Congressman Anthony Weiner bounded into a DJ booth at a fashionable Lower East Side bar one recent Wednesday night, grabbed the microphone with his left hand and unleashed his inner Borscht Belt.
“Every single moment that we are stroking our beards and gazing at our navel and thinking about the world we’d like to be and singing ‘Kumbaya’ is another day we’re not punching Bill O’Reilly in the nose.”
“I follow Twitter for the Tea Party and just show up to fuck with them,” he said. The crowd of 20-somethings crowed.
“No, I don’t actually do that. I just sit at my desk and they send me talcum powder every couple of weeks.”
He was only half-joking. On Thursday, March 25, an envelope of white powder (which ultimately proved harmless) arrived at Congressman Weiner’s district office in Kew Gardens. Given Mr. Weiner’s prominence in the health care debate, and the sometimes violent leanings of those opposed to health care reform, Mr. Weiner is an obvious target. He has, perhaps more than any fellow member of Congress, used health care as a springboard to launch himself into the center of the roiling national argument. And he’s done so not by abandoning his New York shtick, but rather by capitalizing on it. That he could capitalize on it is a testament to a media with a growing appetite for eyebrow-raising commentary and a shortage of left-leaning sources to provide it.
“He’s found the formula to capture television attention, and also to send the message that upward mobility is on his mind,” said pollster John Zogby. A formula that has sent him, in Mr. Zogby’s words, into the “very top tier” of visibility for a congressman, among the top “10 or a dozen.”
Anthony Weiner has long been an aggressive, filter-no-vulgarities New Yorker, with a penchant for performance and a physique made for the caricaturist’s pen—long and stringy, narrow shoulders, an ostrich neck, Vulcan ears, a nasal voice that, close your eyes, could stand in for Woody Allen’s.
He was elected to his former boss Chuck Schumer’s old Congressional seat in 1998, in a four-way primary that he won by less than 500 votes. Even then, he was a presshound. C-SPAN followed him around during freshman orientation. The resulting Road to the Capitol episode features Mr. Weiner, looking like a precocious debate team captain, trying to find his way past the locked doors of the Rayburn House office building, and then talking incessantly with Congressional staffers about the politics of scoring good office space.
In 2005, Mr. Weiner ran for mayor and lost. He almost ran again in 2009, but dropped the idea after Mayor Bloomberg overturned term limits. All the while, his personality has been consistently outsize, sometimes grating and always unignorable. Today, he is one of the most formidable undeclared future Democratic candidates for … something. As such, he has every incentive to raise his numbers citywide, and to form a national following of liberal donors across the country.
So is his newfound national prominence strategic? Or has the national media merely caught on to the entertaining phenomenon that is the Anthony Weiner Show?
“You know, when I introduced myself outside of my district when running for mayor in 2005, much of the commentary was ‘sharp-tongued,’ ‘funny,’ ‘irreverent,’” said Mr. Weiner in an interview at the Kingsborough Community College cafeteria. “This is kind of who I am. It’s kind of always been who I am, I think.”
“He’s a Brooklyn boy,” agreed political consultant George Arzt. “He’s a street kid who has always been a little bit edgy.
One episode from Mr. Weiner’s past is frequently held up as emblematic of his pugilist ways.
The date is August 29, 2006. Mr. Weiner has left a Park Slope meeting during which his Congressional pal, the late John Murtha, endorsed his would-be Congressional pal, Yvette Clarke. It’s dark outside, and Mr. Weiner is surrounded by supporters of Ms. Clarke’s opponent, Chris Owens. Rather than shy away, Mr. Weiner jumps into the scrum. Politico’s Ben Smith, then at the Daily News, captures it on camera:
“This is a campaign! Hey, guys, this is a campaign,” says Mr. Weiner, his voice rising to a good-humored whine. “You want Chris Owens to win. He’s not. Yvette’s going to win. But it’s great that you’re out here doing this.”