In the spring of 2013, a disgraced governor and a disgraced congressman decided to play out their fantasies of redemption in front of the voters and reporters of New York City.
Three years later, it’s getting harder and harder to explain why we let them.
The governor, Eliot Spitzer, had been caught spending $15,000 on prostitutes, who he liked to have sex with while wearing black socks.
The congressman, Anthony Weiner, had sent pictures of his wiener to women he met online. His underwear was gray.
Both men, perhaps not incidentally, were Jewish.
In the end, their comebacks were thwarted, but not before 288,000 New Yorkers cast votes for Spitzer in the Democratic primary for comptroller, and 34,000 New Yorkers cast votes for Weiner in the Democratic primary for mayor.
Now, amid the fresh psychodrama of the 2016 presidential race, one of those 2013 sagas is back like bad sushi with the release of “Weiner,” an up-close documentary on the failed mayoral campaign.
To be clear, the film itself is fascinating, and worth each of its 90 minutes, even if only for the chance to laugh about Carlos Danger again. It’s the memory of 2013 that is nauseating, and the recollection that a city of eight million decided to indulge Spitzer and Weiner as they staged reputational makeovers in the guise of political campaigns.
What rankles, in retrospect, is the notion that these two white Jewish dudes were able to convince an entire city to take their campaigns seriously, despite their very clear track records of exercising absolutely atrocious judgment while in public office. In the end, the city wasted about a trillion hours talking about them, and Weiner, at least, showed that he had not changed a single bit.
In conversations about the film, reviewers have asked again and again what insanity possessed Weiner to run for mayor, and what even deeper insanity possessed him to allow a camera to follow him. Perhaps a more important question is why the public decided to tolerate both him and Spitzer in the fall of 2013.
There were differences, of course, between the Spitzer prostitution scandal and the Weiner Twitter scandal. Hiring a prostitute is illegal. More than eight hundred people were arrested in New York for prostitution-related crimes in 2008, the same year the governor was caught. Sending a salacious selfie to the entire world is just criminally dumb.
Still, both men had thoroughly debased themselves before the public. Spitzer had betrayed the public trust; Weiner had turned the public’s stomach. In any sane city, they would have slunk away into the shadows of private industry. And for a time, they did. After his resignation, Spitzer wrote for Slate, had a short-lived CNN show, and eventually went to work for his dad’s massive real estate development firm. Weiner became a consultant.
But then, like that same bad sushi, they came back. Weiner told the New York Times Magazine in April 2013 that he would run for mayor that fall. Spitzer said in July that he would run for comptroller.
Even without the scandal, it was nuts for Weiner to jump into a mayoral field crowded with liberal Democrats with whom he had few ideological differences. You needed a scalpel to dissect the distinctions between him and another early frontrunner, Christine Quinn. It was arguably less nuts for Spitzer to shoot for the comptroller’s seat, a forgettable citywide post for which the only other serious contender was Scott Stringer, the well-liked but politically unintimidating Manhattan borough president.
Still, despite the differences in plausibility, the point of the two runs seems to have been similar. Weiner somehow believed he could use the campaign to recast himself as the pugilist for good that he’d played in Congress. Spitzer, who spent $10 million of his own money on his campaign, probably thought that as comptroller, he could claw back some of that Sheriff of Wall Street mojo he had as New York State Attorney General in the early 2000s.
What’s less clear is why two of the top contenders for the city’s highest elected offices were guys who had already had their chances and shit the bed. Even in New York, were more incumbents are indicted in Albany than lose elections, political office isn’t a lifetime sinecure. And while forgiveness may be a virtue, judging people on the basis of past actions is also generally a good idea.
Yet 5,000 donors gave $6 million to Weiner’s mayoral campaign. Spitzer nearly won the comptroller race. It was a display of New York’s utter lack of political imagination. These guys looked like politicians and talked like politicians. They were charismatic and jazzed on testosterone and good at shouting. They were white Jewish guys running for offices that had been held by lots of white Jewish guys, and so the city gave them each a provisional nod, never mind their screw-ups.
Weiner’s political mistakes started as soon as the campaign started. You can see them in the opening minutes of the movie, when his long-suffering communications director tries to keep him from getting on the phone with Andrea Peyser, the New York Post’s legendarily acerbic columnist. He calls Peyser anyway, and away they go.
As “Weiner” makes clear, the campaign was a personal disaster for Weiner. More sexters emerged, of course, and Weiner and Abedin were in for a whole new round of humiliation. Much of the drama of the documentary comes from watching Abedin’s responses to the slow-motion catastrophe, which range from well-hidden fury to less-well-hidden fury. “It’s like living a nightmare,” she tells the camera while standing in her kitchen one morning, and then smiles, as though she’s made a joke.
More than anything, the film reveals its titular subject as an asshole with contradictory gifts for profound self-awareness (“I still have this virtually unlimited ability to f—k things up”) and complete denial (“Running for mayor was the straightest line to clean up the mess that I had made.”)
Weiner reemerged in the weeks before the release of the documentary with a friendly interview on Alec Baldwin’s WNYC podcast, “Here’s the Thing.” He claims he hasn’t seen “Weiner,” which is hard to believe. If, by some chance, he’s overpowered his narcissism and skipped the film, I think he’s made a mistake. He should sit through it, if only to learn what it’s like to watch someone try to turn a municipal election into group therapy.
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @joshnathankazis.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.