A year and a half ago, if you told most New Yorkers that Anthony Weiner would be running for mayor at the top of the polls, the response might have been: What city, what century, what dimension?
Mayor Weiner? Back on a windy night in 2012, when the former congressman and I sat down to dinner at a Flatiron-district café, what were the chances of that? It was less than a year past the infamous “sexting” scandal, when, after a period of bald-faced lying, Weiner admitted, yes, he was the man in the gray cotton briefs. The admission led to his ignominious resignation from the U.S. Congress. Once seemingly full of boundless promise, the youngest man to serve on the New York City Council, elected to the House of Representatives seven consecutive times, Weiner was now universally type-slugged as “the disgraced congressman,” consigned to the political ghetto of those who had let the little head do the thinking for the big head. The fact that his name was Weiner added an irresistible touch of tabloid predestination to the entire tawdry affair.
“Growing up in Brooklyn, I thought I heard all the Weiner jokes, but I guess I hadn’t,” said the then-47-year-old politician.
In the interim between then and now, through many therapy sessions and myriad apologies both public and private, Weiner, known for his lean-and-hungry yon Cassius look and crocodile smile, has arrived at a variety of ways to express his innermost feelings on the “thoughtless,” “stupid,” “dishonorable” sexting episode, a “failure of judgment” that had “let so many people down.” He’d come to understand his “blind spots,” the way his single-minded drivenness had caused him to develop “this HD focus on the path forward and a fairly blurry take on the world around me.” It was only when he “stopped lying,” especially to his wife, Huma Abedin, whom he’d married less than a year prior to the scandal and who was then pregnant with their child, that he began to breathe again.
Back in 2012, however, halfway into what he now refers to as “my hiatus,” Weiner’s talking points were less well articulated. He seemed a shambling figure with the furtive, chastened aspect of a teenage boy caught with a cache of stroke books under his mattress. The events since the scandal first broke were like “being in a movie,” he said. He had no idea where the narrative would take him. This inability to see around the next corner was accentuated by a recent conversation he’d had about possibly writing a book about the scandal and its aftermath.
“They think it has to have some plotline, like my rise, my fall, how I bottom out, feel all this remorse, have an epiphany, and then come back,” Weiner said with a shake of the head, as if his character arc could ever be so neat. “I’m supposed to be sorry, sorry in this way you’re supposed to be sorry … but I don’t know if it’s hitting me like that.”
This didn’t mean he wasn’t sorry. He was monumentally sorry. He was mostly sorry about Huma, whom he loved and who had done nothing to deserve the nightmare he’d cast her into. For months, Weiner had done his best to convince Huma’s Muslim family that he was the exact right nice Jewish boy to be granted the hand of the extraordinary Ms. Abedin in holy matrimony. Then there was that other family. Huma was among Hillary Clinton’s most trusted, not to mention most photogenic, aides. Often seen whispering in the ear of the secretary of State, Huma was almost routinely referred to as the Clintons’ “surrogate daughter,” right alongside Chelsea. By the power invested in him, the Big Dog himself had pronounced Anthony and Huma husband and wife.
Now Weiner had done this mortifyingly shameful thing, held the exemplary Huma, whom James Carville pointedly called “one of the most popular figures in the Democratic Party,” up to ridicule. It was as if this stellar woman, who could have married anyone, had by the mechanisms of unfathomable fate wound up with the booby prize: Out of the best and the brightest, she chose him, Anthony Weiner. Humiliation and blame hung around the slumped former congressman like a shroud.
It had turned cooler by the time we left the restaurant. From across the street, I watched Weiner navigate his Ichabod Crane frame through the night air, baseball cap pulled down to his ears, as he made his way to his new apartment on Park Avenue South. The baby was born now, “a great, great kid,” his marriage remained intact. This was what sustained him, Weiner said. With Huma often still traveling with Hillary, the once peripatetic Weiner, a man who’d schedule ten events on a single Sunday, had become a house husband, giving his son a bottle, changing his diapers, watching him grow. To be responsible for the intimate well-being of another human being besides himself, to bunker down beyond the reach of the leering public eye, offered a degree of peace.