“Don’t forget we’re on TV, too,” said Anthony Weiner, who learned the hard way how an uncontrolled image can derail one’s career. The former New York congressman meant the video livestream from WABC’s radio station, where he’s been testing the waters with his first public gig since getting out of prison nearly three years ago. But he may, at last, be too cautious about the camera: The video feed was off that day.
On the last Saturday in February, Weiner was in a crisp blue suit, sitting next to his co-host, Curtis Sliwa, who was in a Guardian Angels beret and red zip-up left over from last year’s failed mayoral campaign. Sliwa, a self-described “clutterer,” has trouble throwing things out. Together, they ran down topics for The Left Versus the Right, their new show that airs from 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. Weiner said he had some uneasiness about getting back in front of a microphone. But when they went live for their third episode, he vamped with Sliwa about everything from war in Europe (complicated) to a potential Cuomo return (too soon), sounding like an old pro.
Weiner, with his early support for single-payer health care and his connection to the Clintons, is the odd man out on WABC, the conservative talk-radio monolith for the tristate area that broadcasts from Third Avenue in midtown Manhattan. Notable weekday hosts include Charlie Kirk and Rudy Giuliani, and the guys preceding him on Saturdays are ex-Trump advisers Larry Kudlow and Steve Moore. The studio itself has two notable features: In one corner is an American flag trimmed with fringe that’s meant to be gold but looks yellow. In another, there is a mini-fridge for the exclusive use of the station’s billionaire owner and drive-time host John Catsimatidis. Its contents? Exclusively Fiji water.
The program is billed as a boxing match, complete with an intro that introduces Sliwa as a “heavyweight king” (Weiner does not get a nickname) and the ding-ding-ding of a ringside bell. But for most of the airtime, they’re sparring with headgear on, with the pair largely agreeing and Weiner occasionally breaking left, like when describing how green energy is a security issue. Between rounds, they paused for ads for tree removal, thermometers, and a service that breaks up scar tissue.
The duo is at their best when these former mayoral candidates and forever Brooklyn guys talk city politics and chop up old beef. Sliwa brought a photocopy of an item from New York Magazine from September 1996 (“A Curtis Sliwa Weiner Roast?”) that detailed their first political run-in, shortly after Weiner declared to run for Congress in Chuck Schumer’s old district. With his glasses at an impossible angle on his nose — his earpieces were somehow tucked into the beret on top of his head — Sliwa read through the dispatch that floated the idea that he was considering a run against Weiner. (In the end, it was Melinda Katz, the current Queens district attorney, who has two sons with Sliwa, who ran in the primary against Weiner.) Weiner said it’s a good thing that Sliwa stayed out of the race. “I would have beaten you like a rented mule,” he said.
If Weiner has jitters about the show, they aren’t necessarily about performing well for the dentists of Staten Island and general contractors of Long Island — a representative sample of the audience, according to those calling in. The anxiety, he said, stems from his own reaction to the spotlight after his personal behavior tanked a career as one of the better retail politicians of his generation. “A good part of me has come to believe that the interplay of fame, notoriety, necessity for affirmation, and all that other kind of stuff was part of my illness, part of my undoing,” he said. Jumping back in too fast could impact his recovery, but two hours a week playing the blue heel on a red station may be just right, he thinks. “This is the shallowest end of a shallow training pool if I’m going to figure out how to deal with public attention,” he said.
Weiner, with that name and that past, has never been able to truly exit the public light. On the streets of the East Village — where he lives in the same building with his 10-year-old son and soon-to-be-ex-wife, Huma Abedin — he said he is still “a walking Rorschach test” for New Yorkers. Some act like he’s still in office, asking, “‘What do you think is happening in Ukraine?’ and ‘Why is it so expensive to buy steak?’”
Others get a punch in, calling him Carlos Danger, the nom de l’amour he used in his second of multiple leaked sexting exchanges. (That one came after he’d left Congress, and killed his mayoral hopes in 2013.)
“But then there’s a frankly more profound thing that happens,” he said, “when people share really intimate stuff about challenges that they or their families have faced and appear to be looking for support, looking to lean on me to some degree.”
