Weiner’s resignation suggests social media, politics a risky mix

McClatchy NewspapersJune 16, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., resigned from Congress on Thursday in the wake of a sexting scandal, abruptly halting a once-promising political career and serving as a somber warning to lawmakers about dealing with the ever-changing social media world.

Weiner, 46, quit after a deafening drumbeat for his resignation, a clamor that reached to the Oval Office, as President Barack Obama strongly suggested it was time for the seven-term congressman to go.

A grim Weiner made his exit at a Brooklyn, N.Y., senior center. Weiner recalled growing up with a mother who taught school for 32 years and a father who went to law school on the GI Bill.

"The middle-class story of New York is my story," Weiner said, "and I'm very proud of that."

But now, he said, "I'm here today to again apologize for the personal mistakes I have made and the embarrassment I have caused. I make this apology for my neighbors and my constituents but I made it particularly for my wife, Huma."

Huma Abedin is a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She wasn't by Weiner's side at the news conference.

Weiner said he wanted to "fight for the middle class and those struggling to make it, but unfortunately the distraction that I have created has made that impossible, so today I'm announcing my resignation from Congress."

He took no questions.

This drama abruptly changed Weiner's fortunes. Before the controversy erupted nearly three weeks ago, he was a serious candidate to become the next mayor of New York in 2013.

But his stature began to crumble with the news that a Bellingham, Wash., college student had received a sexually suggestive photo from Weiner's Twitter account. Weiner denied sending it, saying the account had been hacked, and he clung to that explanation for a few days.

As more texts, and then suggestive photos of the congressman, surfaced, he conceded at a news conference June 6 in New York that he'd sent the photo and lied about its origin. House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called for a House Ethics Committee probe.

The story wouldn't die. More revelations surfaced, including messages to a 17-year-old Delaware girl. Last Saturday, Weiner sought a leave of absence and said he'd seek treatment. Pelosi called for him to step down.

On Monday, Obama told NBC, "I can tell you that if it was me, I would resign."

Yet other lawmakers have survived scandal. In December, former Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., was censured by an overwhelming House vote, after the Ethics Committee detailed serious financial misconduct.

One lesson in comparing the two, said Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J.: "There's always something more mysterious about the flesh than about cash."

Weiner’s resignation was the latest sexually tinged scandal to rock Congress recently, most of them involving New York lawmakers. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., resigned last month before a Senate Ethics Committee found “substantial and credible evidence” that he broke federal laws while trying to hide an extramarital affair with a female Senate aide.

Former Rep. Christopher Lee, R-N.Y., quit in February after it was learned that he'd exchanged flirtatious emails and a bare-chested photo of himself with a woman he met on Craigslist.

Former Rep. Eric Massa, D-N.Y., abruptly resigned in March 2010 amid allegations that he sexually harassed two male aides.

But perhaps a more lasting lesson from the Weiner incident, said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., was: "Tell the truth. If you can't tell the truth, leave immediately."

Added Pelosi: "Congressman Weiner exercised poor judgment in his actions and poor judgment in his reaction to the revelations. Today, he made the right judgment in resigning."

Colleagues close to Weiner said what finally pushed him out wasn't pressure from his colleagues or constituents, but a realization that he could no longer be effective.

Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., said Weiner’s action was a “one person’s decision. It’s about one person’s life and the agony he’s been through.”

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., thought Weiner would find a good life outside of Congress, saying, "I sense he's not finished with politics yet."

But some image control experts said Weiner’s career in elective politics probably was over, even though he'd amassed nearly $4 million in campaign funds for a possible mayoral run.

Gene Grabowski, the manager of Levick Strategic Communications, a crisis and litigation practice group, said Weiner could follow a path to public redemption paved by former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and golfer Tiger Woods. Both endured humiliating and costly sex scandals.

“It’s probably impossible for him to go back into politics,” Grabowski said. “What’s more realistic for him, he might want to try talk radio or maybe he can do it like Spitzer. There’s lots of cable programming.”

The Weiner incident also could reverberate as politicians grapple with the new social media. It should serve as a "serious warning sign to politicians," said Steven Schier, a professor of political science at Carleton College in Minnesota, that that they need to be careful.

"They send out this stuff unfiltered, so the risk is increased considerably," Schier said.

Politicians, though, historically have wanted to be among the first to use "new media," whether it was television in the 1950s, cable television in the 1980s and so forth, said Steven Smith, the director of the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy in St. Louis.

They realize that "Social media is another forum for establishing a public record and should be approached with the same care they give to other forms of public communication," Smith said.

But, Smith said, "Private messaging is a regular part of social media sites _ and that is where Weiner seemed to get into trouble. Legislators should stay away from it."

Maybe not, said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. "Is it wrong if Claire McCaskill Tweets what she had for lunch? No," he said, speaking of the Missouri Democratic senator.

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