NEW YORK—House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi on Monday evening called for a House ethics investigation into the actions of Queens, N.Y., Rep. Anthony Weiner, the gravest threat yet to his continued tenure in office after a remarkable afternoon confession to sending inappropriate online messages to at least six women over a period of three years. But I think even with a congressional investigation afoot he will not need to resign from office so long as the following four things obtain:
1. None of the six women in question are minors.
2. None of the six women in question are in the sex industry.
3. No congressional resources were inappropriately used.
4. He confessed everything. There's no other shoe to drop.
Why could he stay in office? Because he is from New York. I'd wager some percentage of men here looked at Anthony Weiner's sext pictures and wondered not about his marriage, but where he gets waxed. Others envy him. At the Personal Democracy Forum conference Monday in lower Manhattan, one married man was impressed by Weiner's ability to seduce women. "Good for him," he said to me as we discussed the situation, and the six women who, in addition to the congressman's gorgeous wife, were willing to indulge him. "So he likes beautiful ladies! So what, who doesn't?" one New Yorker told The Daily Beast as it surveyed opinions in the city. Heck, after Weiner, I'll bet more men take up the practice of sending photos to women than are scared off by his example.
People are prurient. Weiner has afforded them the gift (or curse, depending on your view) of a break from social norms that frown on having pornographic conversations at the office, over dinner, or while swirling a drink and wearing a half-embarrassed, half-titillated smile. Of course they want to keep talking about him, because that means they get to indulge in something verboten, too.
And so they will talk about him. And people will surely dig into the question of the women's ages. One is 26; another is 40 and one (perhaps the same one?) was earlier reported to be "middle-aged"—which is to say, from the 46-year-old Weiner's age cohort. If there is any lesson to be drawn from all of this, it is that men who do not marry until their mid-40s may have a deeply held ambivalence about the contemporary American vision of marriage. News to no one! Heck, many married men (and women) that age are ambivalent about it, too, if our national divorce rate is any indication.
(And note that I am not saying "traditional marriage," because traditional marriage has historically often made room for male infidelity, and still does today in quite a large number of nations.)
But one never knows how an individual marriage is constructed by the people in it. And in any event, such matters, while of cultural and sociological interest, do not tell us much about someone's capacity as a legislator. Weiner did, as he said, repeatedly, a stupid, dumb thing in sending naked pictures of himself to women who were virtual strangers, and behaved in ways that were deeply unkind to his wife. He has admitted it, and corrected his lies pretty rapidly as these things go (look how long it took John Edwards to come clean). Also, I think we can all acknowledge after the events of the past week that Weiner is a terrible liar.
His political survival going forward will depend in part on the four criteria outlined above. Of them, charges of misuse of congressional resources would be perhaps the easiest problem to fight, because they're the most boring. Sextual involvement with a porn star will be bigger hurdle, because it will prolong the story and add a fresh element of intrigue. But even as new details trickle out over the next few days, it is likely that the Weiner story reached its narrative climax yesterday. Could anything top that news conference?
Whether Weiner can be reelected or seek new office is a whole 'nother question, but as the cases of Ted Kennedy and Barney Frank and Bill Clinton and David Vitter have shown, voters can be much more forgiving than television pundits or newspaper editorial boards. It can be difficult to assess the actual impact of a scandal on a politician's career during the first week of the controversy. And given that adultery remains a major cause of divorce in this country, and that half of all marriages end in divorce, and that we routinely elect divorced people (some of whom were doubtless unfaithful), we seem as a nation to have settled the debate over whether marital problems should be a de facto disqualifier for public service.
Image credit: Richard Drew/Associated Press