These days, Weiner talks a lot about service and how he can fulfill his need for it without overstepping his bounds. Lending an ear, with his son by his side, feels like a profound and simple way to do so. It’s also a chance to prepare his son for the harder conversations coming his way. “As he’s got older, he’s asking 10-year-old questions — to understand what happened to me, what happened to Huma, why I went to prison and the like,” he said.
“What happened” to the politician — he resigned from Congress for tweeting a picture of his bulge, lost a mayoral race for sexting a 21-year-old, and was required to register as a sex offender for sending shirtless pics to a 15-year-old — doesn’t come up much on WABC. “You then crashed and burned, a few times,” Sliwa said about the scandals on the show’s debut, to which Weiner did that close-your-lip-and-nod thing. The prison time isn’t a focus, other than his calls for criminal-justice reform and occasional helpful hints. (If you do find yourself serving 18 months in federal lock-up, request a teeth-cleaning right away, because the wait is about a year and a half.)
But when Weiner does talk about “what happened,” he mostly refers to past failures in the passive voice, a textbook PR move. When asked about this rhetorical distance, he claims it is a “function of time” as well as “an element of 12-step work: A notion of recovery is going back and recovering what you do and taking a fearless moral inventory and making amends. And then it becomes something that you don’t regret. It becomes your history. Something that you’re aware of and something that you speak about honestly, but it doesn’t define who you are going forward.”
The show is also something of a return for Curtis Sliwa, who took a hiatus from his decades-long run at WABC during his long-shot mayoral bid as a Republican against Eric Adams last fall. “I’d rather not be back, I’d rather be mayor,” he said. Sliwa keeps an impossible weekend schedule, broadcasting on Saturday from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m.; then the afternoon Weiner show; then another overnight slot; then another two hours on Sunday afternoon; and finally wrapping up the marathon from 9 p.m. to midnight.
And he sounds at home: Sliwa’s constant nicknames and malapropisms felt a little circusy on the debate stage, but they’re familiar in the long-winded medium of talk radio. “It’s like if a kaleidoscope could speak,” Weiner said of his partner’s overnight rants.
Their pairing is a long time coming. In the summer of 2016, Weiner joined Sliwa as a guest host for a couple weeks. Sliwa said that station brass had asked him then about recruiting the former congressman, and he gave a good report, but could tell something was going on. “He’s respectful, he takes instructions, he’s more than accommodating, but man he’s working that phone guys, I don’t know!” Sliwa said of Weiner’s furious texting during ad breaks. “Bingo. Monday morning, he imploded big time” — the New York Post published pictures Weiner sent to a Trump supporter of himself shirtless in bed next to his 3-year-old son.
Sliwa then reached out last year about coming back, but Weiner said he wasn’t quite there yet. “The interplay of my notoriety and losing my shit, I’ve only recently gotten to a good place,” he said.
Weiner used to be a dogfighter but is now more reserved, a difference seen on cable-news appearances. While he used to go on Fox News for “some version of bloodsport,” on Valentine’s Day, he and Sliwa called into Hannity to promote their new venture. Weiner kept his cool as the host tried to rile him up by drilling him on whether he has “changed or not” and refusing to accept the answer.
This was not the Weiner of years ago. While his second sexting scandal was breaking during his 2013 mayoral run, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell also asked a repeat question: “What is wrong with you?” Back then, Weiner yelled over his counterpart and told O’Donnell to “chillax.” He then started cackling menacingly.
“I was completely falling apart at that moment,” said Weiner, who is not as motivated to rise to fights these days. “I don’t want that,” he said. “That spectacle for spectacle’s sense is not what I’m after.”
But he’s no pushover either. In the studio, he pulled apart the stretched logic of some of the “meshuggeners” calling in and pushed back on some of the redder aspects of Sliwa’s anti-Trump conservatism. While being photographed in WABC’s TV studio before air time, Weiner was asked if he minded having a bit of fun with it, putting on some boxing gloves lying around the office to pose like a slugger with his co-host. “I do mind,” he said. It was polite, but clear he would not back down.