“I never met any of these women. I never was in the same room with them. I never had any physical relationship whatsoever.” So said a cornered and teary Anthony Weiner in the aftermath of the weirdest American sex scandal since Eric Massa ticklefought his way out of a job. But gauging the sliding scale strangeness of l’affaire d’Weiner (who, as we now have the misfortune of knowing, is hairless as a hot dog) misses the point: In the age of social media, actual sex is no longer a prerequisite to a sex scandal.
Weinergate, as the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg notes, is “the first entirely virtual political sex scandal” and has finally proven a use for Twitter beyond helping to topple crooked dictators. The imbroglios that ensnared Weiner and Chris “Craigslist” Lee are entirely different from those back in the analogue days. Weiner and Lee weren’t caught actually having affairs, so the level of moral revulsion is muted; it’s the actual, bodily revulsion that’s off the charts. Weiner may well be cleared of any ethics breaches, his newly-discovered-to-be-pregnant wife may forgive him, and the pressure to step down may ease, but those images — the come-hither cat photo, the topless one, the junk shot — are so indelibly, fantastically sad and embarrassing that they will continue to pop into the head of every voter anytime they hear “Weiner,” whether it’s on C-Span or at a backyard barbecue.
The photos offer more than just garden-variety shame and grossness. Combined with those wince-inducing Facebook messages, they lay bare the strains of narcissism and insecurity, calculation and caprice, that are perpetually at war within many a politician. The photographs and sexting excerpts are like a glass-bottom boat tour of the troubled politician’s soul. It’s the desolate stuff you aren’t meant to see, and once you do, you don’t soon forget.
This is where the real damage lies, for Weiner and Chris Lee and, most likely, for many politicians to come. The major-league political sex scandals of recent decades were easy to categorize: Clinton was a dog, Spitzer a pig, Silvio “Bunga Bunga” Berlusconi some kind of shame-immune party reptile — all creatures of great ego and insatiable urge. But while their scandals were reprehensible and of far greater magnitude than Weiner’s, even at their nadirs, they never seemed as small as he does right now.
Let Weiner stand as a cautionary tale. There’s an important lesson, which the rest of America’s distinguished political class really should learn: You’re never sending photos of your crotch to a single individual, or sexting one-to-one. You’re broadcasting to the universe. Which is out to get you, by the way. Your junk shot, unlike the quaint hand-drawn or daguerreotyped junk shots of previous generations, will achieve a permanence that has been impossible to achieve until this exact moment in human history. Its half-life will rival uranium, and it will end you.