As Weiner Finally Goes, Some Lessons That We Already Should Know

I’m sitting in the Washington, D.C. offices of  NPR, waiting to go live at 11 AM. with some ethics commentary about the imminent resignation of Rep. Weiner. He is finally doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, just as his Democratic colleagues are defenestrating him for the wrong reasons. Once yesterday’s old photos surfaced showing Weiner in women’s underwear, his fate was sealed…although it was really sealed already. His forced resignation was inevitable, and the fact that the Congressman was unable to see it so that he could preserve some shred of honor by doing his duty as soon as his disgraceful conduct became public shows how wretched his judgment is.

The 56% of his constituents who, according to polls, thought that he should remain in his job demonstrated their complete lack of understanding of the requirements of leadership and ethics. They weren’t the only ones. It has been fascinating, though depressing, to read the comment threads on various websites and blogs covering the Weiner story, because they are so similar in their rationalizations. The categories, and reasons why they are so misguided, are:

  • Lots of the people criticizing Weiner engage in dubious inline conduct themselves; they are hypocrites.” No, they are non-leaders. When you accept the responsibility of leadership, you accept the duties of  integrity, honesty, and honorable conduct. Rep. Weiner gave up the right to behave as sleazy as the guy we never heard of next door when he ran for office.
  • Nobody’s perfect.” True, but a married man sending salacious photos of himself to female strangers is so far from “perfect” when the individual is a public figure representing the People’s House that this rationalization isn’t even applicable.
  • Other politicians have done as bad or worse things and stayed in office.” Right. And they should have resigned too. They didn’t change the standards, they just defied them.
  • “Sen. David Vitter.”  So what? Vitter was apparently the best the DNC could come up with in its talking points memo; the point, I guess, was to pave the road for Democrats to demand Vitter’s head in exchange for Weiner’s exit.  It’s almost comical how “What about Vitter?” became the mating call of Democrats during Weiner’s death watch, as if it was a relevent comment. It wasn’t. 1) Vitter’s a lousy comparison. He didn’t lie when his name surfaced on the “D.C. Madam’s” client list.  We don’t know whether he strayed once or twenty times. His actions did not result in a graphic debasing of Washington leadership. It was not in the same league  of recklessness and creepiness. 2.) Yes, Vitter should have resigned, but there has been an intervening election. It’s too late…if we are going to start using known misconduct predating elections, I can think of about ten House members and Senators of both parties that would be in Vitter’s category. Prominent among them: Rep. Alcee Hastings,  a judge impeached for corruption whom his constituency inexplicably believes is fit for Congress. 3) Vitter’s conduct doesn’t justify Weiner’s, and his failure to do the right thing and resign doesn’t make Weiner’s obligation to do so any different.
  • “What do Weiner’s sex habits have to do with his ability to do his job?” Ugh. We have known, and behavioral science has known, and history has confirmed over and over again, that the observed conduct and perceived character of leaders have a profound effect on their followers, their organizations, and the cultures. Yet every time a leader shows himself to have feet, not just of clay, but of rotting offal, his defenders will make this absurd argument. Leaders are not plumbers. My plumber’s sexual conduct and what kind of person he is have no bearing at all on how well he fixes my stopped up toilet. But leaders, in addition to solving problems, also have to lead. By definition, leaders are regarded as superior, admirable and individuals to emulate, and the conduct engaged in by leaders gains cultural acceptance because of the perceived status of the individuals engaging in the conduct. My plumber’s incivility, or adultery, or dishonesty, won’t change how people regard those things; when a leader engages in them and continues to lead, however, public attitudes do change. The standards for future leaders may also be lowered.
  • “Everybody lies about sex.” Stop saying that! 1) Even if it is true, it is still wrong to lie about sex, or anything else. 2) Everybody doesn’t. 3) The statement suggests that it is not just common to lie about sex, but expected, routine, and right. Just stop it.
  • “With all the problems facing America, focusing on a Congressman’s sexy tweets is irresponsible.” The problems facing America are in great part due to feckless, dishonest and incompetent leadership. Holding elected officials to higher standards is as important a civic task as we could possible have.

It would have been admirable if the Democrats had insisted that Weiner resign for the right reasons—that he had brought disrepute on the House, the Congress, and the United States, as well demonstrated deficits in his own judgment, honesty, responsibility and accountability that disqualify him for high national office. Their motives were, it seems clear, merely political, seeing Weiner as a liability that they could not afford. As I doubt that their Republican counterparts would reason any differently, this means that our elected leaders, or most of them, would resort to the rationalizations above if they thought they could get away with them. (Indeed, the Democrats used most of them to defend Clinton, and they did work.)

