To understand why virtually everyone with a pulpit in New York City is calling for Anthony Weiner to exit the mayoral race, you must understand this. Weiner’s sin is not that he committed repellent acts of sexual infidelity and repeatedly lied about them. Pundits would be more tolerant of that. It’s that he committed repellent acts of sexual infidelity in a technologically novel way that makes his misbehavior hideously graphic. When it comes to sexual sleaze, he’s paying the price for being a pioneer.
To understand the disproportionate response to Weiner’s misdeeds, remember that The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Daily News are not merely counseling voters to select one of Weiner’s rivals. They’re trying to pressure Weiner from the race, thus denying voters the choice. That’s highly undemocratic, especially when, according to polls, Weiner enjoys substantial public support. And it’s something newspapers rarely do, even when candidates commit graver misdeeds.
To understand how much graver, consider the Times’s treatment of candidate Bill Clinton. In late January 1992, in a press conference in New York, Gennifer Flowers claimed that she had been Clinton’s lover for 12 years. She released audiotapes in which Clinton apparently encouraged her to lie about the affair and urged her to file an affidavit alleging that Republicans were behind the story. She also said Clinton had helped her get a job in state government. Appearing with Hillary on 60 Minutes, Clinton responded by saying that Flowers was motivated by “money” and that her “allegation is false,” while acknowledging that he “had caused pain in my marriage.” That summer, The Washington Post’s Michael Isikoff reported that the Clinton campaign had paid a private investigator to head off what one staffer called “bimbo eruptions” but failed to disclose the payment in its filing to the Federal Elections Commission.
The Times’s response? Not only did the paper not demand that Clinton leave the race, but barely two months after Flowers’ press conference, it endorsed him for the Democratic nomination. After briefly reviewing the Clinton scandals, The Times declared that “some of these episodes have been unfair or exaggerated. Together they leave enduring doubts. But what’s been obscured in all the commotion is a record of accomplishment that gives credibility to the cogent [policy] program [Clinton] proposes.”
By any reasonable standard, Weiner’s behavior is less damning than Clinton’s. Yes, Weiner committed adultery (of a kind). Yes, he repeatedly lied about it. Yes, he humiliated his wife in an effort to save his candidacy. Clinton did all that, too. What Weiner, in contrast to Clinton, has not done—as far as we know—is use his office to reward his paramours. He has not publicly besmirched their character. He has not asked them to violate the law. And he has not violated campaign disclosure laws in his effort to keep them silent. According to legal experts, he has also not committed sexual harassment.
In 1992, as far as the Times knew, neither had Bill Clinton. But in 1994, Paula Jones filed a sexual-harassment suit alleging that when she was a low-level Arkansas state employee, a state trooper told her to meet the governor in a hotel room, at which time Clinton exposed himself and propositioned her. Clinton’s close adviser, James Carville, responded that if you “drag $100 bills through trailer parks, there’s no telling what you’ll find.” And the Times? Far from suggesting that Clinton not seek reelection in 1996, it endorsed him once again.
What explains the difference between the response to Clinton’s misdeeds and the response to Weiner’s? Partly, it’s because Clinton is both personally charming and highly impressive on matters of public policy. Weiner is not. But while that distinction might justify the Times’s decision to endorse Clinton and not Weiner, it doesn’t justify the Times’s decision to demand Weiner leave the race. If newspapers as a matter of course called on candidates to drop out because they’re self-promoting and lack a distinguished record of public service, they’d run out of ink. Indeed, the Times’s editorial calling on Weiner to exit the race made no reference to his policy proposals or record in government.
A second explanation for the Clinton-Weiner discrepancy is that, from the beginning, liberals suspected, with some justification, that conservatives were using the Clinton scandals to try to drive a talented liberal from public life. In the New York mayoral race, by contrast, conservatives are irrelevant. The Times need not worry that by ending Weiner’s candidacy it will harm the liberal causes it cares about because Weiner’s chief mayoral opponents all believe basically the same things he does.
But even this doesn’t get to the heart of it. In the spring of 1992, after all, the alternative to Bill Clinton was not yet George H.W. Bush. It was Paul Tsongas. Yet the Times still overlooked allegations whose seriousness it would have recognized had it peered closer.
The key difference is technology. By 1992, the Times—and the public more generally—had gotten used to tabloid stories about candidate affairs. Just such a story had torpedoed Gary Hart’s candidacy in 1988. And the Hart scandal has produced endless discussions of the history of presidential infidelity, a discussion generally premised on the belief that it was a good thing that the press hadn’t driven philanderers like Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy from office. The tawdry details of the Clinton scandals differed, but the basic narrative was one to which Americans were becoming inured.
Moreover—and this is crucial—the tawdry details weren’t available, at least not as photographs you can share on Facebook. In 1991, when Bill Clinton allegedly showed Paula Jones his penis in a Little Rock hotel, sexting her a photo wasn’t an option. For her part, Jones ran disgusted from the room and later leveled allegations that were easy to ignore and hard to prove. Had she used her cellphone to secretly videotape Clinton’s boorishness—and then emailed the attachment to thedirty.com—Clinton might have been forced to admit what he had done. And when people actually saw what he had done, their gut-level revulsion might have destroyed him.
The point is that sexual sleaze is more repellent when everyone can see it up close. That’s especially true for a largely middle-age punditocracy that is familiar with flesh-and-blood affairs but far less familiar with the kind that take place via cellphone. According to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center, only 5 percent of Americans 30–49 admit to having sent a sexually explicit message or image via cell. Among Americans in their 20, it’s 13 percent. As in so many arenas of life, what people once did in person they now do virtually. And for a generation that’s not yet accustomed to them, sexual indiscretions committed virtually seem creepier than the old-fashioned kind. In a decade, after we’ve suffered through loads of sexting scandals (and we will), I suspect penis pictures will lose their some of their power to shock.
“Mr. Weiner is not a normal human being,” sneered the Journal in its editorial demanding he drop out. If only it were that simple. Was Franklin Roosevelt normal? He began an affair with Eleanor’s social secretary, Lucy Mercer, was caught, and pledged to remain faithful, then took up with Mercer again, even though she was now married and he was president. His daughter helped him conceal the continued infidelity from her own mother, and it was Mercer, not the president’s wife, who was with FDR when he died. Was John F. Kennedy normal? He allegedly invited prostitutes to swim in the White House pool. Among the various women with whom he slept as president was Judith Exner, who was simultaneously sleeping with the most powerful mobster in Chicago. Was Lyndon Johnson normal? Fellow members of Congress commented with alarm on his habit of waving his penis in their direction in Capitol bathrooms while commenting proudly on its size. In mixed company, he sometimes pulled down his pants to scratch his rear end. “None of the body parts customarily referred to as private were private when the parts were Lyndon Johnson’s,” wrote Robert Caro.
I’m not excusing this. It’s to feminism’s credit that we’re now less tolerant of powerful men behaving badly. But the sad truth is that throughout American history, powerful—and not so powerful—men have been acting in destructive and self-destructive ways sexually. We can call them selfish, troubled, abusive, and immoral. To suggest, however, that they represent a different kind of human being is wrong, and too easy. There have been lots of Anthony Weiners in American politics. Voters have elected them; prestigious newspapers have endorsed them; some of them have been among our greatest leaders. What’s abnormal isn’t the gravity of Weiner’s offense. It’s the method. And for better or worse, it’s unlikely to remain that abnormal for long.