State of disgrace: You can’t keep a bad man down

In the past, a disgraced politician would stay disgraced. Now the comeback is plotted even as the fall unfolds – and it shames us all

One way of seeing what happened to Anthony Weiner is that his life was turned upside-down by the push of a button. In 2011, when Weiner was a married expectant father and a congressman representing New York in the US House of Representatives, he was also engaged in an exchange of dirty messages with a 21-year-old student in Seattle. It was not, in the scheme of the universe or even of political scandals, a particularly big deal in itself. But when Weiner tried to send this student a picture of his crotch and instead distributed it to his 50,000 Twitter followers, and ultimately many others, it captured America’s imagination.

Later, in an interview with The New York Times, Weiner tried to lay out the reasons why. “My last name,” he began ruefully – headlines included “Hide the Weiner”, “Weiner’s exposed”, “Weiner won’t pull out”; “the fact that there were pictures involved; the fact that it was a slow news period; the fact that I was an idiot about it”. And all of these points are true. In the circumstances, it is perhaps unsurprising that he tried to cover it up.

Weiner was so desperate to keep his digital infidelity from the public and his wife that he claimed his Twitter account had been compromised, and spent fully $43,000 engaging private investigators to track down the mythical hackers. As more photos emerged, he had to concede that he couldn’t “say with certitude” that it wasn’t his crotch in the picture. He had to admit to six such online relationships over three years, roughly the course of his marriage to Huma, who, as it turned out, was pregnant. And then, despite being by all accounts an exceptionally able congressman, he had to resign. His friend of 20 years and former room-mate Jon Stewart ripped him to shreds on The Daily Show. As he gave his final press conference, a heckler shouted, “Goodbye, pervert!” It was, all in all, easy to feel sorry for him.

There have been moments in Chris Huhne’s saga, too, when even the most merciless of his many judges might have felt a sliver of sympathy. Few people could have taken any satisfaction from the decision of some newspapers to publish messages that detailed the awful impact on his family life. Many of us will be familiar with the lurching spiral of panic that accompanies a lie which seems small, and then metastasizes until the words coming out of your mouth seem to be out of your control. And again: he was, by most objective accounts, good at his job. We might regret that he had to lose it, for our sake as much as for his.

No one feels sorry for either of them now. Chris Huhne and Anthony Weiner are the poster boys of that dismal but increasingly commonplace phenomenon: the unearned political comeback. Their growth has been unmistakable. Our prurience has increased, and yet so has our tolerance for sexual misdemeanour. Meanwhile, an ever-growing proportion of our activities are catalogued online, where they may ultimately be found by enterprising enemies. The media on both sides of the Atlantic has become more ruthless. And more of our legislators than ever before are lifers with no hinterland to which to return. All of those factors have helped to create a political ecosystem that is more about your narrative’s chance of survival in competition than it is about telling or discerning the truth. And this makes it more likely than ever before that a disgraced politician’s first thought upon admitting wrongdoing will be: how do I get back to the top?

Start with Huhne, whose 62 days in prison does not seem an unduly draconian sentence for perverting the course of justice. He got out in May and last week, four months later, he made his first significant public contribution since then, in the debut of a weekly column he will be writing in The Guardian. He insists that he has no further political ambitions, but it has to be said that there are ways of keeping a lower profile.

In the piece that would have been more widely read than any other he will write, he could have put down a marker about anything he wanted. He could have declared his determination to carry on his ministerial work on climate change from outside Westminster, or devoted himself to penal reform, or road safety, or even the preservation of marriage. Or he could quite reasonably have decided that he’d had enough of all that, and treated us to a jolly slice of life chez Trimingham-Huhne, perhaps detailing a recent road trip.

He did none of those things. Instead, under the flimsy disclaimer that he realised it was all his own fault – a protestation that becomes less convincing the more often it is uttered – he used his platform for the noble purpose of blaming his downfall on a Murdochite conspiracy. Huhne’s suggestion is as follows: the media’s interest in his extramarital affair and criminal lies was not so much sparked by the same whiff of scandal that would make any politician a tempting target. Instead, they were the product of the world’s biggest press baron’s fears that the man who lost the Liberal Democrat leadership election to Nick Clegg was going to bring him down.

