Weiner: As American as political redemption

By Bruce J. Schulman
June 18, 2013


“All the past we leave behind.” So insisted America’s poet, Walt Whitman, a man who would not be encompassed by any one identity — who refused to be constrained by birth, by place, by experience.

Americans, following Whitman, have long celebrated their nation as a redemptive land, a place where the past leaves few traces, where people possess almost infinite capacity to rewrite their own stories and restart their lives.

The nation’s politicians have long enjoyed the license to reinvent themselves that Whitman celebrated. From President William Henry Harrison, the Virginia aristocrat who recast himself as the “poor farmer of North Bend” summoned from his log cabin, to President George W. Bush, the Yale and Andover-trained preppie turned Texas oilman, they have fabricated entirely new identities. Even more remarkable, politicians ousted from office for a wide range of lies, scandals and even crimes have won re-election, sometimes from the very same voters that previously dismissed them.

Consider Mark Sanford, the disgraced South Carolina governor who recently won re-election to Congress after being driven from office when a “walk along the Appalachian Trail” turned out to be a not-very-good cover story for an affair with his Argentine mistress. Former Representative Anthony Weiner, who is now running for mayor of New York, has become the latest in a long line of disgraced officials seeking not only absolution, but political resurrection.

It is an ancient and familiar feature of American politics: Voters have been willing to re-elect their fallen leaders, whether they found them in the arms of a stripper, the pocket of corrupt supporters or even behind the bars of a penitentiary.

What explains this willingness not only to forgive, but to hand back power to these straying politicians? To be sure, the profoundly religious nature of the United States contributes to this ethos of forgiveness. In a nation where so many experience spiritual regeneration, born-again politicians” are no oddity.

Powerful secular traditions reinforce this tendency. After all, millions immigrated to the United States, altering their names, their stations and their destinies — experiences that inspired abiding admiration for people who make new starts.

But another venerable tradition also played a pivotal role in Americans’ willingness to forgive fallen leaders: partisanship. As deposed politicians have found from the 1790s to Sanford in the heavily Republican South Carolina of today, voters most happily forgive fallen leaders when they champion their partisan interests in tough fights. Bribery, drunkenness, infidelity, even racketeering: When the villain’s one of us, forgiveness comes that much more easily.

History offers several instructive examples.

Among the first American politicians to navigate the cycle of controversy and redemption was Matthew Lyon. He immigrated to Vermont from Ireland and fought (or, as opponents chided, evaded combat) in the American Revolution. Lyon then published a highly partisan newspaper and won a seat in the House of Representatives. In Congress, the ardent Jeffersonian spit in the face of a Federalist colleague and when the recipient of that insult accosted him with a cane, Lyon fought back with a pair of fireplace tongs.

Convicted for violations of the Sedition Act, Lyon, while in prison, published an account of his trial and ran successfully for re-election. After his second term in 1801, Lyon faced new charges in Vermont for libel. He ultimately moved to Kentucky and there twice more won election to Congress.

He achieved this by repeatedly persuading his constituents that he was as much a victim as perpetrator. In returning him to office, voters not only granted redemption to a politician with a checkered past and a violent temper, but also vindicated Jeffersonian charges of Federalist tyranny.

A similar mix of forgiveness and gratitude motivated 20th-century voters to return to office two urban bosses notorious for corruption, though they also campaigned from behind bars.

In Massachusetts, fabled pol James Michael Curley served as a congressman, governor and four-term mayor of Boston. The “rascal king” modernized his beloved city — building parks, roads, bridges and hospitals, while making sure his supporters received lavish public works contracts and his constituents got jobs and services.

Curley twice ended up in jail on fraud charges. During both sentences Boston voters forgave and forgot — electing him to the Board of Alderman while he was in prison in 1904 and enthusiastically greeting his return to City Hall after he spent five months of his final mayoral term as an inmate in the federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut.

The good people of Union City, New Jersey, showed even greater generosity toward their charismatic mayor, William J. Musto. An early supporter of bilingual education, with a famously large appetite for Italian sandwiches and a fondness for the racetrack, Musto went to prison in 1982 for diverting funds meant for public schools to mobsters and shady contractors. Yet almost immediately after being sentenced to serve time on federal racketeering charges, Musto won another term as mayor of Union City.

American voters have offered absolution for personal malfeasance as well as abuses of the public trust. In October 1974, Washington police stopped the car of Arkansas Representative Wilbur Mills, long-serving chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, for driving at night without headlights. The officers found Mills intoxicated, his face scratched from a scuffle with his passenger, a stripper from Argentina who worked under the stage name of Fanne Foxe. (She attempted to elude the police by leaving the car and jumping into the Tidal Basin.)

A few days later, newspapers reported that Mills frequented the Silver Slipper, a strip club where Foxe performed as “the “Argentinian Firecracker,” spent lavishly at that establishment and often got into arguments. In addition, when police dragged Foxe out of the water, Mills could not explain why she had two black eyes.

Yet one month later, Mills’ constituents re-elected him with nearly 60 percent of the popular vote. Their patience went only so far, however. After a second drunken incident, Mills acknowledged his alcoholism, apologized to his family and resigned his position.

Last month South Carolina’s voters returned Sanford to Congress, just a few short years after driving him from the governor’s mansion when he tearfully confessed, in an extended news conference, to lying and adultery. “We have a tradition in the South, and in South Carolina, of forgiveness,” Sanford noted last month, expressing gratitude for “this larger notion of human grace.”

Like his infamous predecessors,  Weiner hopes to tap into the strain of redemption in American public life — to benefit from what Whitman identified as a national willingness to leave the past behind. Weiner has apologized repeatedly and asked for some of that same forgiveness that Sanford received.

But in an overwhelmingly Democratic city where Weiner’s principal opponents come from the same side of the aisle, the man famous for his inappropriate tweets may need more than grace. Invoking a great American tradition, the former congressman who made his political reputation as a thorn in the side of national conservatives, needs to do more than convince constituents that he has repented his sins.

Like Musto and Curley and Lyon, Weiner must prove that he can still deliver the partisan goods.


PHOTO (Insert A): Representative Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) pauses as he announces his resignation from the House of Representatives during a news conference in Brooklyn, New York, June 16, 2011. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

PHOTO (Insert B): South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford speaks to the media about his secret trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina and admits to an extramarital affair at the State House in Columbia, South Carolina, June 24, 2009. REUTERS/Tim Dominick/The State

PHOTO (Insert C): Boston Mayor James Michael Curley, who spent time in jail even while in office. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

PHOTO (Insert D): Representative Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) reacts as he speaks to the press in New York, June 6, 2011.REUTERS/Brendan McDermid


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