The first crush of the crowd was toward the accuser, not the accused. Conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart was swarmed by reporters as he entered the royal blue third-floor ballroom of the Sheraton hotel in Midtown Manhattan on Monday afternoon, just minutes before Rep. Anthony Weiner was scheduled to speak about the lewd photos he was rumored to have sent to women he met online.
It took little convincing to get Breitbart to the podium, where he railed against a perceived liberal conspiracy to cast him as the originator of the scandal, reprimanded his detractors in the media and threatened Weiner not to continue “fighting,” lest an unreleased “x-rated” photo leak out. But after Breitbart’s self-indulgent sideshow was done and the main circus event — Weiner’s tearful, televised admission to sending lewd photos and sexual communiqués to six different women over three years — was well underway, it was clear that the seven-term New York congressman had few defenders and little fight left.
“To be clear: The picture was of me and I sent it,” Weiner, 46, said of the tweet that started it all, a message that included nothing but a picture of a man’s underwear-clad crotch. Weiner said he accidentally shared the photo with all of his followers instead of sending it directly to the intended recipient, a woman in Washington state. “Panicked,” Weiner said, he deleted the errant tweet and claimed his account was hacked. That explanation might appear wanting after a week of escalating lies that Weiner told to obscure the indiscretion and Monday’s revelations that he spent three years engaging in similar conduct. “This was a very dumb thing to do, a very destructive thing to do,” he admitted. But he couldn’t offer any real explanation. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” he simply said. “I am here to fully accept responsibility.”
For his all his tearful contrition, Weiner seemed assured that his actions would have few repercussions on his marriage or his career. “We have no intention of splitting up,” Weiner said of his wife, State Department aide Huma Abedin. “We will weather this.” (Mercifully, Weiner avoided the odd politician-admits-to-a-sex-scandal tradition of dragging his spouse in front of the cameras for an excruciating display of feigned solidarity.) And as for his job in Congress, Weiner carefully insisted that while his actions were reprehensible, they violated no rule or law, compromised no oath of office or public duty, and that he would not resign. That remains to be seen.
At first glance, it’s hard to connect the dots of political sex scandals of the recent past. Four years after becoming embroiled in the “D.C. Madam” prostitution scandal, Louisiana Senator David Vitter remains a thriving member of Congress, and was even reelected by a landslide last November. Former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who resigned just days after revelations about his use of an escort service came to light, has largely been rehabilitated, though a political career remains out of reach. Virginia Rep. Ed Schrock was pressured into giving up his 2004 reelection campaign after he was allegedly audiotaped soliciting a date from a man. Idaho Senator Larry Craig managed to serve out the rest of his term after being arrested for employing his “wide stance” in a Minneapolis-St. Paul airport bathroom. Chris “the Craigslist Congressman” Lee resigned a matter of hours after shirtless photos he sent to potential dates online surfaced on Gawker. New York’s Eric Massa fought for, but eventually relented his seat over allegations of unrequited tickling. And Nevada Senator John Ensign finally resigned his post in May of this year after a long battle with ethics investigators who were looking into an affair he had with a political aide.
Each case has its lessons. As Vitter’s case shows, not resigning and waiting it out can work (in a partisan district at least), and Spitzer’s swift resignation looks like questionable politics in hindsight. Schrock’s withdrawal proved an engaged party leadership can help prevent a scandal from spreading. Craig’s last full term suggests that even confessing to a crime doesn’t mean immediate expulsion from Congress. And Ensign’s long war of attrition proves that breaking congressional and campaign rules can bring someone down hard in Washington. (Massa and Lee really don’t illustrate anything beyond the fact that there’s something seriously funky in New York state’s drinking water supply.)
Where does all that leave Weiner? He seems to be following Vitter’s lead in trying to stick it out. He says he won’t resign; he’s confessed to no crime. He won’t speculate on New York City’s next mayoral race, for which he was said to be a favorite before the events of the last week. But Weiner’s real problems are that, like Schrock, he lacks allies on the Hill and, like Ensign, he could face a serious ethics investigation. Even before his confession, as Weiner went on a weeklong media campaign to blame pranksters for the lewd tweet, there was deafening silence from the New York congressional delegation. “I don’t begrudge anyone for not leaping to my defense,” Weiner said at Monday’s press conference. But Weiner, whose media-hogging boisterousness had inspired some spleen even among his Democratic colleagues from New York, may find hostility has replaced ambivalence now that he’s made his confession.
The House Democratic leadership might not be behind him either. Preempting inevitable action from Republican Speaker John Boehner, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has already called for a congressional probe. At issue is whether Weiner made his online liaisons on government phones, computers or mobiles devices. “I am calling for an Ethics Committee investigation to determine whether any official resources were used or any other violation of House rules occurred,” Pelosi wrote in a statement Monday night. Weiner, who said he’ll “fully cooperate” with the inquiry, denied using any official channels to send the messages in question at Monday’s press conference, though he said he can’t remember every exchange.
Regardless of its eventual findings, an ethics probe that drags on could present problems. Checking catalogued electronic phone and computer messages will take time. “That will keep the scandal going for weeks, and that will most likely prove untenable for House Democrats,” says John Ullyot, a former Republican Senate aide who now consults corporations on crisis communications. A long, painful investigation would further erode Weinder’s already tenuous relationships on the Hill and could increase pressure on the congressman to resign. “It’s an inconvenient distraction that they’re going to want to have resolved,” Ullyot says.
Up until last week, Weiner’s reputation was that of a politician whose media savvy was matched only by his partisan bombast. When Weiner was asked Monday about apologizing, Breitbart, looking on with folded arms from the edge of the reporters’ scrum, barked, “I’m right here.” A demure Weiner responded, “I apologize to Andrew Breitbart, I apologize to the many other members of the media that I misled.” Weiner fumbled answers on the ages of the women he communicated with, revealed that he told his wife about his predilection for online flirtation before they were married and literally stayed on the dais until someone starting screaming obscene questions at him. If his week-long self-immolation in the public eye wasn’t proof enough, Monday’s long unscripted press conference settled any doubts: Weiner is a fallen man. Just how far remains to be seen.