During Anthony Weiner’s press conference yesterday evening, I found myself thinking about an exchange in Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles when the protagonist — the Heidi of the play’s title — makes a pair of casual observations that could launch a thousand doctoral theses. She’s being hectored and lectured (if also aggressively charmed) by the man who will one day be her boyfriend, Scoop Rosenbaum. After several minutes of listening to him bluster and name-drop and hold forth on subjects he doesn’t necessarily know a thing about, her facial expression visibly changes:
Scoop: You’re thinking something.
Heidi: Actually, I was wondering what mothers teach their sons that they never bother to tell their daughters.
Scoop: What do you mean?
Heidi: I mean, why the fuck are you so confident?
The question seemed relevant as Weiner stood at the podium, forced to explain yet another volley of lurid emails and pictures with a girl who was barely old enough to vote. Why the fuck was he so confident, and why the fuck were we being asked yet again to listen to him? He didn’t use the press conference to explain himself, as politicians generally do when they’re in the midst of a scandal. He certainly didn’t express any contrition. Nor did he address the pressing question of why New Yorkers ought to trust his judgment when he was clearly still struggling with many reckless impulses. What he did, rather, was utter some iteration of “I told you so” — he’d said when he resigned from Congress two years ago that more lewd material was bound to surface, and voila, here they were, see? Never mind that he’d lobbed these emails a full year after he’d given his tearful resignation from the House of Representatives — and possibly as recently as one month before he sat down in February for his first interview with The New York Times Magazine to announce his political comeback.
We’d been here before. That’s the crazy part. When Weiner first accidentally sent a crotch shot of himself to all of his Twitter followers, rather than to the one coed to whom it was intended, he held a series of long and impromptu press conferences, clearly relishing all the attention and self-righteous outrage the opportunity was affording him. (At one of them, to CNN’s Dana Bash: “Dana, I’m going to have to ask that we follow some rules here, and one of them would be that you ask questions and I do answers. Does that seem reasonable?”) He called one reporter a jackass; he kept repeating that “the country” wanted him to get back to work. (Did the country care?) Until the very end, all publicity was good publicity.
In fact, it still is. At this point, it seems pretty clear that the same traits that drove Anthony Weiner back into politics prematurely are exactly what made him promiscuous with young women online: He’s short on impulse control and long on self-regard. Perhaps the most revealing tidbit in his latest back-and-forth was when he asked his new 22-year-old admirer if she’d ever checked out the pictures of his erect penis now freely circulating in cyberspace, thanks to his previous indiscretions: Sadly, my pics are out there to look at. Have you ever?
(Indeed she had, she said, and declared herself “quite impressed.”)
He’s not mortified by those pictures, in other words. He’s proud of them.
If you look at the language Weiner’s been using for the last couple of years to describe himself — if you simply pull the highlight reel — you get an amazingly clear distillation of a narcissist’s mind at work. At his most memorable and pugnacious press conference two years ago, he compared his 45,000 Twitter followers to a giant audience to whom he was giving a speech. To this magazine’s Mark Jacobson last week, he said the one thing that hadn’t changed in his life over the last two years was that “he still felt like a character in a movie.” In his Times magazine interview, he described his downfall as a “giant international news story” — international? — and later added that “it was hard to forget even for a moment” that he had become “a figure of fascination.” (Rather than, say, a figure of fun.)
Most politicians have a healthy amount of self-regard, perhaps by necessity. But this is something altogether different, and that’s what makes his return to politics — and this latest incident — so unnerving. You can’t have no self-awareness in politics. But Weiner has surrounded himself by admirers who make it possible.
And that would include, at this point, his wife. That Huma has chosen to stay with him throughout this affair is a perfectly understandable choice. By all accounts she’s impressive and hardworking and bright, just like her boss, Hillary Clinton. But like her boss, she fell in love with a narcissist, someone who looms one-hundred-feet high in his own imagination, and like her boss, she has elected to participate in his delusions. According to that Times magazine story, Huma had almost the same initial reaction to Weiner’s scandal that Hillary did to the Lewinsky affair: She thought her husband was being framed by his enemies. “Anthony had told me in the past that there were these sort of trolls on the Internet who were trying to damage him, take him down,” she said. “And so, that’s the mind-set I came with to this conversation.” She came just short of declaring a vast right-wing conspiracy. And when her husband’s matrimonial failings were more firmly established, she, like her boss, dug in her heels, in spite of being deeply wounded. According to Weiner, it was Huma who discouraged him from not resigning. “My career seemed the least important,” of all his troubles, he told the Times. “That wasn’t easy for Huma. Her frame was: We gotta get back to normal somehow.”
The only form of normal when you’ve partnered with a man so self-regarding is a life in which he resumes his place at center stage. Huma did not, after all, fall in love with a housedad. She fell in love with a member of Congress.
And today, Huma has been an enthusiastic participant in his revival. She may describe herself as private. But she’s been with Weiner every step of his very calculated reentry into public life. She participated in a photo spread for People and those pieces for the Times Magazine and New York. She accompanies her husband to all of his campaign events, wrangles all kinds of Clinton campaign money for him. She just wrote a piece for Harper’s Bazaar, perfectly timed for the September primary. And she spoke at his press conference, as painful as it was to see, and in so doing tried to make him the victim, just as Hillary did throughout Clinton’s ordeal: How he behaved privately was their private business. It shouldn’t get in the way of his larger, more ennobling aims to save New York’s middle class.
In Clinton’s case, one could buy this kind of argument. He was already president at the time. Stepping down from public office would have created needless turmoil, and all over something deeply human. But there’s no reason for Weiner to resuscitate himself on the public stage. For Huma to stand by him, sure. But to enable his grandiosity? No.
The sad thing is, one could imagine a different version of yesterday’s press conference. Not one in which Weiner painted himself as a victim, but one in which he’d simply said that even after resigning over compulsive sexting, he was still struggling with it, and getting over this habit turned out to be more psychologically challenging than he realized.
Then again, if he’d had that kind of humility two years ago, he’d never have had to face so many calls for resignation in the first place. The real reason that narcissists leave public life isn’t because they have no control, but because they have no friends.