Today in our “Politics and the Media” graduate seminar, we’re having a brief quiz. What is the best way to prepare for a job as a political columnist?
(A) Get hired in journalism, cover tedious town council meetings, move up the ladder to the statehouse beat, land in Washington, then break big national scoops. Wait for the column offers to roll in.
(B) Become a governor or a member of Congress, commit egregious acts of marital betrayal, resign in shame, then grovel before your family and voters. Wait for the column offers to roll in.
The answer, of course, is B.
For extra credit, please cite at least two modern examples.
Certainly: There’s Anthony Weiner, a former Democratic congressman from New York; and Eliot L. Spitzer, a former Democratic governor of New York. Your professor can’t say their sexual adventuring propelled them to greater heights of public esteem — both failed at comebacks in 2013, Weiner running for New York mayor and Spitzer for city comptroller — but such tawdry experience doesn’t seem to hold anyone back in the commentary game.
“Weiner!,” the column, will make its debut on the Business Insider news site Friday; it’s the second punditry post for the digital roue once known as Carlos Danger. He already opines for the New York Daily News, a tabloid that made gleeful headline sport of him during the sex-pix and chat scandals that twice imploded his political career, first as a congressman in 2011 (“Weiner’s Pickle”) and then in the mayoral campaign (“Beat It”).
“The reason why we like him writing is because he gives an inside understanding of the political process and the political players, and of policy,” says Josh Greenman, the paper’s opinion editor. As wool-gathering thinkologists go, Weiner is actually pretty readable; he fits the Daily News’s breezy style. And he’s willing, Greenman says, to be “impolitic.”
It might be impolitic to point out that one of the tab’s other columnists, Linda Stasi, referred to Spitzer and Weiner as “polverts” and listed them among the worst politicians of 2013. But, as is often seen in the world of politics, reasonable people will disagree on perversity.
As for his new column, Weiner happily offered a preview, at least of his topic. “I wrote about the 2008 election because I think it’s still fresh,” he says, mostly serious.
“This stuff is hard; you have to think of s--- to say,” he continues in an interview Thursday. “I have a new admiration for the George Wills of the world. . . . The guys who write stuff, and it’s got to hang together and be fresh. To do it two or three times a week, it’s tough.”
He starred briefly as a prime-time talking head on CNN, twinned with Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker, and landed a show on the little-seen, now-defunct Current TV network before it was sold.
(By e-mail, Spitzer declined to discuss his previous work, saying he’s focused on his real estate business in New York.)
What does this weird post-scandal columnizing nexus mean? We turn to associate professor Lara Brown, an expert on congressional scandals. She heads the political management program at George Washington University.
“The path between politics and media is well-worn,” Brown instructs, “as well as the path between political disgrace and celebrity. Weiner and Spitzer are just the latest two.”
Fallen public servants may depart the ring temporarily, but not always for good, as seen in the Weiner-Spitzer cycle (which, may I remind students, is certainly worthy of a term paper). They still have supporters, even if fewer than they imagine.
“Most of these people who engage in scandals or corruption or what have you usually have a pretty ardent base that stands behind them,” Brown says. That makes them attractive to the news media. “They are going to be getting a lot of eyeballs because some people see them as victims of the intensely partisan culture and sympathize with them,” she adds.
Slate Editor David Plotz says Spitzer’s “fascinating” perspectives on the psyches and machinations of Wall Streeters were a draw for him. “I thought it was a really good column for us to have, and not because his name was Eliot Spitzer,” Plotz says.
“Not really. Look, he did something stupid and he paid a huge price for it, a heavier price than I thought necessary,” the editor says. “It had nothing to do with his brain and how he thinks as a public figure. For us, it was all good.”
The opinion-monger route is just one of many taken by pols felled in moral or financial corruption scandals. After all, ex-politicians have to work, even if they’re not largely familiar with the concept.
A self-denounced adulterer might take a spin through the Washington revolving door to rejoin, say, the noble profession of lobbying. Such was the path of House Speaker-designate Bob Livingston, a Louisiana Republican who in 1998 abruptly announced his intent to resign because of past marital indiscretions — while the House was voting on articles of impeachment against Indiscretioner in Chief Bill Clinton. He formed the Livingston Group in 1999, never to be seen in elective office again.
Another repentant sinner, former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), could not resist aiming at the highest office in the land during the 2012 Republican primary and thus was forced to revisit his adulterous affair with a congressional staffer (now his wife). Today he’s co-host of a CNN political talk show.
Then there are the pols who have flirted with showbiz careers during a political hiatus. Former Republican House majority leader Tom DeLay (Tex.), who eventually beat campaign money-laundering charges, took his Hammer Time routine to “Dancing With the Stars,” minus the parachute pants. Most recently, the octogenarian former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards parlayed notoriety over a racketeering conviction and a new marriage (to a woman more than 50 years his junior) into a short-lived reality show called “The Governor’s Wife.”
“Maybe they have something to prove. Maybe they are just addicted to the spotlight,” offers University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato, director of its Center for Politics and perhaps the dean of quotable political experts.
“Only a tiny proportion of the population runs for office. Some motives are noble, others self-serving, but these unusual individuals have a thirst to be at the center of the action,” he said by e-mail. “Better a column than nothing at all. You’ll get some comments on the page, at least.”
Weiner, whose naughty bits are scattered over the Internet, never to be expunged, seems to realize that writing a column will hardly disinfect his image.
“There is no doubt it’s part of my biography; it’s something that I own,” he says. “As I argued during the campaign, if some people choose to disqualify any opinion I have because of something embarrassing they know about my personal life, that’s their prerogative.”
Writing isn’t a new career, he vows, or a place to wait before another political plunge.
“This is scratching an itch that I still have to be part of the conversation without having to be in public life,” he says. “I don’t see it as a runway back in; I see it as more of a glide path out of public life.” Pause. “That’s a pretty good line! I could use it.”
Then: “This will be a sidebar to my life story. See, I said ‘sidebar,’ ” a journalistic term of art. “I’m a natural at this, brother.”