If I was running for mayor of New York City, I don’t think I’d be sending explicit texts and photos (i.e., evidence) to strange women behind my wife’s back after having to previously apologize to her and resign in disgrace from Congress.
We have a crisis communication case study in the making in this year’s New York City mayoral race as the embattled front-runner faces pressure to drop out.
He accidentally Tweeted a photo of his crotch to a young woman named Gennette Cordova, realized in horror that it was a public Tweet rather than a private one, then deleted it. Too late. He initially claimed that he’d been hacked, but the story refused to die as more online trysts came to light, and he was forced to admit it was really him in the lewd photo. The “sexting” scandal led him to resign from the U.S. House of Representatives, where he had become a particularly outspoken critic of House Republicans.
It seemed to kill a promising future for the gifted politician, who is married to Huma Abedin, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s right-hand woman.
Weiner ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York City in 2005, and in May, he announced via YouTube that he would run for the office again. I doubt he would have undertaken such an action without calculating that people are forgiving of mistakes as long as they feel that you sufficiently apologized and learned your lesson. He had to figure that enough time had passed for his sexting scandal to lose shock value.
His redemption tour hit a snag this week.
A 22-year-old woman who identifies herself online as “Sydney Leathers” is alleged to be the recipient of graphic sexual messages that Weiner admitted to sending after that tearful press conference and resignation. Using the alias “Carlos Danger” did not prevent the public from catching wind of this new X-rated online liaison.
The timing is key because it suggests Weiner, who is 48 years old, could not exercise restraint even after putting himself and Abedin through the earlier humiliating episode. He has admitted to sexting as recently as the summer of 2012. Sydney Leathers told the gossip website The Dirty that she had a cyber-relationship with Weiner until November.
In a textbook execution of crisis communications, Abedin joined Weiner at a press conference on July 23rd. She wore a tight smile as she faced a horde of media, saying:
“It took a lot of work and a whole lot of therapy… but I made the decision to stay in this marriage. (My husband) made terrible mistakes both before he resigned from Congress and after, (but) we discussed all of this before Anthony decided he would run for mayor.”
One can imagine how angry Abedin was behind the scenes when told that her husband had once again turned his sexual interest to other, younger women. She once again played the politically necessary role of loyal wife, much like Clinton did during the sex scandals with Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky. It is a duty Elin Nordegren refused to play when she found out her then-husband Tiger Woods was a serial womanizer, effectively destroying his wholesome image and getting a huge chunk of his fortune.
Like Nordegren, it’s hard to imagine what Abedin was not providing as a wife since she’s unquestionably beautiful and intelligent. I heard one pundit suggest that her presence at the press conference opens Abedin up to criticism about her motives or subjects her to indignation that no genuinely loving husband would put his wife through.
To blame his behavior on going through a difficult patch of his marriage is a cop-out, and to say that the new revelations shine a spotlight on his questionable judgment is an understatement, but Weiner is apparently too invested in the mayoral race to abandon his candidacy, even as the New York Times tells him to get out of the race.
“I want to bring my vision to the people. I hope they are still willing to give me a second chance,” he said.
Politicians with a weakness for the ladies are nothing new.
Grover Cleveland was elected president in 1884 despite a woman claiming they had an affair that resulted in offspring. Why? Because the public “felt he took the honorable road under the circumstances (by agreeing) to pay child support even though he never actually admitted to being the child’s father,” wrote Kathleen Fearn-Banks in the book Crisis Communications: A Casebook Approach.
President John F. Kennedy allegedly had affairs with Marilyn Monroe and Angie Dickinson, but Fearn-Banks said the public did not know about the infidelities because “the news media in the Cronkite era rejected such news because it was distasteful.”
In contrast, today’s media was all too eager to expose Senator John Edwards in an extramarital affair while he was running for president and his wife lay dying of cancer.
Weiner utilized the communications strategy of inoculation, preparing the public for additional blows to his reputation by saying he was surprised that more things did not come out sooner.
TheDirty.com alleges “Sydney Leathers” thought she and Weiner were in love. Which probably explains how the website got a copy of their private sex chats, because what better way to demonstrate your affection than by sharing confidential conversations with the media? The website described her as a progressive activist from Indiana. Perhaps Weiner felt safe interacting with a fellow liberal, but feeling like a scorned woman can tend to trump political affiliations.
He showed extraordinarily poor judgment trusting anyone (much less attractive young women) to protect his privacy after several of them had previously “outed” him in the earlier “Weiner-gate” episode. Leathers is, after all, part of a narcissistic generation that over-shares and worships celebrity, generally speaking. She may have been no less able to restrain herself than he was, considering the fame that this bombshell is bringing her.
