The cardinal rule of crisis management amounts to first, do no harm. Anthony Weiner, the first congressman felled by Twitter, violated that rule countless times right up until the moment he read his resignation statement and left without taking any questions.
The quick exit Thursday was a sign that Weiner had finally learned the “shut up” part of how to control damage and, perhaps, live to fight another day. It’ll take a lot longer to discern whether the “grow up” lesson has taken hold.
It’s not inconceivable that Weiner could return to the public eye in some way, in politics or some other field. “Everybody is redeemable if they show sufficient penitence,” former New York City Mayor Ed Koch said in an interview. He said Weiner needs to show he knows what he did was wrong and make a contribution to his community.
Asked to elaborate, Koch replied: “I don’t suggest he go to a leper colony. That’s from the 1800s.” He said Weiner should help others in a way that’s century-appropriate and involves self-sacrifice. Follow these instructions, he said, and Weiner should be once again ready for prime time in 10 to 15 years.
Weiner could well be looking at service. He said as he was resigning that, “I got into politics to help give voice to the many who simply did not have one. Now I'll be looking for other ways to contribute my talents.” But 10 to 15 years is probably not the timeline he has in mind.
Fortunately for Weiner, there is another model close to home—the Eliot Spitzer model. Spitzer quit the New York governorship three years ago immediately after revelations that he had patronized prostitutes. Now he’s host of his own prime-time talk show on CNN—and moderating discussions about Weiner’s foibles.
Former political operative Matt Lauer, a crisis communications specialist at Qorvis Communications, traced Spitzer's comeback this way: he disappeared for about a year, working for his father’s real estate business. He gradually started to comment on issues he knew a good deal about, worked that into the CNN gig, “and now he doesn’t look like a bad alternative to voters in New York. He could probably run for office in a year or two and people would take him very, very seriously,” Lauer said.
Before becoming governor, Spitzer was a holier-than-thou attorney general whose targets included not just Wall Street but, unbelievably, a prostitution ring. Weiner, who was sending lewd, sometimes nude pictures of himself on Twitter to women he’d never met, is spared having to deal with that flaming hypocrisy factor. However, he does have some heavy baggage that Spitzer avoided: He lied about his transgressions over and over again, on TV, to his friends and family, to his colleagues and leaders in Congress.
Who knows what would have happened if Weiner had come clean from the start? All we know is what did happen: Lies followed by confession followed by a clamor for him to step down—not particularly from his constituents, but from fellow Democrats such as President Obama, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and fellow New York Congressman Steve Israel—the guy in charge of winning back the House for his party next year.
With new photos and women emerging nearly every day, even Weiner admitted he had become a distraction. Pelosi said as much Thursday in a lecture to reporters who had asked her about him. “We will not be deterred from our quest for jobs,” she said. “I wish that the ardor for information on our jobs initiative would be as strong as it is on this other subject.”
Are Weiner’s lies forever fatal from an electoral standpoint? Not necessarily. “He didn’t lie under oath. He lied about something that was silly and foolish and demeaned himself. Voters could forgive him for that in the future,” Lauer said. Democrats in Washington may not be in a forgiving mood, but there’s always statewide office in New York. Weiner might even achieve his dream of becoming New York mayor, though not in 2013 as he had hoped.
While the Senate tends toward old-fashioned non-virtual sex scandals like soliciting gay sex (Larry Craig), seeking out prostitutes (David Vitter) and sleeping with a campaign aide who is married to your top Senate aide (John Ensign), House members seem more susceptible to online misadventures. Former Rep. Chris Lee was gone mere hours after news broke that he had posted shirtless photos of himself on Craigslist in response to women seeking dates. Former Rep. Mark Foley was driven from Congress in 2006 after sending sexually charged emails and IMs to teenage male pages and former pages.
Foley offered a bit of insight this month into why politicians do crazy things like that. “I saw the computer screen almost like a confessional in our church, where you’re spewing things out and not really thinking of the consequences,” he told Sean Hannity on Fox News. A model of contrition, Foley called his behavior horrific and the consequences dire. “I threw it all away. I have no one else to blame but myself,” he said. “I understand the pain that I caused.”
In his post-Congress, post-rehab life, Foley has come out as a gay man. He operates the Celebrity Consignment store in West Palm Beach and hosts the hour-long “Foley on Politics” show once a week on WSVU radio. Foley thought about running for mayor of West Palm Beach, but said in December he would not do it. The reason he gave was interesting. Turns out Foley has a longtime male partner, Layne Nisenbaum, whom he said has been at his side “my entire political life.” He said it was time to defer to Nisenbaum’s wishes.
Weiner’s future could hinge to some degree on whether those close to him stick with him. He said Thursday that his wife, Huma Abedin, “has stood with me in this entire difficult period.” Abedin was not at his resignation announcement, but those close to her say her absence should not be interpreted as any kind of signal.
Abedin, a longtime aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is nearing the end of the risky first trimester of a pregnancy. A wife and baby would give Weiner a chance to prove he’s become a mature family man. Being a parent is a guaranteed path to thinking less about yourself and more about the future.
There is the slight problem of how Weiner will earn a living, since he’s not a lawyer. The Clintons could certainly help, if they felt so inclined. But there’s no assurance they will. It’s often said that Huma is so close to Hillary that she’s almost like a second daughter. The former president, meanwhile, officiated at the couple’s wedding last July and is said to be disappointed by the turn their marriage has taken.
On the other hand, the Clintons are doubtless the highest-profile couple in America to weather a sensational sex scandal, preserve their marriage and continue their brilliant careers, all in the public eye. Weiner could do worse than look to their tenacity and achievements as he begins the long climb back.