April 11, 2013
Anthony Weiner
Anthony Weiner (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

“Mad Men” is back and so, apparently, is Anthony Weiner. When we last left the show, the partners at SDCP were scouting new offices and contemplating a new professional future. But the metaphor of that episode was Don Draper’s rotten tooth, telling us that the past is our constant companion and ready to assert itself most inconveniently. When we last left Weiner, he was disgraced, resigned and ridiculed. But, now, in an extraordinary confessional, he is testing the waters to run for mayor of New York City.

What is interesting here is the painful look inside a naked hollowness that seems to haunt more politicians than just Anthony Weiner. I have long been fascinated by what drives some politicians, what allows them to lead such lives. And here is the life: working 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, traveling, always on, multi-channel awareness, constantly ingratiating, always running, forever being judged and judging. Is this, by any definition, a sane life?

So why do they do it? Weiner gives us a rather candid look at the need for attention and affirmation that fuels the life of some of the most ambitious and neurotic politicians. (Even his therapeutic musings must be made public. This works for Woody Allen; I’m not so sure it is so charming in Anthony Weiner.) In response to a request to explain why he texted and tweeted suggestive photos of himself, Weiner responded,

For a thoughtful person, it’s remarkable how little thought I really gave to it until it was too late. But I think a lot of it came down to: I was in a world and a profession that had me wanting people’s approval. By definition, when you are a politician, you want people to like you, you want people to respond to what you’re doing, you want to learn what they want to hear so you can say it to them. Twitter and Facebook allowed for me — not only could I go to a town-hall meeting or a senior center or in front of the TV camera, but now I could sit and hear what people were saying all around. Search your name on Google, begat read comments on your Facebook page, begat looking at what people are saying about you on Twitter, to then trying to engage them. “Oh, you should like me!” “No, that’s wrong!” or “Thank you very much!” And it just started to blur into this desire to engage in it all the time. Someone stops me in the airport and says, “Wow, you’re amazing.” Well, O.K., now, at 2 o’clock in the morning, I can come home from playing hockey and I can find someone saying, “Oh, that was great” or “You’re an idiot.”

There it is: the essence of the political neurosis. As the psychologist Leon F. Seltzer puts it:

Quite independent of professional achievement, they (politicians) expect to be treated as superior. Their fragile psyche demands being admired and looked up to — and unquestionably holding high office almost guarantees that this ego requirement will be amply met.

So Weiner, like others in his profession who blow themselves up, had/has this flaw, this bottomless pit of need, this rotten tooth. But, like Don Draper, he is trying to be good, trying to put the past behind him and make a new life. Don has tried repeatedly to get it right, but skeptics are not so sure. The best television critic writing today, Alan Sepinwall, puts it this way:

Don Draper seems destined to not be one whole man, but two incomplete men sharing the same body. The double life — Dick Whitman’s vulnerability and Don Draper’s will, the picture-perfect marriage and the many women on the side — is who he is. Even if he resists the advance in the bar on this night, he’ll keep going to bars until he can’t resist anymore.

Anthony Weiner, by his own account, has been taking time since the scandal healing himself and his marriage. In the emotional high point of his interview (let’s give him the benefit of the doubt), the New York Times quotes Weiner as saying this of his wife, Huma Abedin: ” ‘She’s given … ‘ He stopped again, could barely get the words out. ‘She’s given me a another chance. And I am very grateful for that. And I am trying to make sure I get it right.’ ”

I hope he does; and one way to do that is to spend more time on the couch and less time plotting his political future. He needs to find out more about what he thinks and feels about himself; not what others think of him.