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.