This isn’t about me, Chris Huhne would doubtless protest, as politicians so often do, but that seems psychologically dubious, at best; and, in all honesty, I find it difficult to give him the benefit of any remaining doubts. His appearances in the same vein on Newsnight and the Today programme, blissfully deaf to his own tone of entitlement, did little to restore that lost confidence. I understand that it’s my own fault, he kept on saying; except, he kept on implying, really it was Rupert Murdoch’s.

Not even Anthony Weiner could place responsibility at anyone else’s door for what happened to him when he decided to run for mayor of New York, although he darkly hinted at it on occasion, saying in one ad, for example, that “newspaper editors and other politicians” wished he would quit. (Newspaper editors, of course, were absolutely delighted at his persistence, Weinergate being the biggest gift of a story in anyone’s memory.) The second act of his downfall shades into a horrible sort of farce. It ended last week in his humbling primary defeat, with just 5 per cent of votes cast.

It is hard to say at precisely which moment he reached his nadir, but there is an extensive list of options, sadly too long to run through here. We will have to confine ourselves to the start and end of it: the moment when, as Weiner continued to explain how much he had learned and how sorry he was to Huma, a website called “The Dirty” revealed that he had sent another series of explicit messages to another young woman, one Sydney Leathers, more than a year after his resignation, and that indeed he had been involved in online relationships with two other women in the same time frame; and that he had done all of this under the irresistible pseudonym “Carlos Danger”. In other words, when he gave that repentant interview to The New York Times, he was still doing it.

And then, last week, his final humiliation: finishing the primary with just 5 per cent of the vote, Weiner arrived at his own election night party to find the aforementioned Ms Leathers, now a porn star boasting a boob job and a smartphone app to promote, waiting on the pavement, with the timelessly logical observation that “I’m kind of the reason he’s losing, so might as well show up”. Understandably keen to avoid such a meeting, Weiner and his entourage snuck in to his own wake through a neighbouring McDonald’s. Perhaps that process contributed to his state of mind when, a couple of hours later, he bombed out of the venue to his waiting car and gave the attendant press pack a heartfelt middle finger by way of farewell.

The day before, one incredulous television interviewer had asked Weiner the question that we civilians might long to put to both men: what is wrong with you? We might elaborate it as follows: anyone can make a mistake, of course, albeit that most of us manage to make mistakes that do not involve breaking the law or sending pictures of our genitalia to strangers. We may not even judge you on a moral basis. What you get up to in your private life is up to you. But having endured this maelstrom already, what would make you want to hurl yourself back into it, even when you must surely know that to do so is almost bound to end in humiliation?

As always, the two would argue that their motives are to do with selfless ideals of public service. But neither man is likely to amplify the issues with which he is allegedly concerned; Weiner acknowledged with priceless understatement that he is an “imperfect messenger”, and the truth is that having either of these two on your side is roughly as useful as getting a kitchen knife endorsement from a serial killer. To listen to Huhne’s interviews or Weiner’s stump speeches is to think: these are not points that must be made; these are voices that insist on being heard.

This is, of course, the problem with politics more generally: the qualities required to climb the greasy pole of public approval are not necessarily those that will really matter when you reach the top of it. And yet there are those seduced by power’s siren call who manage to resist it when it comes again. It is hard to think, for example, of a more admirable response to adversity than that of John Profumo, whose affair with Christine Keeler caused such a scandal in the early 1960s. Profumo’s first step after his resignation was not to plan the big comeback interview, or to start work on an autobiography; instead, it was to volunteer to clean the toilets at the anti-poverty charity Toynbee Hall. He worked there for the rest of his life, ending up as the organisation’s chief fundraiser. Eventually, he was awarded a CBE.

It is hard to see Chris Huhne, he of the personalised number plate, picking up a mop. It is hard, really, to see either man learning the lesson that Profumo grasped so modestly. They are creatures of power, peacocking alpha males whose whole sense of self relies on the approval of others. Their real tragedy has little to do with sexual appetite, or disregard for the law, or Rupert Murdoch: it is rooted in the fact that they need that approval quite so much. If they didn’t, we might imagine that one day they could win it back.

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Sport
Karen Dunbar performs
Entertainers showcase local wit, talent and irrepressible spirit
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game