Our own leaders, in other words, don’t understand the connection between ethical character and leadership. Of all the lessons from the Weiner fiasco, that is perhaps the most depressing lesson of all.

6 thoughts on “As Weiner Finally Goes, Some Lessons That We Already Should Know

  1. It would have been admirable if the Democrats had insisted that Weiner resign for the right reasons—that he had called disrepute on the House, the Congress, and the United States, as well demonstrated deficits in judgment, honesty, responsibility and accountability that disqualify him for high national office.

    Well, that certainly would have set a bar….

    Too bad politicians are by nature, paranoid. They always worry that it will come back to bite them in the ass later.

    Perhaps there should be a group that runs commercials based on these types of examples. Instead of exposing “Active Conduct” and denouncing incumbents as unfit for office, the commercials should expose “Poor Leadership” and challenge them to lead better and for the voters to expect better.

  2. The key to all this is Marshall’s final statement: “Our own leaders, in other words, don’t understand the connection between ethical character and leadership. Of all the lessons from the Weiner fiasco, that is perhaps the most depressing lesson of all.”

    I hearken back to (I’m not sure to what document) that calls for “citizens” to serve their duty in the House and Senate and then go back to their daily lives. We are so far beyond that it’s laughable.

    It is so clear to me that “career politicians” are the bane of our existence. Yes, we’ve had some honorable people who have served their jurisdictions and nation well. But these are becoming as rare as hen’s teeth. Who says — WE DO! — that members of Congress are somehow above the law and the rules of ethics? This is not John Doe presenting his privates along the internet — he’s a Congressman, for God’s sake! (He can spend as much time in “therapy” as he likes: he just CANNOT cast one vote that has an impact on our nation… Anyone see Wade Boggs run for office after admitting he was a “sex addict?” Sadly enough, he probably would have won..)

    The morons in Queens urged Weiner to stay. (Federal payola?) I’m not surprised. After all, Virginia (especially Northern Virginia) has re-elected the slimebag Jim Moran time after time for decades . (He didn’t show his genitals on the Internet…. just accepted a $500,000 unsecured loan from Bank of America right around the time their bill was before Congress…

    And let’s not hear the list of unethical (but great) leaders, or the “testosterrone” theory. Re the latter, women are just as mean and unethical as men when they achieve a position of power… Golda Meir was a doll; Elizabeth I only beheaded relatives; Indira Ghandi was a saint; Catherine the Great was, well, just GREAT, Michelle Obama runs Barak like a GI Joe and has her hands in stuff that she has no business in. Hillary Clinton may be a good Secretary of State, but she was a LIAR (good qualification for secretary of state?) when Bill was running, made tons of money off insider info on pork belly futures, etc. The list goes on. This crap about the “gentler, more honest” gender is just CRAP, and we all know it.

    When will the time come when we ask our leaders to ACT as leaders? When will the time come when we have WON’T have to explain to our children that our (supposed) leaders are sickos, sycophants, and thieves?

    Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams are rolling in their graves. How could they foresee what would happen with their beloved Constitution? Of all the founders, I pick John Adams as the model… Annoying as he was, he meant what he said and did the right thing. And for anyone who hasn’t read it (probably 99.9% of the population) I recommend a good, hard read of the letters that were exchanged between John and his lifelong wife and partner, Abigail.

    The world is coming to an end. Hunker down. It’s only going to get worse.

  3. “In A Perfect World”
    …our leaders would be well-versed in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics – for starters. “The Prince,” by Machiavelli for extra credit.
    …they would read biographies of the greatest leaders and discuss strengths and weaknesses.
    …they would debate from understood positions of each and distill a deep and nuanced understanding from each.
    …they would present not just a record of academic achievement, but promote the value of education in word and deed.
    …they would speak and write in more than one language.
    …they would eschew sophistry and demand genuine, articulate discussion.
    …they would aspire, and succeed in behaviors that inspire and motivate others to follow their example.
    …they would insist in participation – even from the most fool-hardy – giving kudos to those who show promise and a modicum of understanding, and righteous ridicule to those who engage in the basest forms of rhetoric.

    This is just off the top of my head. Feel free to add your own.

    • For your information, “they would avoid sending photos of their penis to women and engineering a cover-up while lying to reporters as his wife is carrying his baby” is 7,854, 034th on your list, well ahead of “they wouldn’t take bribes from foreign powers” but just a bit ahead of “they wouldn’t use the word “nigger” on the Hosue floor.”

      I’m hoping your point isn’t as fatuous as it seems. “Nobody’s perfect”? Really?

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