All veteran journalists know that the only thing to do with fish in a barrel is to shoot them, as the cliché demands. Thus, all members of the media, left, right, and center, have spent this week eagerly popping away at Anthony Weiner and his hapless wife Huma Abedin. And who can blame us? The spectacle of the serial sexter and flasher and his enabler wife is the stuff of implausible fiction, not normal political news. But not everyone is chortling along with a public that can’t seem to get enough of this scandal.
Over at the Daily Beast, Peter Beinart writes to say the calls from conservatives as well as liberal organs like the New York Times for Weiner to leave the race immediately and take his severe behavioral disorder somewhere out of the public square are wrong. Beinart believes it is anti-democratic for prudes to seek to deny the voters their right to vote for the man better known by the name of his alter ego Carlos Danger. Since the need for the body politic to make room for sexual deviants is, I think, nowhere mentioned in the Federalist Papers, I think that’s an odd conception of the essentials of democracy. But in order to make this argument, Beinart stumbles across a profound truth: Democrats have already excused behavior that is, if anything, far worse than Weiner’s bizarre act. And by that he is, of course, referring to Bill Clinton:
By any reasonable standard, Weiner’s behavior is less damning than Clinton’s. Yes, Weiner committed adultery (of a kind). Yes, he repeatedly lied about it. Yes, he humiliated his wife in an effort to save his candidacy. Clinton did all that, too. What Weiner, in contrast to Clinton, has not done—as far as we know—is use his office to reward his paramours. He has not publicly besmirched their character. He has not asked them to violate the law. And he has not violated campaign disclosure laws in his effort to keep them silent. According to legal experts, he has also not committed sexual harassment.
Beinart leaves out Clinton’s lying under oath, but he’s right. But rather than using the refusal of the New York Times to condemn Clinton, let alone demand that Clinton leave the 1992 presidential race or resign once in office, as a rationale to justify Weiner’s continued presence in the public square, what he has done is remind us of the moral bankruptcy of Clinton’s many defenders who continue to ignore the voluminous evidence of his misconduct and treat him as a revered elder statesman–not to mention a future presidential spouse.
Beinart is also correct to note that if phone cameras had been available back in Arkansas when then Governor Clinton was running riot with the assistance of his faithful State Trooper bodyguards, the evidence of his disgusting carryings-on might have been too much for even his cheering section in the press to ignore or excuse. There is more than a grain of truth in his point that the difference between Weiner’s indiscretions and those of Clinton and previous generations of sexual predators and philanderers entrusted with high public office is primarily one of technology.
The point about Clinton is telling because it reminds us that allowing people who abuse and lie in the manner that Bill and Hillary did—and which Anthony and Huma would like to emulate—has consequences. The willingness of Democrats and liberal soapboxes like the Times to embrace Clinton in 1992 set us up for what would follow. From that point on, every lying predator in political office or seeking one has been able to say that if Clinton could be excused, so could they.
People like Beinart and others continually tell us that we were right to give the Clintons a pass and that it would have been a tragedy if other sexual miscreants who found their way into the Oval Office like John F. Kennedy had been made accountable for their conduct since it would have deprived of us of their gifts. Yet if there is anything that is an eternal truth about democracy it is that no man or woman is indispensable. We are a nation of laws, not men. That’s something that should not be forgotten three years from now when Huma’s mentors the Clintons attempt to regain their lapsed lease on the White House.
Perhaps what Beinart calls the “disproportionate” response to Weiner is merely the result of him being a “pioneer” in the field of using social media to misbehave rather than more private means. But instead of shrugging at this spectacle and resigning ourselves to more like it in the future as Beinart glumly expects we must, perhaps this is the moment for Americans to finally say that we demand more of those charged with the public’s trust. If the Clintons and the Weiners have taught us anything, it is that there is still a viable argument to be made for public morality.