By Danny R. Johnson
WASHINGTON – For former U.S. House member Anthony Weiner (D-NY), who resigned from Congress in June 2011, due to a sexting scandal after repeated denials, the end came with breathtaking speed. As last week came to a close, he once again managed to do a sequel to his 2011 act and was the overwhelming front runner for the Democratic mayoral race in New York City using his wife, Abedin Huma as shield. The scene looked as if he was a Gulliver surrounded by political Lilliputians. Once again came the most harrowing public ordeal ever endured by a modern political contender who does not know how to leave the political stage gracefully – either he drops out of the race or the voters will spew him out on Election Day.
Across the country in beautiful and picturesque San Diego, another former House member Bob Filner (D-CA) and the present mayor, found himself in a sex scandal and was determined not to be outdone by the scandalous Weiner. Mayor Filner admitted last week that he has a hard time keeping his hands to himself when it comes to his female staffers – an immediate backlash and calls from Republican and Democrat bigwigs for his resignation began to circle the 71-year-old bachelor like California vultures ready to eat the flesh of another political hack who does not know how to exit the stage. Instead of immediately resigning, Mayor Filner decided that he needs to buy time and checked himself into a sex-rehab clinic just as long as there is access to the Internet/TV for occasional updates on calls for his demise.
Remember former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer (D-NY), who is now running for New York City Comptroller – you remember him — he is the guy who was holding down the governorship of NY, but was caught having sex with a high-price call girl in a posh DC hotel. You guess it right – he resigned in 2008 after the mistress posted some revealing tidbits of their affair on the Internet. And now Spitzer says he has been fully rehabilitated and is ready for more action – political action that is. Another public official who stood in the public dock accused of adultery.
Hey, wait a minute! Stop picking on Democrats some of you are screaming – what about the Republicans. Yes, the Grand Old Party boys have had their elephant share of hanky-panky as well.
The latest comeback kid is of course former Republican governor of South Carolina and now the newly elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Argentina Tango lover man, Mark Sanford. Remember Tango Sanford – he was the governor of SC back in 2009 with a wife and three kids—he and his wife separated and divorced after the nosy media revealed that he was AWOL from the governor’s mansion and was found spending some Tango nights with his mistress in Argentina. In fact, Tango Sanford was so repentant after he was caught committing adultery in October 2011; he was hired as a paid political contributor for Fox News Channel. In August 2012, Tango Sanford became engaged to his former Argentina mistress, Maria Belen Chapur.
Tango Sanford became bored and decided to have his mistress Maria move in with him on a deserted little farm in SC. Soon thereafter, Tango Sanford decided the farm life was not for him and Maria – DC is the place you ought to be and he told the folks that he is a changed man and that he wanted to run for his old SC House seat. Being the forgiving and Bible-believing folks that make up his district, Tango Sanford won the endorsement of all the SC political bigwigs – even the infamous porno Hustler Magazine publisher Larry Flynt also endorsed him, saying “His open embrace of his mistress in the name of love, breaking his sacred marriage vows, was an act of bravery that has drawn my support.”
But Tango Sanford didn’t have to stray too far from the rotten apple tree to find comfort and solace in former Speaker of the House and Republican presidential contender, Newt Gingrich, U.S. Senator from Louisiana David Vitter, and former Godfather Pizza executive and Republican presidential contender Herman Cain. All three men at one time stood on the soap box and cried aloud from the top of their lungs how Democrats were destroying the moral fiber of the nation – and how liberals wanted to gut the traditional family with gays and corrupt adulterous men such as Bill Clinton — the poster child of the Democratic Party.
What these pious and hypocritical elephant men forgot to tell us was that they were sneaking out in the back sleeping with various women besides their wives. Gingrich, Vitter, and Cain have never publicly admitted in specific details of their affairs and how many women were there? The name of the game for the bad boys of politics is to deny-deny and deny for as long as possible until someone comes up with pictures and emails. Then you can say “I am so sorry…I committed serious indiscretions.” After this so-called mea-coup, the public is supposed to shut the hell up and go about our business and let the bad boys alone.
The destruction of a public man holds a terrible fascination. One watches transfixed, yet ashamed, as personal dignity gives way to political desperation and hard-won respect is replaced by humorous laughter. It is an ugly spectacle, part Greek tragedy and part game-show television. Character becomes fate as hubris is defined anew. Yet the rituals of humiliation are straight Marshall McLuhan; the medium is the message as the cornered politician endures the prescribed sequence of televised statements, beginning with a tight-lipped acknowledgment of errors in judgment and ending with defiant surrender. So the political process is purified yet again, another heretic is hounded from public life. Some may see a rough frontier justice in the speedy verdict. But others may notice that a less than ennobling odor surrounding the entire affair, and wonder what it is about modern democracy that seems to require living victims.
Of course, the initial charges were slightly more fastidious. A stakeout by a team of reporters yielded a front-page story claiming that Weiner had entertained numerous sex-texts with women just soon after he resigned from the House. Weiner was forced to concede that he had sex-text other women besides the one the media found out about. But the final blow came when Weiner and his wife Huma confronted reporters after evidence of a recent liaison between Weiner and a young college woman surfaced. The threat of further revelations prompted Weiner and his submissive wife to deny any wrong doing and vow to keep on keeping on campaigning and not throw up a white flag – at least not yet.
