Mark Foley was guilty. So were Larry Craig and Eliot Spitzer. John Edwards was not only having an affair with Rielle Hunter, but he was the father of her child. And, yes, that was Christopher Lee who sent a picture of his bare-chested self to a stranger on Craigslist. We didn’t even think to ask whether Arnold Schwarzenegger had a secret child with an employee, and yet he did.
So when the conservative website Big Government reported late last week that Anthony Weiner had sent a picture showing a man’s bulging boxer shorts to a young Twitter follower, it seemed almost natural, inevitable, that within days more scandalous information would leak out — stories where online flirtations grew less innocent, stories of other, more explicit pictures.
There have been so many stories lately of people in power abusing their status for sexual gain that it can’t help but bias us against the accused. We know this story. It’s not just national politicians who’ve been in the news for private conduct that does not match public perception.
On a very local level, in New York, two East Village cops were just acquitted of rape charges. But even though they were found “not guilty,” they undoubtedly overstepped the limits of their public positions, as officers of the law, to return four times in one night to a woman’s home, faking a 911 call to justify their presence there. On an international level, Dominique Strauss-Kahn has assembled a team of lawyers who are ready to tear apart the woman who has accused him of rape. The lawyers have intimated both that woman consented to sex and that, should they stoop that low, they could undermine her credibility without much trouble.
With so many stories of men abusing — or, at the very least, disrespecting — their public office, it is certainly easy to jump to the conclusion that Weiner, just another politician, after all, followed a similar course. The boundaries between public and private behavior on Twitter are so thin: The difference between posting to a public stream, open to all, and a private stream, open to just one person, is one character, an “@” instead of a “d.” And direct messages go astray all the time.
But in Weiner’s case, the story has a few twists. The person who first called attention to the picture was not an investigator or a reporter or a victim, but a conservative activist and blogger, Dan Wolfe, whose Twitter handle is @patriotusa76. On Twitter, he had been alleging for months that Weiner had a particular interest in younger women. The woman on the receiving end of the message, a 21-year-old college student in Washington, said in a statement that having been harassed by anti-Weiner forces on Twitter before, “I assumed that the tweet and the picture were their latest attempts at defaming the Congressman and harassing his supporters.” Weiner has disowned the tweet, which he has called a “hack” and a “prank” and retained a lawyer to counsel him on the matter.
So much of politics is based on trust. Do we trust that Weiner is telling the truth? His fellow politicians have made it harder to take that leap.