Why Anthony Weiner is America's Boris Johnson

"Carlos Danger" is the man New Yorkers just can't let go of.

New York is in the grip of two things right now. The first is a dripping heatwave; nearly 40 degrees last weekend, humid, a relentless creeping heat; not even night brings respite from the temperature. The city is drenched in sweat. 

The second thing gripping New York is comeback fever.

There is an election of metropolitan government offices this November, and before the election comes the primary, and all eyes are on the Democratic primary this time around for two posts in particular. The first is Mayor, of course; the mayor of New York is one of the most powerful people in the country, replacing the quietly powerful Michael Bloomberg who has been in the job since 2002; and the second is comptroller, the second-most powerful position in the city.

Current frontrunners for both of these positions are two men with one thing in common – they are both repentant sinners, asking the for electoral forgiveness for tabloid-splash sex scandals that ruined earlier careers. 

The headline act, running for mayor, is former congressman Anthony Weiner – the name, as everyone and their intern have already pointed out, is an all-too-easy punchline – who fell from grace as in 2011 for accidentally tweeting a picture of his briefs-clad penis instead of direct-messaging it, which led to a storm of other revelations which quickly drove him from his job. By all accounts, Weiner was not unfaithful in real life – he just maintained a series of candid online relationships. But: his name is Weiner. Tabloid catnip.

Running for comptroller, and sharing Weiner's ticket if he wins the nomination, is the former Governor of New York and fiery former state attorney-general before that, Eliot Spitzer, who resigned in 2008 when information surfaced about his lavish prostitute habit.

But America, more than anything else, loves a penitent sinner. If recent polling is any indication, they love them more than one who has never sinned at all: the day after it emerged that Weiner had used the name “Carlos Danger” to send sexual pictures and messages to a 23-year-old blogger as recently as last summer, not just after his resignation from Congress but while he was planning his comeback in a long and soul-searching interview with the New York Times magazine, a Quinnipiac poll placed him four points ahead of his next rival Christine Quinn – though it should be noted that barely overlapped with the latest developments, so may not fully reflect the public mood. Spitzer, in the same poll, leads his closest rival 48-33.

“The problem isn't adultery, or perversity. It's wielding your position of authority to subjugate the women who dream of a piece of the pie,” tweeted Lena Dunham about Weiner, but she's got the situation all wrong. A politician who sends a picture of his penis to someone online is getting not a sadistic thrill but a masochistic one. Weiner volunteered for the ultimate vulnerability, and his public flagellation since has been an extension of that. He has a self-destructive streak.

Ironically, that may well turn out to be the making of him. Were it not for the "sexting", far fewer people would recognise the name of Anthony Weiner. He would be a decent but undistinguished part of the Democratic congressional machine who would have had to get famous, as it were, the hard way. The office of Mayor of New York would be far beyond his reach.

These scandals now have a formulaic familiarity to them now. First the news breaks; then a sacrifice is demanded: a stepping-down, a public humiliation. An apology from a podium, flanked – in Weiner's case – by a nobly suffering spouse, his wife, Clinton aide Huma Abedin, whom he married less than a year before the scandal first broke. A period of grace must follow, out of the public eye. But then, after that sentence has elapsed, the Penitent Sinner is welcomed back, often – as here – more popular than ever. Bill Clinton was the template for all of this; impeached after lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, he ended up leaving office with the highest approval rating of any President since the Second World War.

It also helps Spitzer and Weiner that New York loves an outsider. As candidates famous in their own right, even if the fame is more like infamy, neither of the two have to toe any party line. Scandal revealed, paradoxically, lends the two an air of candour that evades other politicians. Weiner, with his worn-out punchline of a name, is famous: and America worships fame more than anything else. Spitzer, for his sins, just comes across as a straight-shooter. The conclusion has to be this: America is a country that more readily gives a second chance than a first.

Londoners will know only too well how this goes. Our own Boris Johnson was elected almost entirely on the strength of name recognition, and is able to shrug off scandal after love-child scandal; he is a loveable rogue. It is down this well-trodden path that 'Carlos Danger' now hopes to tread; he hopes, like Johnson, to turn the joke to his advantage.

It's possible that he may have fluffed his second chance by continuing to sin during his period in the dog-house – but the smart money is still on him and Spitzer to win come November.

Anthony Weiner. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt