The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Anthony Weiner documentary is ‘cringe-inducing’ — not that that’s necessarily a bad thing

Anthony Weiner has already bared a lot in his political career — so much that it arguably cost him his political career not once, but twice.

He is, of course, the sexting former congressman from New York who got caught sending a pic of his — well, you know — to someone other than his wife when he accidentally posted said pic on Twitter in 2011. He then lied about it repeatedly. He eventually apologized, and he and his wife (who herself is a big name in politics; Huma Abedin is Hillary Clinton’s right-hand woman) held a news conference. He would resign from Congress. Then it all happened again in 2013, when he opted to run for mayor of New York and news broke that his sexting didn’t stop when he got caught the first time. He lost the mayoral race, and we all assumed he would fade from political view, twice disgraced.

Well it turns out Weiner — the congressman we thought we knew more than we ever wanted to — has more to share with the world. Much more. He invited a camera crew to follow him through that 2013 painful mayoral race, which shifted rapidly from a redemption story to a Shakespearean tragedy. The documentary, made by filmmakers who include a former staffer of his, is out Friday. “Weiner” has already been called “compelling and cringe-inducing,” “a portrait of a marriage in disarray,” and “the cringe-inducing portrait of an arrogant politician’s self-immolation.”

So why would Weiner want such a film out there? Is it a blind addiction to the spotlight? Some kind of twisted PR ploy? An effort to humanize himself? To get a better understanding of why Weiner did this and what he might want to get out of it, we talked to Kristen Hawn, the Democratic half of the bipartisan Washington communications firm Granite Integrated Strategies.

Hawn hasn’t seen the documentary yet, but she has worked with plenty of politicians in crisis. She talked with The Fix more broadly about how she would handle a similar situation. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity:

THE FIX: As a communications professional, when you hear Anthony Weiner has a documentary out, do you roll your eyes, or do you think “Oh, that was smart?”

HAWN: It depends. If you are somebody who wants to continue to be in the public space, like it seems he does, I think you have to make an effort to tell your story going forward. He’s never going to outrun his past, but he can retell his story. And you have to be prepared to answer tough questions.

But you have a better chance of remaking yourself, of rebuilding your brand, if you take control of the message and not let yourself be defined by others. The timing, the directors, the producer, the people in the room at a given time, all have to be chosen very carefully. But done in a right way with the right people, it could be a really good thing to do.

THE FIX: If this plays off well, could Weiner have earned himself a third chance at elected office?

HAWN: I think a number of political figures in our past have demonstrated that you can have nine lives. We’re all flawed, and I’m not saying everybody will forgive him, but I do think there’s something in all of us that appreciates a politician who is willing to take responsibility for his or her actions, being forthcoming with the voters and asking for forgiveness.

And people are willing to forgive. What people will not forgive is lies and deception, and I think that was his mistake in the beginning.

THE FIX: On the flip side, is there such a thing as being too honest, of sharing too many warts? 

HAWN: If you’re somebody who wants to run for elected office again, there’s a fine line between showing vulnerability and awkwardness. Being human can appeal to people on a very base level, but you also still need to project yourself as somebody who is capable of making a tough decision.

Voters say they want somebody who’s totally unscripted, off the cuff. But a lot of times I don’t think they realize how critical they can be of everything — what a candidate chooses to eat for lunch, for example. It’s every little thing.

Take Donald Trump. I think a lot of the things that make him popular with a far-right primary Republican voter — that type of unscripted, off-the-cuff way he has of communicating — will ultimately be his downfall in a general election. When you’re the leader of the free world, everything you say matters, and voters should consider that what makes him a popular candidate and an entertainer might make him a terrible commander in chief.

Anthony Weiner's remarkably candid interview about campaigning with a secret

THE FIX: What’s an example of a politician striking that balance right?

HAWN: The successful candidates are the ones who are scripted but play to their strengths. Take one of Hillary Clinton’s recent campaign videos; she’s telling this really great story about when Chelsea played tee-ball and how Bill was so into the game, and she was just having a moment about being a mother.

They were able to take a really genuine moment and capitalize on it. Just because things are scripted doesn’t necessarily mean they’re negative.

THE FIX: Speaking of Clinton, let’s talk about this documentary’s Clinton connection. Weiner’s wife is one of Clinton’s top aides. Abedin has suffered no shortage of criticism for sticking by her man after his scandal. What do you make of her decision to be in this documentary?

HAWN: You talk about people being flawed and people being able to relate to public figures when they face challenges, and I think that’s especially true for women. She came out, and she made her decision [to stay by him]. And she was forthcoming about it, and I think women respect that.

They respect other women’s decisions to move forward, to deal with crises in their lives the way they want to deal with it.