Yet even in his political death throes, Mayor Filner and Weiner could barely bring themselves to let go of their grip on the prize that so narrowly eluded them – for Filner the mayor of San Diego and Weiner the elusive post of mayor of NYC. Weiner and Filner reminds us of the scene when former U.S. Senator Gary Hart (D-CO) was running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1987 and was caught on the Monkey Business yacht with a young Donna Rice. Facing a mob of TV cameras, Senator Hart began boldly, “I intended, quite frankly, to come down here this morning and read a short, carefully worded political statement saying that I was withdrawing from the race, and then quietly disappear from the stage. And then, after frankly tossing and turning all night, as I have for the last three or four nights, I woke up at four or five this morning with a start. And I said to myself, `Hell, no!'”
It was a stunning moment of political drama, emotionally arresting because it seemed so palpably sincere. Weiner and Filner are now caught in the infamous Groundhog Day moment but for the worst reasons. Weiner and Filner supporters erupted in wild applause when notified that their bad boy will not resign or withdraw from the race. A nation of TV viewers thought as one: Was it possible that Weiner and Filner would fight on after all their major money machines pulled out? Was it possible that this political loner, this mocker of the canons of orthodoxy, would try to ride out the scandal? Was it possible that Weiner would offer up his candidacy in the ultimate test of American tolerance and sense of fair play?
The answer was no. Weiner had anticipated the confusion before he faced the press, and had instructed aides to tell senior staffers privately that his withdrawal was complete and unequivocal. In his statement, Weiner tried to blame the press for destroying the dialogue that he was just beginning to conduct with the voters about his vision of the city’s interest: “If someone’s able to throw up a smoke screen and keep it there long enough, you can’t get your message across. You can’t raise the money to finance a campaign, there’s too much static, and you can’t communicate.”
The most that the seemingly unrepentant Filner would concede was that “I’ve made some mistakes…maybe big mistakes, but not bad mistakes.” Yet the facts, as ambiguous as some of them are, make clear that Filner eventually will author his own downfall. Filner has challenged the moralistic conventions of political behavior and ultimately will pay the price for his apostasy. Until the very end Filner seemed oblivious to the reality that his actions have consequences. He denied there was anything improper about his being so “touchy-touchy with women.” Filner jeopardized his reputation for veracity by angrily denying the persistent rumors about his womanizing and sexual harassment antics.
The eagerness with which the nation embraced the Herman Cain and Tango Sanford sex scandals is simultaneously understandable and troubling. The quest for keyhole glimpses of presidential candidates can be seen as merely the final step in a celebrity process that reduces political discourse to the level of Access Hollywood. As the line between movie stars and political figures has become blurred, Americans now demand the same intimate knowledge about their leaders that once was reserved for the romantic entanglements of Clark Gable or Elizabeth Taylor. Rather than wrestling with the complexities of a stagnant economy and gridlock in DC, the public tends to look for personalities they can trust, whose judgment and integrity make them feel comfortable.
Increasingly, the press and social media have come to take on the role of moral custodian of the political process. “Candidates used to be picked in smoke-filled rooms by their peers, who knew everything about their character,” explains Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. But this trial by cigar smoke died with the reforms of the 1960s, which exalted presidential primaries at the expense of party leaders. In this void, political reporters and bloggers with some justice, may come to see themselves as the voters’ last line of defense between canned television images and the White House.
In his powerful and emotional valedictory when withdrawing from the 1987 presidential nomination race, Senator Hart charged that the press had taken this warts-and-all mandate too far. “We’re all going to have to seriously question the system for selecting our national leaders,” he said, reading from notes he had scribbled in the predawn hours. It “reduces the press of this nation to hunters and presidential candidates to being hunted, that has reporters in bushes, false and inaccurate stories printed, photographers peeking in our windows, swarms of helicopters hovering over our roof, and my very strong wife close to tears because she can’t even get in her own house at night without being harassed. And then after all that, ponderous pundits wonder in mock seriousness why some of the best people in this country choose not to run for high office.”
Senator Hart’s bitter indictment was a mélange of truths. It is not uncommon for the press, tabloids, the paparazzi to go hog wild in staking our politician’s homes, whereabouts, emails, text and phone messages, which can be very intrusive. Distortions and self-serving justifications have not dissuaded the mass media from seeking a juicy story of sex, lies and power. But what the bad boys of politics failed to address was the degree to which their own conduct and statements undermined public confidence in their truthfulness.
The dramatic skein of negative events that often follows politicians who are later dethroned from their powerful positions provides insights into their often elusive character. That intense scrutiny is an ingredient of politics that often make some politicians profoundly uncomfortable.
As he conceded ruefully in his statement of withdrawal from the 1987 presidential nomination race, Senator Hart stated: “I guess I’ve become some kind of rare bird, some extraordinary creature that has to be dissected by those who analyze politics to find out what makes him tick.” But delving into the character of potential presidents, senators, and other aspirants of high public office is not a deviant form of bird watching.
The next occupant of the Oval Office, City Hall, Governor’s Mansion, Congress, or the State House could be called upon to make decisions affecting millions of people lives, and how anyone might respond to such pressures cannot be divined from TV commercials or position papers.
We have no one to blame but ourselves when the bad boys of politics run amok. As in the case of U.S. Senator David Vitter, Herman Cain, Mark Sanford and Newt Gingrich – all of these career politicians were given a green light to continue their public careers without any impunity from the voters. If the public and voters do not demand integrity, honesty, and a sense of fairness from its candidates and public officials, then we will get nothing but mediocre service, more scandals and thereby whatever the outcome we are its author and finisher.
Danny R. Johnson is San Diego County News’ Washington, DC National News Correspondent.
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