Rep. Anthony Weiner has achieved something by behaving so spectacularly shamefully. Unless I miss my guess, he has revived the concept of sexual morality. Even for a jaded nation, this is one sex scandal too far. We've had it. Our capacity to remain non-judgmental on sexual matters -- as we've been tirelessly instructed to do for 40 years -- seems to have reached its end point.
The national reaction to Weiner's conduct, in contrast to previous sex scandals (and there have been too many to count in the past two decades), has been not amusement (though jokes made the rounds) but disgust. When even the ultra-liberal New York Times reaches for terms like "profoundly squalid," it's safe to say we've arrived at a new cultural moment: "Judgmentalism" is back.
Admittedly, we are groping our way toward minimal dignity unsteadily. A Washington Post columnist, among others, dusted off the cliche that it's "not the crime, it's the cover-up." Former DNC Chairman and Senate candidate Tim Kaine sounded a similar theme in calling for Weiner's resignation: "Lying publicly about something like this is unforgivable, and he should resign."
Lying is immoral. Lying in the flagrant and utterly discoverable fashion that Weiner did is also idiotic. But as this disgrace demonstrates so graphically, it's not always just the cover-up. Would things would be materially different if Weiner had freely confessed to sending crotch shots of himself to assorted young women on Twitter? No. So let's please retire the Watergate platitude. It's not just the cover-up; it's the behavior.
Because we are so out of practice at condemning even utterly shameful conduct, we look for security in law. "Remember," a constituent cautioned, "he has broken no laws. He has not used campaign funds..." Ah, well, that's all right then. Weiner himself, explaining his decision not to resign, said, "I don't believe that I (did) anything that violates any law or any rule."
Is legality the only relevant standard? The question is not whether Weiner deserves to go to jail, but whether he merits the honor of holding elective office. And actually, Weiner is mistaken on the matter of rules. According to the rules of the House of Representatives, members are required to conduct themselves at all times in "a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House." Anyone think this is a close call?
As we claw our way back toward some minimal standards of dignity, we must grapple with the legacy of President Bill Clinton. It's exquisitely ironic that -- of all people -- Weiner apologized to the reportedly angry former president. It seems Mr. Clinton performed the wedding ceremony 11 months ago for Weiner and his wife, a longtime aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In this telling, Bill Clinton is playing the role of Ward Cleaver? Mind-boggling.
The curdled condition of our culture is not entirely attributable to Bill Clinton, but he certainly merits dishonorable mention. His refusal to acknowledge shame cemented an age of shamelessness. Mr. Clinton fought ferociously -- and dragged the country through a tawdry impeachment spectacle -- on the grounds that sexual behavior was a mere trifle. His defenders, remember, hotly denied that mere sex could be relevant to a president's (or anyone's) public role.
"It's just sex," they protested. It was a private matter. Why are you so interested? What's wrong with you?
More, they argued that lying about sex was perfectly normal and even admirable. He was trying to spare his family. Everyone lies about sex. Those who were trying to drive a president from office for dallying with a 21-year-old intern and lying about it were the ones who needed reformation.
Obviously, the stakes are very different for a sitting president than for an N.Y. congressman. But it does seem that the mood is, at long last, changing.
"I can't (defend him)," pronounced Senator Harry Reid, D-Nev. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (and clearly has political motives, but that's fine), offered a complete refutation of the Democratic Party's position during the Clinton impeachment. Urging Weiner to put us out of our misery, she said, "As Americans we have the right to expect better behavior from members of Congress, leaders of our country. I don't think we should accept it."
When it was Larry Craig, Eric Massa, Mark Sanford, or Eliot Spitzer, we had our giggles. But with Weiner, the smarminess seems to have finally provoked a gag.
Not even Jon Stewart is laughing. "I hope it's not true," he said in all seriousness last week.
Why? It's only sex, right?