Republished 10/31/2016, originally written 2013.
The sideshow of New York City politics has this summer both amused and horrified, as former Congressman and sexting superstar Anthony Weiner lashed himself to a mayoral campaign that foundered upon the rocky shores of sexual scandal and public Puritanism. While not every politician lusts to thrust himself into positions of power as nakedly as Anthony Weiner, America seems to have elected more than her fair share of lecherous, larcenous libertines to office. But in the face of our fatigue, not only with Weiner but with all his tediously tawdry ilk, should we consider paying less attention to the wayward nether regions of our government? Perhaps instead of obsessing over the bedroom gossip of our representatives, we should care only about their voting records. Why not privilege their public policy over their private parts?
Certainly this might be able to save us from the embarrassing spectacle of the national apology ritual: the rigmarole of the disgraced politico, metaphorical tail between legs, spewing weasely words of calculated contrition to a carrion-hungry press. We have memorized the cast and script of this melodrama—or should I say burlesque? We see the wronged wife, stoically standing by her man, telling the public their faith was not misplaced, even if her husband’s affections were. We watch the erring public servant mouth trite remorse and equivocal apologies. And we know it will all be lapped up by a public eager to revel in vicarious indignation.
So maybe we ought give credence to David Castro, writing for Daily Kos, who says that, “our focus on sexual misconduct often feels ridiculous, like worrying about termites in the foundation while the house is burning down.” He thinks we should let our politicians do their jobs to run our country and stop nitpicking their routine, though often hidden, moral failures. In this he agrees with onetime Cincinnati Mayor Jerry Springer. In a 1982 gubernatorial campaign ad, Springer apologized for soliciting a prostitute (and paying her with a check that bounced). But, he added, “Perhaps like you, I’m not sure what any of this has to do with being governor.” Personal character is surely irrelevant to public service, implies Mr. Springer, and any man who says differently is a rosy-eyed idealist, and probably a prude as well, who should stop being so hard on the poor, repressed perverts who run his life.
On the one hand, Anthony Weiner should not be marched onto the scaffold like Anne Boleyn. Mr. Castro is right that Weiner’s rather pathetic infidelities are no treason: neither he, nor any politician is married to beauteous Columbia. In fact, these two-timing politicos seem often to be stepping out on wives who are themselves unscrupulous political climbers, complicit in Abedin (err, abetting) the electoral machinations of their unruly spouses.
And yet, the stomach churns at accepting Anthony Weiner, warts and all, as political representative. Is it mere superstition to oppose concupiscent candidates on the simple grounds of it being impossible to respect them? Not in the least. The media apology fests of our era are perverse capitalizations on a just and true intuition: that representatives who indulge in iniquity have, in an important way, betrayed the American people. What Mssrs. Weiner, Springer, and Castro forget is that to govern is more than to legislate; to govern is to lead. And leadership, contra the craven whining of such moral derelicts, requires character.
Americans elect representatives as trustees, not merely delegates. Our mayors, congressmen, and presidents are more than glorified pollsters, carrying out their constituents’ every mandate. Instead, it is their duty to provide their mature judgment and enlightened conscience. A system of trusteeship, however, requires trust. Trust is precisely what Anthony Weiner has time and time again, in pixilated glory, shown himself unworthy of. To paraphrase John Adams, the American republic was constituted for a moral and religious people, and wholly inadequate to the government of any other. Conversely, moral reprobates and degenerates are wholly inadequate to be the leaders we as a people need.
Instilling character in those who would seek office in these United States is of course a progressively more difficult task in our godforsaken age of relativism and coarsened moral imagination. But a necessary first step is to stop such paltry pricks as Weiner from penetrating our Body Politic.