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.”
“I’m baiting you!” he grinned, a few seconds later. “Don’t rise every time I do it! It’s too easy!”
The tape makes for good TV. And very local TV. And to very local TV, Mr. Weiner is no longer consigned.
FOLLOWING ANTHONY WEINER’S aborted run for mayor in 2009, Mr. Weiner wrote an op-ed in The New York Times: “I’m convinced this is an important time for our city and our country, with millions of people in economic peril but with real opportunities for progress in Congress. I plan to be part of that discussion.”
And how! Over the past year, Mr. Weiner has pervaded the airwaves, and he’s done so while continuing to embrace, even expand upon, his act.
On Feb. 4, Mr. Wiener appeared for the first time on his old roommate Jon Stewart’s show. Mr. Stewart asked if Joe Lieberman is a “dick.” Mr. Weiner’s response? “Yes, Jon.”
Later, Mr. Wiener stood on the floor of the House excoriating the Republican Party as a “wholly owned subsidiary of the insurance industry.”
A true disciple of Chuck Schumer, his more correctly tongued mentor, Mr. Weiner has appeared on pretty much every English-language cable TV show known to modern man, from Real Time With Bill Maher to Morning Joe, from Fox & Friends to Rick’s List with Rick Sanchez, who repeatedly referred to him as the Congress’ “spitfire,” an appellation that surely made Mr. Weiner proud.
At least anecdotally, it’s done wonders for his name recognition, particularly among the Air America, MSNBC, Daily Kos (where he blogged the health care summit) crowd.
Why, after 12 years in the House, has Mr. Weiner suddenly gained so much traction? Has he actually changed? He would argue not, and the documentary evidence would seem to confirm that. Perhaps cable TV, in its ever-increasing cacophony, has simply caught up to New York and, by extension, to the very New York Mr. Weiner.
“Remember when Bush, when he was Governor Bush, got in trouble for calling a New York Times reporter an asshole?” asked Mr. Zogby, by way of example. “I remember being asked for comment, and I said, ‘For most of the country, asshole is just a suffix. Not even a whole word anymore.’ And I think that’s what a straight shooter like Anthony Weiner represents. The language has gotten tough, and it’s kind of caught up with him.”
In a sense, Mr. Weiner has learned from his opponents across the aisle. Say what you will about the right, but it has no shortage of forceful spokespeople—from Glenn Beck to Liz Cheney and her father, Dick, from Sarah Palin to Rush Limbaugh. The Democratic Party? Not so much. Mr. Weiner saw that vacuum. And he filled it.
“I was just doing it in an environment where others weren’t doing as much, and it gave me a lot of openings to do it more,” Mr. Weiner said, somewhat opaquely, referring to health care, in an interview last weekend at Jackson Hole diner in Bayside. “I happened to have been prescient.”
TAKING A BREAK amid a busy Saturday of Little League openings, Mr. Weiner sported Congressional casual wear—a green sweater over a gold tie—and a mild cold. He sat in his usual slightly crouched position, legs extended, arms crossed protectively over his chest.
“I threw it into that next gear on health care after I got out of the mayor’s race, and I really doubled down on it. And then I saw the field better than the president did, so he left it to me to do it.”
What this newfound prominence means for Mr. Weiner’s political future is anyone’s guess. He expresses no interest in the Senate. He professes to covet no office but the mayor’s. There’s little question that, should he keep it up, his improved name recognition will help him against the more subdued likes of Scott Stringer and Christine Quinn. In an April 13 Marist poll asking 379 Democrats who they’d elect for mayor in 2013, Mr. Weiner, at 18 percent, beat out both former Comptroller Bill Thompson (15 percent) and the Council speaker, Ms. Quinn (12 percent).
“Look for him to be the outer-borough populist who will be able to relate to all kinds of people,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant. And perhaps an outer-borough populist who is able to draw on financial resources from outside of New York City, particularly in the age of fund-raising behemoths like MoveOn.org, an organization that turned out in force at the bar on the Lower East Side.
“Anthony has never hidden the fact that he’s very ambitious,” Mr. Arzt said. “I think that by keeping in the public eye, he keeps all his options open for mayor or anything else.”
Mr. Weiner, in his fashion, would agree.
“I’m a New York City guy,” Mr. Weiner said at the diner, the Bayside Little League parade passing down Bell Boulevard outside. “I kind of view the world like that New Yorker cartoon. The only other job that ever had any interest for me is mayor.”