The Tragic Drama of Anthony Weiner

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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