A shirtless Rep. Anthony Weiner.
A shirtless Rep. Anthony Weiner. AP
L'audace, l'audace, toujours l'audace.
Surely Napoleon found audacity a formula for success in war, politics and l'amour. It was also, ultimately, his undoing. What we see in the Anthony Weiner case is something similar on a pathetic scale.
What Dominque Strauss-Kahn is accused of doing to a hotel maid is terrible crime. What Weiner is wrestling with seems more a series of online dalliances. What he tried to get away with is, relatively speaking, rather lonely and small.
The New York congressman certainly has ambition, if not of Napoleonic elevation then at least on a par with Michael Bloomberg, whom he had hoped to succeed as mayor of New York. Beyond that office, of course, who knows? In recent decades, ascent to Gracie Mansion seems to imply a national career, from John Lindsay a generation ago to Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani and Bloomberg himself.
It now appears that Weiner will not be following in those footsteps. At 46, the Brooklyn Democrat's trajectory has taken a sudden downturn. But this is not tragedy, in a Greek sense, it is closer to soap opera or South Park. What the congressman has confessed to so far is not a crime but a dalliance.
We are not talking about a titanic struggle between good and evil here so much as a conflict between overachieving and being naughty. And that is a conflict so common in Washington, and in other places where ambitious people congregate, that it comes close to defining the culture.
Weiner the workaholic who seemed so talented and driven was also staying up late to flirt with women half his age on Facebook. That would be ill-advised even for a single man; it becomes truly creepy when you add in the emailed pictures of his privates. He says he never met the women, much less had physical relations with them, yet the image it projects is offensive. And again, pathetic.
The shaming of Weiner would be shocking if we hadn't seen so many other cases and worse. Many will recall the case of Mark Foley, the Florida congressman who ended an equally promising career in 2006 after his emails were revealed to be romancing teenaged boys who were congressional pages.
This spring, we have seen former senator and presidential candidate John Edwards indicted in connection with a cover-up of his illicit affair and love child. We have also seen the Senate Ethics Committee reported on another senator, John Ensign of Nevada, breaking rules and perhaps laws in trying to hush up an affair with the wife of his top aide.
But really, the catalog is endless. Not long ago we saw the most auspicious career in recent New York politics end with the resignation of Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who had gone after prostitution as a prosecutor but frequented prostitutes in private. Let's not forget that Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana was also exposed for patronizing prostitutes in Washington and back home, yet remains in office today.
Weiner, Edwards and Spitzer are Democrats. Foley, Ensign and Vitter are Republicans. Nothing in American politics is more bipartisan than sex scandals.
We learned that once more a decade ago, when President Bill Clinton's relations with a White House intern led to his impeachment and forced uncomfortable conversations on an entire generation of American parents and children. Before that saga was ended, we knew more than we wanted to know about the sexual peccadilloes of not a few of his Republican tormentors.
At least so far, the consequences of Weiner's actions do not rank with these precedents. But where he may lay claim to real audacity is in his response. He says he broke no laws and will not resign. He has not ruled out running for re-election. For the moment he strikes a pose of defiance.
Clinton never resigned and after impeachment was acquitted in the Senate. Many believe he could have been re-elected in 2000 if eligible for a third term. He has since become a senior statesman, of sorts, on the world stage. Vitter was re-elected in Louisiana, and Spitzer has become a TV personality.
Perhaps Weiner can still join this latter, dubious elite. But for the moment, his Monday news conference in midtown Manhattan looked more like his Waterloo.