens. It is of interest because of his 2011 sexting scandal and resignation, the redemption narrative of a disgraced national figure seeking to return to national life by governing one of toughest cities there is to run.

But on the ground, that's not what the contest is about. It is about privatization. It is about the poor. Ending stop and frisk. Unemployment, especially among the city's substantial black and Hispanic population. It's about what deBlasio had called "a tale of two cities." It's about the fact that New York City, after nearly 10 years of Republican (and independent) rule, is ready for a Democrat. Hungry for a Democrat. The extra final term of the Bloomberg administration has made some in the wealthier precincts of the city wish he could be appointed mayor for life. But to many others in the other New York, it has felt like democracy has been on hold for the last four years, stopped up like a rusty municipal-housing pipe. Nearly three-quarters of New Yorkers regret allowing him that final term.

The most interesting question about Anthony Weiner is not about the nature of his ego, or even his recent online sexual adventures, but what New Yorkers saw in him to begin with. Because they saw something.

It wasn't just name recognition that made him a contender, immediately and improbably, in a city that absorbed his disgrace with surprising generosity. Weiner quickly emerged as the best speaker on the stump in the Democratic mayoral field. Raw. Passionate. Hungry, as only someone seeking redemption as fervently as he is can be.

It's too easy to say narcissism is what drove him back into public life, even knowing the revelations that were yet to come.

People always say individuals go into politics to feed their egos, but in truth it's more complicated than that. Writers can spend their whole lives feeding their egos alone in a room, typing out their souls.

Politicians, people who are drawn to politics, they're different. They are people who have a high need for contact with large groups of people. They love crowds, parties, associations, institutions -- any place that brings people together for a purpose or a function, that's where they want to be. In the thick of the group, but apart from it, its aider and abettor, its friend, its representative.

"What laws do you want me to pass?" Weiner asked a group of gay men at Lida, an Italian Bistro on Frederick Douglass Avenue in Harlem, on a Sunday earlier this month. He asked the same question of a little girl on the avenue, who turned the question over before declaring, "school only on the weekends!" and giggling. A politician on the stump spends a lot of time complimenting people, observing the great mass of humanity, gauging them, engaging them, admiring them, giving them something to talk about.

Weiner has been a celebrity on the stump. I watched as people thronged to take pictures with him at the 111th Street Boys Old Timers festival on a recent Sunday, partly out of support for him, and partly to take home a new experience, a souvenir of a hot day whose highlight might otherwise have been time with friends and an $8 plate of arroz con gandules with yucca and roasted pork.

Weiner is a lover of people. And people appreciated the love, returned it in kind. Eight million people in the naked city, and most of them feel neglected by their politicians, most of the time. There's something to be said for someone who just spends time on the ground. Someone who is not a billionaire, was not complicit in the billoinaire's overturning of term-limits, is not -- as Ann Valdez, a housing activist from Coney Island, described Quinn -- "Bloomberg in a skirt."

Weiner wasn't like the other politicians who came in an SUV, hopped out and gave a speech, then dashed back in and drove away, people told me. "He hung out, he spoke, he visited with the vendors," observed Andrew Troup-Major at Lida's, saying he liked the way Weiner actually spent time at the city's gay-pride festival.

Weiner believes in being there. At the 111th Steet festival, he spoke briefly in Spanish, saying the day was for music, not for politicians. "You gonna be all right, Tony!" Angel Rodrigues of East Harlem called out to him. Forgiveness was an easy generosity. "So what? Everybody makes mistakes," he said of Weiner's past. "He was seven terms. He was good. He was for the working people," affirmed Malik Kileen-Roacher of 102nd Street, who was still deciding between Weiner and deBlasio. David Aviles of the Bronx liked Weiner's frankness. "All politics is full of crap," he said. "He admitted to his mistakes and he mans up," chimed in Sonia Vasquez, also of the Bronx. She felt special sympathy, she said, because she knew what kind of trouble social media can cause. "I sent a picture of my boob to the wrong person," she said. It happens.

Weiner was in his element. The patter and prattle, the questions and compliments and expressions of delight and surprise, the hugs and kisses and close-talking pleasantries, all of it was fun.

But the Weiner operation was always fairly lean, like the candidate. It didn't have a press secretary and a communications director and a bunch of messaging consultants. It had one media aide, a former city education department spokesperson, plus whatever help she could get from interns.

That was always the mystery about his campaign. It lacked the trappings of a traditional campaign apparatus. It lacked the ground operation and deep institutional connections of the Quinn campaign.

Now it's clear why -- he was a momentum candidate waiting for the moment when it would all fall apart (and probably also hoping that moment would never come).

The list of politicians who have extramarital dalliances is long -- much longer than this list of names that follow: Eliot Spitzer, Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Mark Sanford, David Paterson, Jesse Jackson Sr., David Vitter, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John F. Kennedy.

But watching Weiner I started to wonder if maybe we've mixed up the cause and the effect of such behavior. Maybe it's not power corrupting them, leading otherwise upstanding exemplars of dedicated monogamy astray as they encounter a world of sycophants and admirers.

Maybe it's that men whose approach to the world is one of promiscuous connection are drawn by nature to the weird mix of fake and all too real connection that characterizes what transpires between politician and citizen. That politics attracts men who love the variety of humanity, who want to get inside the core of other people's lives and to be seen and admired from a distance at the same time. Not all politicians are like this, but I would posit that it is a type. And that if it is a type, Weiner is its archetype.

The people of New York -- or at least those who showed up at Democratic primary events -- wanted someone to connect with them in they way that he had been. What they didn't want -- and what polling is showing they will not want -- is to have to talk about his personal life again, endlessly.

Correction: This post originally listed Thomas Jefferson among politicians who had extramarital affairs. Though Jefferson fathered children out of wedlock, he was a widower at the time. We regret the error.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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