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A Penalty for Polluting the Public Square?

In recent weeks there’s been a lot of self-congratulation on the part of some pundits who believe the relative acceptance of scandal-ridden politicians by the voters is a sign of maturity in the American body politic. If, we were told, men like Rep. Mark Sanford, Anthony Weiner, and Eliot Spitzer could be embraced by the public—Sanford won a special congressional election in South Carolina while the latter two have risen to the top in polls in this year’s New York City municipal elections—then it was taken as a sign that Americans were no longer interested in public morality and had left any Victorian inhibitions about public life behind. There was already plenty of evidence for this trend prior to this year. Former President Bill Clinton’s disgraceful carrying on with a White House intern is practically forgotten. Similarly, Louisiana voters seem to have forgiven Senator David Vitter for his patronage of prostitutes. But if Anthony Weiner survives the publication of more embarrassing evidence from the scandal that ended his congressional career, an entirely new boundary will have been crossed.

As he told us when he entered this year’s race to become the next mayor New York, there was more proof out there of his bizarre use of the Internet. But while New Yorkers may have been willing to support Weiner on the assumption that his aberrant behavior was in the past, the publication of sexually charged text exchanges between the former congressman and a woman who is not his wife may be a bridge too far for even the enlightened citizens of Gotham. Weiner’s initial admission that at least some of what has been made public by a gossip website is accurate, as well as the possibility that some of the exchanges took place after he was forced out of Congress, alters the political calculus of his comeback. Not only is Weiner compelled to relive the shame of the initial scandal, these revelations may show that his misbehavior continued even after he vowed to change his ways and affect the willingness of his wife to continue vouching for him as she has throughout the campaign. Given the deluge of ridicule that is about to land on his head again, I think it’s now even money as to whether Weiner’s candidacy survives this incident and highly doubtful that he can ever be elected mayor.

For redemption to work there must be closure, and it’s almost certain that this ridiculous discussion will continue. Moreover, given Weiner’s initial lies about his behavior two years ago, any denials issued today about the dating of this exchanges must be taken with a shovelful of salt.

Americans love comeback stories and seem willing to give people second chances. But even if this episodes dies down, Weiner must now ask New Yorkers for a third chance, and that seems a stretch even if you consider the weakness of his competition.

It’s also an interesting question to see if Weiner’s decline either helps or hurts Spitzer. It may be that the collapse of Weiner will make it easier for Spitzer to win the post of controller, but it’s also entirely possible that some of the disgust of the voters for Weiner’s continuing antics will attach to Spitzer. It remains to be seen if the “ick” factor of Weiner’s Internet fetish will ultimately be considered less forgivable than Spitzer’s more traditional employment of call girls.

But however this shakes out in New York, the spectacle of voters being asked to give politicians a pass for this kind of misbehavior is also an argument for reverting to a moral code that might require them to stay out of public life once they’ve transgressed. None of us are perfect and we all require forgiveness at times. But the notion that it is too much to ask those given the honor and the responsibility of power to behave themselves is one that can sink under the weight of ridicule.

If Anthony Weiner accomplishes anything this year, it might be to remind us that there is a case to be made for probity and decorum in the public square and that Americans prefer not to be led by sexual scoundrels. If that makes us prudes who want to preserve supposedly antiquated ideas about public morality, then so be it. Let’s have an end to faux campaigns of redemption and fake apologies. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with requiring politicians who can’t avoid personal scandal that brings dishonor on their offices and their families to simply go away. It’s time for Weiner or anyone like him to stop bothering us with their addictions to power and sexual misconduct and find peace out of the public eye. There ought to be a penalty for polluting the public square in this manner, and Weiner should pay it.


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