Ruth Marcus
Columnist June 14, 2011

The arc of modern scandal is depressingly familiar. Transgression followed by exposure, perhaps accompanied by a fleeting detour into denial. Then tearful confession and, finally, the inevitable journey to rehab.

Didn’t you know, from the moment the story broke, that New York Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner would end up checking himself in somewhere?

Ruth Marcus is a columnist and editorial writer for The Post, specializing in American politics and domestic policy. View Archive

I don’t begrudge Weiner the therapy — he could no doubt use “professional treatment to focus on becoming a better husband and healthier person,” as his spokeswoman said in announcing that he would seek a leave of absence.

But whether or not Weiner manages to hang on, the episode underscores how rehab has become an all-purpose laundromat for irresponsible behavior, an infuriatingly easy substitute for accepting blame and living with consequences.

Increasingly, in our Rehab Nation, the concept of sin has been replaced by the language of addiction. Shame has been supplanted by therapeutic intervention. The disease model of misbehavior dictates that there are no bad people, only damaged individuals compelled to commit harmful acts. In this scenario, personal responsibility evaporates and virtue becomes an anachronism.

“This is not something that can be treated away,” Weiner said at his tearful news conference. One excruciating week later, Weiner was, yes, getting it treated away. The congressman, his spokeswoman said, “has determined that he needs this time to get healthy.” Excuse me, but this isn’t about Weiner’s health; it’s about his shameful behavior.

We live in an age of rehab as reality show. The cable channel VH1 has aired four seasons of “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew,” which spawned a spin-off, “Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew.” If former House majority leader Tom DeLay could make it to “Dancing With the Stars,” I’m sure there’s a place on VH1 for Weiner.

Especially when it comes to actual addictions, to drugs and alcohol, I’m sure rehab can be a helpful, if not surefire, remedy. However many times it takes Lindsay Lohan, I hope it works.

The Weiner situation is different.

I’m skeptical about the entire notion of sex addiction or Internet addiction or whatever addiction might explain Weiner’s behavior. Addiction in these circumstances seems like a highfalutin, after-the-fact excuse for self-indulgence and lack of control, whether by Tiger Woods (actual sex) or Weiner (the virtual variety).

I know some experts disagree. I’ve read all about dopamine spikes. But being addicted to a substance — with the tangible physical results that withdrawal creates — is different from being addicted to a behavior.

Indeed, sex addiction was dropped from the fourth edition of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” in 1994. Psychiatrists are debating including a new category, hypersexual disorder, in DSM-V, due out in 2013. Fine, but I am convinced that there is more free will involved in quitting sex or gambling than in stopping drinking or drugs.

Writing on Time.com, Maia Szalavitz, herself a former heroin and cocaine addict, described the dangers of defining addiction downward.

“If anyone can go to rehab when his actions lead to public humiliation, is rehab still a medical treatment or does it become some form of absolution?” she asked. “If every time someone behaves like a jerk and the reason behind it is addiction, doesn’t that mean addiction is just an excuse for bad behavior?”

Yes, which may not matter very much if the bad behavior is by an entertainer or an athlete. Not all public figures are subject to equal responsibilities. Anthony Weiner is no Lindsay Lohan. Members of Congress are supposed to be role models, not laughing-stocks of late-night television.

Certainly other politicians have disgraced themselves — and some of them (I’m thinking of you, David Vitter) should also step down. Weiner’s folly, however, has become particularly, embarrassingly public. His behavior, narcissistic and adolescent, is inconsistent with continued service.

President Obama, I thought, had it right. “I think he’s embarrassed himself,” he told NBC’s Ann Curry. “I can tell you that if it was me, I would resign. Because public service is exactly that, it’s a service to the public. And when you get to the point where because of various personal distractions, you can’t serve as effectively as you need to . . . then you should probably step back.”

The first line of the House Ethics Manual instructs lawmakers that they should “conduct themselves at all times in a manner that reflects creditably on the House.”

Taking pictures of yourself in a towel and sending them to strangers falls short of that standard — however the therapists might help you explain it away.

ruthmarcus@washpost.com