The documentary Weiner began as an account of Anthony Weiner’s comeback campaign for New York City mayor in 2013, four years after public uproar over dick pics that Weiner sent over social media became cause for his resignation from the House. Weiner’s pitch at the time was that his indiscretions were in the past and that the scandal around his sexual proclivities were a distraction from his time as one of the most effective Democrats in Congress. The first 20 minutes of the new documentary cover the golden period: When it seemed reemergence was possible — and the rest follows what happens as history repeated itself in 2013 with a new batch of humiliating photos.
This week, we return to much the same story as before: Weiner was caught sexting a busty babe and sent her lewd photos of himself. But this time there were two differences. This time, his child was in the photo Weiner sent, pictured sleeping inches away from his father’s hard cock, and this time, Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, has not joined him for the post-scandal press tour. In a statement released by Abedin, the couple announced their divorce; like a reverse fairy tale, the third time broke the spell.
The news this week is the resolution that the documentary chronicling the second of Weiner’s scandals lacks. Instead, what exists onscreen is an unresolved portrait of a man and a relationship in crisis — the second act of a larger narrative, filmed in real time. In an interview about the documentary last week, Weiner claimed that Huma’s involvement in the documentary was not a part of his arrangement with the filmmakers. Based on what exists onscreen, it’s hard to tell if this is one of Weiner’s frantic lies or one of his equally frantic recitations of the truth. For every time in the film we see Anthony Weiner rise to challenge his critics, we see Huma retire. She confesses to a crowd that she has no desire to speak in public, she hates asking for money on phone calls — and that’s before she is confronted with a second wave of photos and a second wave of humiliating press coverage. She’s not shy in her manner with her husband or with the many staffers and politicians that surround them, but unlike Weiner, who speaks to the filmmakers both off the cuff and in a one-on-one setting, Huma Abedin does not court the cameras.
The years of paranoid press coverage around Abedin’s decision to stay with her husband have made her out to be a rabid political climber much like her mentor Hillary Clinton, and its few who miss the opportunity to mention that Clinton once had to make the same decision to stand by her man. But it becomes immediately clear watching Abedin gawk incredulously at her husband’s excuses or cautiously describe the years of therapy that followed his infidelity that Huma Abedin is no hardened political watchdog, but a living, breathing, and sensitive human being. The personal toll of Weiner’s lack of control is never more keenly felt than when the camera catches Abedin before the doors close or before she slips out of the room, her shoulders hunched, her arms protectively crossed over her torso, the bags under her eyes betraying the sleep this ordeal has cost her. Watching himself onscreen, shouting pathetically over conservative pundit Lawrence O’Donnell, Weiner finds himself laughing, “Whatever the opposite of that is, that’s what Huma is.”
Abedin never speaks directly to her feelings in the movie, and it’s one of the crueler tricks of this documentary that her refusal to speak only makes her humiliation echo louder through the wasteland of her husband’s empty excuses. As it becomes more and more clear this incident will tank his career, Weiner attempts to extricate his wife from his scandal and refocus the campaign on his politics, but the problem for Weiner is that infidelity is its own kind of political statement. “If Huma can forgive Anthony, why can’t I forgive Anthony?” ask his supporters, but for the 95 percent of people who wouldn’t (and didn’t) vote for Weiner, for whom his actions appear repulsive, the central question of the whole affair is, why would Anthony Weiner cheat on Huma in the first place?
This is a question Weiner, the documentary, does not solve, although in the end it’s the subject himself who makes the most insightful comment, stating that the “superficial and transactional nature” of politics makes it hard for him to maintain normal relationships. There are other explanations suggested by the film’s editing — that Weiner has to have the last word (the last dick pic?) in every exchange, that Weiner has an addiction, that technology facilitates superficial flirtations that would never happen in real life, that Weiner is looking for a different sexual persona than the one he can act out with his wife. The documentary hews close to its subject, and it is not weighed down by attempts to explain Anthony Weiner’s policies, his prior relationships, or his own political idols. But if you look away from Weiner and into the hallowed halls of history to which he was attempting to ascend, it’s not hard to find precedent for his actions.
Alexander Hamilton published Observations On Certain Documents, the account of his own two-year affair with the wife of a blackmailer in Washington, D.C. His contemporary Thomas Jefferson was a statutory rapist who had multiple children with Sally Hemings, his wife’s 14-year-old half-sister who was a slave on Jefferson’s plantation at Monticello. John Tyler’s children from slaves were sold to other masters when Tyler began his run for office. Letters indicate Lincoln was bisexual and had affairs with men leading up to and during his presidency. Warren G. Harding’s lover and mistress published her account of their affair after his death, as did Dwight D. Eisenhower’s. John Maynard Keynes, the brains behind Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, was allegedly a pansexual exhibitionist whose marriage to a Russian ballerina was an open and inclusive one. FDR himself had a mistress. John F. Kennedy’s affairs are by now the stuff of legend, as are Bill Clinton’s, but maybe owing to his relative lack of glamour, Lyndon B. Johnson’s cheating never made headlines. The year before Anthony Weiner stepped down from his position in Congress, New York’s governor Eliot Spitzer, then a rising star for his tough stance on Wall Street, was caught soliciting the service of prostitutes. Amazingly, after the one-two punch of Spitzer and Weiner, Spitzer’s gubernatorial replacement David Paterson started his time in office with a press conference announcing that his marriage had been marred by infidelity in the past.
Anthony Weiner is only an anomaly if you ignore the simple fact that sexual deviance has been whitewashed from American history for as long as there has been an American history to whitewash. Weiner’s behavior isn’t anomalous; it’s systemic.
For as much as Weiner flails through explanations for behaviors he clearly doesn’t understand, he is correct to point out the absurd performance of shock and outrage that has greeted his infidelity. That Anthony Weiner’s flirtations could never escalate beyond the digital realm to physical contact, and yet can still provoke as much outrage that he has over the last seven years suggests that there is something about Weiner’s fall that speaks to the psyche of the American people beyond questions of simple morality. There are many demands thrown at Weiner over the course of the documentary, but none quite marries the personal and the political better than the frequent calls for Weiner to demonstrate his sense of self-control. Weiner married the perfect woman, he had the perfect career, he was on the path to superstardom, he was convincingly a man for the people — yet what’s shocking and offensive is not that he might want a different kind of life, but that he couldn’t control the pull of his fantasies.