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The Politics of Narcissism

In a year, will you remember, let alone care about, the Weiner roast? Unless something truly scandalous is further revealed (and you never know with politicians trying to hide something), New York Congressman Anthony Weiner will be campaigning for reelection.

In 2012, the incumbent will likely be glad-handing his constituency at a neighborhood supermarket or school. Each voter will pat the congressman on the back, ask discreetly, "How could you have done it?," and Weiner will shrug his shoulders in bewilderment, a chastened pol. His moment in the sex-scandal spotlight finally over.

After weeks of outright lying, stonewalling and dimwitted obfuscation, the good congressman finally coped to his illicit Twitter exchanges and more. He admitted that, over the past few years, he sent a series of "compromising" e-mails and photos to women he met online. He insists that he never had a sexual liaison with any of the women; none of them have contradicted his claim. He seems to have gotten off on risqué flirting.

And after weeks of media hounding, the congressman finally opted for the classic sinner's safety net. He's entered a rehab program to deal with his "addiction." In all likelihood, his two-week breather from the media spotlight will be sufficient for his sad story to be replaced by yet another media distraction, whether scandal, natural disaster or crime report.

(It remains to be seen whether Mrs. Weiner will follow in the well-worn footsteps of her mentor, Hillary Clinton, and stick with her man or join the late-Elizabeth Edwards or former SC Governor Mark Sanford's wife, Jenny Sanford, and say enough is enough.)

In retrospect, you've got to laugh at the sheer stupidity of it all. When the scandal first broke, everyone knew that the honorable congressman was as guilty as sin. For all his denials, Weiner hung himself on his own petard or other body part. Like his former fellow New York congressman, Chris Lee, Weiner should have known better. You'd think.

For those with very short memories, Lee fled from office when word got out that he had e-mailed a snapshot of his bare macho-man chest to a prospective illicit love object. However, he did not voluntarily leave office but was apparently pushed.

Rumor has it that Republican-party bosses, especially Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), ordered Lee to resign and, as a good foot soldier, he followed orders. (It would be interesting to know what he got for his service to the party.) Prior to the 2010 midterm election, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) committed the party to a "zero-tolerance policy" regarding ethical, and especially sexual, transgressions.

This insistence on moral rectitude came in the wake of a round of scandals between 2006 and 2008 that undermined the Republican party's claim to moral leadership and contributed to Obama's electoral victory. It also followed the resignation of Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), a Bible-thumping evangelical Christian, who was outed for an extramarital affair.

Instead of laughing at the whole travesty, the Democratic leadership, led by Rep. Nancy Pelosi, has launched an ethics inquiry. Instead of acknowledging that politicians are humans and, as long that they do not engage in nonconsensual sex (including sex or sexting with a minor), they are entitled to a private life, however screwed up it might be.

Comment: In New York, a seventeen year old is considered a minor.

The party's leadership is clearly attempting to whitewash the incident, to position the party as above reproach. Instead of calling for an end to the moral hypocrisy that governs "official" social relations, the Dems are, as expected, capitulating to the fictitious values of an America that exists only in the reruns of 1950s TV shows. They are demonstrating how cover-your-ass compromise passes for political leadership.

Until the exposé, Weiner was a rising star in New York City politics, a respected progressive in Congress and a leading candidate to replace Bloomberg as mayor. His political future is in doubt.

Weiner now seems more a media moron than an astute politician, New York's version of Rahm Emanuel. Nevertheless, one of his euphemisms may enter the political lexicon. When asked if the photo of an erect penis clothed in underwear was of him, he stuttered, "I can't say with certitude." "Certitude" now joins Bill Clinton's infamous effort to redefine the word "is" regarding his sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky.

Pundits from the left and right, be it John Stewart or Bill O'Reilly, have had a had a grand time riding Wiener's weenie bandwagon, roasting the congressman's stupidity for all its worth. Everyone knew the schmuck was guilty and now he's admitted it.

Nevertheless, the unanswered question that haunts this pathetic story is simple: Why? Why did Weiner, an obvious smart pol, fall so hard from grace?

Behind the well-deserved mockery that normally accompanies the outing of a politician's extra-marital adventure(s) is a deeper question: Why do these guys (and they are nearly always guys) do it? The simplest answer is that they can; they've got the power, position and (apparent) self-confidence to do it.

Clearly, the goings-on of current and former senators David Vitter (R-SC) and Larry Craig (R-ID), former governors Sanford and Eliot Spitzer (D-NY) and former congressmen Lee and Mark Foley (R-FL) are testaments to arrogance as much as stupidity. As John Edwards admitted, "[My experiences] fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe you can do whatever you want."

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Havelock Ellis introduced the concept of narcissism, named after the Greek mythic youth who fell in love with his own reflection, into modern psychology to denote obsessive masturbation or "self love." In the 1980s, the American Psychiatric Association identified it as a personality disorder.

Narcissism among politicians, similar to that demonstrated by movie stars, athletes, the rich and other celebrities, involves not only a belief that he can do "it" (whatever it is), but that he can get away with it, that he won't get caught, exposed, outed. And when he does get caught, he acts like the confused deer in the proverbial headlights. (Weiner's press conference is an example of such confusion.)

According to the historical script for such scandals, the Weiner story seems to being playing out. He's made his heartfelt mea culpa before the media, participated in a public shaming ritual as old as the Puritans of Salem and, adding a modern touch, gone into therapy. Unless something as-yet unreported and even more inappropriate comes out, he'll probably skate.

Politicians found guilty of an unacceptable sexual offense face one of three consequences. Some, like Spitzer and Lee, accept guilt and flee from the political stage, throwing in the towel. Some, like Craig and Sanford, accept their shame but play out their political card until the end of their term in office. And some, most especially Clinton and Vitter (and Newt Gingrich), admit their wrongdoing, refuse to accept political guilt and go on with their careers. Weiner says he will stick it out (no pun intended); we shall see.

Weiner's experience has as much to do with the U.S.'s legacy of puritanism as his own true stupidity and the demands of what can only be called "scandal journalism." Nevertheless, after all is said and done, the Weiner roast will soon be forgotten as yet another politician is outed for his illicit or adulterous activities. Stay tuned.

Comment: Weiner's experience has less to do with stupidity and more to do with the fact that his actions correspond closely with narcissistic or psychopathic personality disorder.