Anthony Weiner, the former Congressman who was forced to resign after his sexually explicit Twitter messages went viral in 2011, who no one thought had a chance of being a viable candidate for mayor, was reported by The New York Times today to be neck and neck with Christie C. Quinn in the Democratic primary.
What can I say, I am impressed by his cajones.
I have met Anthony Weiner several times. When I lived in Brooklyn and he was running for Congress, he would come to my train station during morning rush hour to shake hands and talk to folks. He was the first politician I had encountered who came to me rather than asking me to come to him in a well orchestrated public appearance or rally. I won’t lie, he was a politician, his talk was smooth and his demeanor was overly optimistic but, in my mind, he understood his constituency. If the best time to talk to his voters was from 6:00 – 8:30 am, and he needed to schlep to whatever small neighborhood train station to talk to them, that’s what he did. That is customer service.
And so when the news broke out about his sex-scandal Twitter messages, I thought, okay – who really cares about this? Clearly the Democratic Party did since they forced him to resign from his Congressional post. After that, Weiner started a political consulting firm and has been planning his return to politics ever since.
This reminds me of something that the minister at my sister’s church talked about which is the difference between conviction and condemnation. He reminded us that conviction is a specific articulation of something that we have done wrong that we can correct through a change in behavior and condemnation is a blanket character assassination that offers no hope of change. Let me give you an example. I have a friend who thinks that she sometimes uses the internet too much at home and it keeps her from being a good mom. Instead of saying to herself “I am a bad person and a bad mom because I use the internet too much” (condemnation) she said “I use the internet too much and so I should do a better job of limiting my usage at home” (conviction). You see, the difference between these two trains of thought is that in its specificity, a conviction is something that can be overcome. If my friend decides to limit her internet usage to 20 minutes per day when the kids are awake then, when she accomplishes this, she can then move past her feelings of “bad mom” guilt. If she, however, focuses on what a bad mom she is because she uses the internet (condemnation), every time she googles at home she feels like a bad person.
I would say that in politics, in particular, we condemn our leaders for their human propensity to failure or imperfection instead of convicting them for specific wrongs they have done to themselves, their families, and their communities. By convicting leaders, instead of condemning them, we give leaders the opportunity to say they are sorry, point out what they have done that is positive and then we can decide as constituents if they should further represent us. Instead, once a politician has done something wrong, no one cares about what they have done right.
We expect a perfection from politicians that we do not expect of ourselves.
That being said, would the requirements for today’s politicians (perfectly behaved, good-looking and fast-talking) have allowed for the election of some of our greatest Presidents? Abraham Lincoln, for example, with his quiet demeanor, philosophical outlook, and severe depression. Would he have stood a chance? And what about Franklin Roosevelt who was in a wheel chair?
Any person who I would want as a leader (thoughtful, reflective, collaborative) wouldn’t dare run for office because of the inevitability of media slaughter and its lethal impact on his/her family.
Have we created a political construct where the only people who would dream of running for public office are people who are delusional about their perfect persona?
But back to Anthony Weiner. Let’s look at what he did. Married Congressman caught up in his own ego and insecurity sends dirty tweets to girls. Is this a problem in his marriage? Yes. Did this affect his duties as a Congressman? I can’t know for sure but we didn’t hear about thousands of messages being sent so I have to believe that the time away from the job was neglible. Did he use federal resources in order to send dirty messages to chicks? I don’t think so.
Of course he is not the not the only politician who has been through scandal. (Bill Clinton being the next obvious candidate.) However, we must resist the urge to condemn people for their humanity.
Someone who cheats on their spouse is probably not the best candidate for political office but does cheating on your spouse absolutely indicate that you will “cheat” on your constituents? The answer is no. I can be a good spouse but a bad daughter, for example. I can be a good boss at the office but a bad manager of my own household.
The nuances of human relationships are complicated. To try to understand the desires, happiness, and troubles of another person is nearly impossible especially since it takes a lifetime for us to discover this for ourselves. To condemn someone for being human and overlooking the good they have done in the midst of their path is not only hypocritical but antithetical to the journey of life itself; to act – to fail – to try again.
And so, Anthony Weiner, I’m not sure if you’ll be mayor of NYC but good for you for trying. I applaud you for your courage to publicly endure the humiliation of “weiner” Twitter jokes every day for the rest of your public life. I think it’s grand that you are asking people to look at what you have done, really done, in order to make NYC a better place. And so, I am not going to condemn you for being a bad person; I am going to accept that you have done things online that were probably not good choices in the same way that I have made some bad choices, too. Now that we are done with that – how are you going to make this country, and NYC in particular, a better place? Isn’t that what we should really be talking about, anyway?