We should probably be cautious in characterizing her role in this new scandal since it is not unheard of for computers to get hacked and reporters to call out of the blue. Weiner himself initially claimed he was hacked as an excuse, which the public seems to be growing cynical of hearing yet nevertheless still accepts as a feasible explanation.
Meagan Broussard gladly offered up a treasure trove of photos, emails, Facebook messages and more from her month-long Internet affair with Weiner in 2011. He was even linked to a porn star and gave her tips on how to lie to cover their tracks, offering “a professional PR type person” to give her advice. That was particularly damning to the framing of his political narrative.
Weiner’s case proves the communications theory that people in the public realm must operate with transparency to remain in good standing. Once caught with their britches down — in this case literally — celebrities have to come clean with the truth, as painful as it is, and appeal to our capacity to see them as fellow flawed human beings who experienced moments of weakness but are not beyond redemption.
The fact that Weiner had to be forced to come clean and then allowed himself to be portrayed as a family man who learned his lesson when the opposite was true frankly destroys any shred of credibility he has left. His wife standing by him strengthens his case, but she really has no choice but to try and help salvage the political brand.
This story is a vivid reminder that your digital past can come back to haunt you, especially if it includes raunchy photos that were supposed to remain private. Just because someone was once a BFF or intimate lover, that doesn’t mean they will always be on your side. Trusted friends can turn into vicious enemies at the drop of a hat because resentments run silent and deep like cloaked ships closing in to attack.
With the National Security Agency reading all of our emails and listening to our phone conversations, there is no longer any such thing as privacy. If the government has the absolute power to monitor conversations, as alleged by Edward Snowden, what assurances do citizens have that an administration will not abuse that privilege to dig up incriminating evidence to smear opponents and affect the outcome of future campaigns by setting up strings of scandals to leave a bad taste in the mouths of voters?
Risqué images have haunted politicians such as Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, U.S. Rep. Christopher Lee, Virginia House candidate Krystal Ball, and former presidential candidate Gary Hart. Idaho Sen. Larry Craig resigned after the mug shots taken of him after a 2007 arrest for soliciting sex from an undercover police officer in an airport bathroom went public.
Images do not have to be sexual to end political careers. Tea Party darling Christine O’Donnell actually had to produce a commercial to tell voters she does not dabble in witchcraft. Ohio Congressional candidate Rich Iott came under fire after footage was aired of him taking part in World War II reenactments dressed in a Nazi uniform. Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice presidential candidate, was filmed pardoning a turkey at a farm – while other birds were being slaughtered in the background.
If there is one silver lining for Weiner, it is the power he gains by demonstrating that he can’t be blackmailed by anyone who wants to manipulate the mayor of New York City into compliance. What can anyone possibly threaten him with if he survives this crisis and actually wins election? All he has to say is “So what? You knew what kind of guy I was when you voted for me…”
Imagine what future politicians will face in campaigns. Opponents will slander them in attack ads as partiers, drinkers, and womanizers by using photos taken at parties and posted on Facebook. That happened to a California Congressional candidate in 2009.
Interestingly, if a candidate appears too squeaky clean at this point, it may arouse suspicion as to how they’ve managed to conceal their mistakes or cause voters to wonder whether they are too polished and shielded from the ugliness of the real world to understand the rest of us. Mitt Romney seemed almost robotic in his perfection, but even he had his private words to wealthy donors made public in a secret video and probably lost the 2012 election because of those comments the rest of us were not supposed to hear.
The Daily Show made an interesting point recently while covering the political revival of Weiner and NYC Comptroller candidate Elliot Spitzer, who resigned as governor of the state following a sex scandal of his own. Correspondent Samantha Bee said:
“It truly is a great day for children across this great nation. Most of today’s young people feel like they could never have a career in politics. They’re on Facebook 24/7, they’re sexting and over sharing, destroying any chance they’ve got for a political career before they even know that they want one. Every parent dreads that moment when they have to sit their child down and say, ‘Honey, you are never going to be president or even city comptroller because you like Instagram and tequila makes your clothes fall off. What President Kennedy did for Catholics and Obama did for African Americans, Weiner and Spitzer are doing for generation junk shot. Somewhere out there is a schlong-waving frat boy waiting for his role model to tell him, ‘You’re O.K. You’re just like me. You can be anything you want to be.’ And Americans will judge you for the colorfulness of your character and not by the content of your camera phone.”