I was and am a huge admirer of Jon Stewart. His most remarkable and indispensable achievement was the way he called out political absurdities, corruption, and idiocies exactly as he saw them, without the traditional hedging and restraint required by serious newscasts or columnists. I don’t need to go on: he was great. He was probably at his best during the Republican presidential primaries of 2012, when America was offered a revolving door of unqualified, bombastic, self-promoting wannabes, along with Mitt Romney, as their next leader.
There was however– you knew it was coming– a few exceptions. One sequence of episodes I found disquieting and annoying: his relentless attacks on the unfortunately named Democratic U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner.
Representative Anthony Weiner did not have any remarkable accomplishments to his record: he advocated granting “O-visas” to foreign fashion models and he liked to point out that many U.S. diplomats didn’t pay their parking tickets.
But he also advocated vigorously for an amendment offering a Medicare-like government plan as an option to Obamacare, which endangered the deal with the devil Obama had made with the insurance industry. He also– like Stewart– was an enthusiastic supporter of legislation providing funds for health care for first-responders to the 9/11 attacks. He opposed the lavish military and financial aid the U.S. has provided to Saudi Arabia, home of 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers.
According to some of his staff, he was also given to tantrums and was known to scream and employees and toss furniture.
In May, 2011, it was discovered that Weiner had sent sexually explicit photos of himself — on Twitter(!)– to a female supporter. He at first denied it, but as the evidence mounted he had to resign his seat in Congress in disgrace.
In May, 2013, he announced that he was running for mayor of New York, and would be asking voters to give him a second chance. It looked, at first, like they might, but in July of that year, it emerged that he had continued sexting other women after he had resigned from Congress. He had lied again. He showed judgement that was so bad it would be overly generous to label it as stupid.
Stewart, for reasons that escape me, chose to ridicule Weiner on The Daily Show night after night after night. And yes, to me, it reached a point where it was no longer political: it was personal, and it was cruel. The jerk made a serious mistake. He repeated the mistake. He lied about it. He probably destroyed his marriage. He definitely destroyed his political career (which was quite promising at the time).
But he was also a classic example of how America’s hysterical attitude towards sex distorts the politics and culture of our society. Not one of the hedge fund managers or bankers responsible for the financial crisis that drained America’s pocketbooks and catastrophically devalued their mortgages resigned in disgrace. None of the politicians responsible for the lax regulations that allowed this catastrophe to unfold had to resign from office in disgrace. None of the government officials responsible for the disaster in Iraq had to resign in disgrace.
But America rose up in righteous fury and decreed that it could countenance a man of importunate sexual inclinations in office. He must go. And he did.
In fairness, Stewart also took on the bankers and government officials and hedge fund managers, and that made sense. And Weiner deserved the initial round or two of ridicule.
But Stewart became relentless, night after night, essentially repeating the same joke over and over again beyond all reason.
The only possible explanation is that Stewart wanted to make a great big point about going after someone who was politically congenial to himself, to prove that he could be “objective”, and an equal-opportunity satirist. I suspect he was worried that the folks at Fox News would be able to label him as an ideologue. Here was a chance to prove he wasn’t by savagely skewering a liberal New York Democrat.
It was a rare example of Stewart misjudging an issue. He should have made his point once, maybe twice, and then left it alone: it was not all that consequential. It was humiliating and embarrassing, but it was not all that consequential to anyone other than his wife (and infant son).
There’s a second aspect to the Weiner story that I’ve thought about. Donald Trump is currently stomping over every moderate Republican’s presidential ambitious like a t-rex, even though he has said and done things in the past that might, under the right circumstances, be considered scandalous. He cheated on his wife, he cheated business partners, and he went bankrupt several times, leaving guileless creditors in his dust. Why is he getting away with it? Because he doesn’t care. His “screw you” attitude makes it all rather uninteresting. “Did you cheat on your first wife?” What are you a moron?
It’s a magical ability. You wanna go after to me? Go ahead– I don’t care.
Weiner looked defeated and deflated. He reacted as if he himself really believed that his behavior had been abominable. You can’t survive that kind of scandal if you look like you really, really care if people know about it, and it brings the sharks circling. Bill Clinton made the same mistake. We do know now that he had weighed what I would now call “the Trump Option”: screw you, it’s none of your business. They (Clinton and his lawyers and wife) decided against it because they believed the courts would rule against them. And that the courts would matter.
Didn’t they know that justice is not what comes from the courts: it’s what comes from force. Didn’t Bill Clinton know that in a few short years, the President of the United States would direct American officials to torture people, bomb the shit out of a country that had nothing to do with anything about 9/11, and initiate extensive illegal surveillance of American citizens.
He was not arrested.