A few months ago, I attended a discussion around the book release of 28 Seconds by former Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant. The book details Bryant’s political rise and subsequent fall from grace after he was charged with criminal negligence and dangerous driving following an incident that led to the death of a cyclist. Although the charges were ultimately dropped, Bryant’s reputation took a beating and the book tour was clearly an attempt to reverse some of the damage.
While it was hard not to feel some sympathy for Bryant’s story, it was equally difficult to miss the delicate balancing act he attempted when he spoke and wrote; he wanted to appear contrite and regretful while steadfastly maintaining his innocence and portraying himself as a victim of circumstance. You could almost hear a public relations executive whispering into his ear as he talked.
I mention this because of the sense of déjÃ vu that I felt when reading The New York Times Magazine interview with disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner and his wife that was published this past week. For those unfamiliar with the story, Weiner was a bombastic Congressman from New York who resigned his office in 2011 following a scandal in which he used Twitter to send a sexually suggestive photograph of himself to a female follower.
In conducting the interview, Weiner took a page out of the playbook followed by Bryant and countless other scandalized political figures before them: after the incident in question, lay low for a little while before attempting to come back with a carefully planned media campaign that seeks to show the public how remorseful you are and how much you’ve changed, while still maintaining that you were something of a victim in the first place.
For Weiner, the interview was akin to dipping a toe in the political water; before the incident, he was considered a leading candidate to succeed Michael Bloomberg as mayor of New York City and, despite his troubles, he clearly wants to be back in the public eye. “I want to ask people to give me a second chance,” he said, while discussing his potential interest in serving as a candidate in the upcoming mayoral election.
Weiner did acknowledge that he’d made mistakes. There was remorse, as he talked about the hurt that he caused his wife, Huma Abedin, a former Hillary Clinton aide: “I live with a lot of guilt about what I put her through.” There was also introspection, as he discussed some of the narcissistic tendencies of his political life: “I was in a world and profession that had me wanting people’s approval.” (Or, as his brother Jason more elegantly put it, “there was definitely a douchiness about him.”)
That being said, Weiner was very careful not to go too far in admitting his own fault in the matter. He clearly believes that the story got blown way out of proportion, and struggles to explain why it received national headlines: “My last name; the fact that I was this combative congressman; the fact that there were pictures involved; the fact that it was a slow news period; the fact that I was an idiot about it; the fact that, while I was still lying about it, I dug myself in deeper by getting beefy with every reporter. But it was also this notion of how much attention our relationship had gotten, this kind of Camelot feel to it.”
And now, less then two years after his “crotch shot” incident, King Arthur is plotting a political revival. Weiner mentioned that his political committee has spent over $100,000 on polling and research to gauge public sentiment about the prospect of his running again. The Times interview can certainly be seen as part of the very same process, as an attempt to reconstruct the narrative about what happened and earn the sympathy of prospective voters.
The truth is, however, that Weiner conducted the carefully planned and worded interview in large part because when you’re in that position, that’s what you do. It’s why Bryant wrote his book, or why Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote a book after his own sex scandal, or why Lance Armstrong recently went on Oprah, or why Eliot Spitzer has been such a consistent media presence since the revelation of his involvement in a prostitution ring a few years ago.
In the end, they’re all doing exactly what they should be doing. There’s essentially a whole industry that has spawned around the concept of the second chance, and these public figures are simply following standard operating procedure. We as a society love nothing more than a good comeback story, where a dramatic fall from grace serves as prelude to rebirth and redemption.
And there’s nothing wrong with that at all. Ultimately, everyone has their own opinions on ethics and morality and it falls upon each of us to determine for him or herself whether or not someone deserves that second chance. When someone like Anthony Weiner tells us how much he’s changed, however, we never need to think back too far to remember when we’ve heard it before.