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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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood