Dan Berger – Dispatch from the Titanic: Anthony Weiner Goes Apeshit During My One Day on the CampaignFollow
Let me preface this story by saying that I worked as an intern for Anthony Weiner in his Queens Congressional office during the fall of 2005. In my only significant interaction with Weiner, I was putting together the new coffee machine when—fiending for caffeine and impatient with my handiwork—Weiner grabbed the reins and assembled the contraption himself, quipping to my officemates, "This kid went to Yale and he can't set up a fuckin' coffee machine."
When I heard about Weiner's first sexting scandal in 2011, I put it in the "Eliot Spitzer" category: the downfall of an arrogant politician who thought he could get away with anything. There were hints that it was worse—Weiner's sending of lewd photos to strangers, his denials, his initial refusal to resign even after admitting the photos were real—but I ignored them. When the second sexting scandal rocked Weiner's mayoral campaign this summer, I suddenly found myself putting him in a class with John Edwards, the Southern Democrat who managed to top Bill Clinton's Oval Office dalliance by running for President knowing full well that he had a love child on the way with campaign "videographer" Rielle Hunter. I was astounded by the recklessness of Weiner running for Mayor of New York City with a second sexting Sword of Damocles hanging over his head. In the sex chats, Weiner came across as both insecure and arrogant, at one moment asking, "If I met you in a bar and tried to talk to you, would I have a chance?" and the next, "So you won't tell me what picture of me you like the most or turned you on the most?" As with Edwards, Weiner apparently needed an endless supply of attention—from women, from the media—to keep his insecurities at bay and maintain his arrogance. He was the classic narcissist, recklessly willing to do anything—lie, cheat, let down everyone who depended on him—to feed his own ego. Weiner's refusal to drop out of the race after the scandal seemed to confirm all this.
But when I tuned into the mayoral debate this Tuesday night, Bill DiBlasio, John Liu and Bill Thompson struck me as lightweights, while Christine Quinn seemed like a smug corporate robot. Weiner, on the other hand, was every bit the pugnacious policy wonk I remembered from his Congressional days. Even if he was a prick of a boss, he was a smart prick. So with that in mind—and a healthy dose of curiosity—I decided to volunteer for the Weiner for Mayor campaign.
Weiner's campaign offices are located in a nondescript office building on 5th Avenue in Midtown. On the way up in the elevator, I was imagining a bare-bones operation with only a handful of dead-enders aboard this sinking ship. This is after all a campaign that's become a Jay Leno punchline, that's plummeting in the polls, whose mere mention elicits giggles in New Yorkers. But when the elevator doors opened I found a bustling political operation. Clean-cut young staffers barked orders to fresh-faced interns.
Laptop keys clacked. The phones rang off the hook. Kids' drawings gave the place an upbeat vibe.
What the hell was going on? Wasn't this campaign supposed to be a dead man walking? To paraphrase Admiral James Stockdale, who were all these people and why were they here? What would possess a person to work for this campaign at this stage of the game, let alone dozens of them? I made it my mission to find out.
A friendly, energetic young staffer named Ben (all names and faces of staffers and volunteers have been changed; they were universally a nice lot) asked me a few personal questions and then gave me my first task: find community events for Weiner to attend in Brooklyn. I discovered a dance party in Coney Island, but the website left me unsure if people actually showed up to it. So I started the list off with Brooklyn Flea, a Sunday staple in my neighborhood of Williamsburg where I was certain a lot of voters would be.
The list-building soon veered off track when my deskmate Sally, a rising senior at a prestigious Brooklyn prep school, began blasting Taylor Swift's "22." Over the din of the music, I told Sally, "I'm impressed you stayed here after all the craziness in July." Sally ebulliently replied, "When colleges see I interned for the Weiner campaign this summer, I'm gonna get into all of 'em." As I stared at her in disbelief, wondering what planet I'd landed on, a somewhat chunky Bro in a backwards Corona Light hat chimed in. "Are you visiting Michigan?", he asked.
"Maybe," Sally said.
"Well Ann Arbor's the #1 college town in America—that's not from me, that's from USA Today."
"But I don't like drinking—all my friends are alternative kids who wear black."
"Just come," the Bro said. "I'll show you a lot of fun stuff in Ann Arbor that's not drinking. What's your number?"
After an awkward silence, Sally declared, "I need to get back to work."
Meanwhile, two Get-Out-The-Vote interns were making calls. In between their repetitive patter of, "Can Anthony Weiner count on your vote on September 10th? Well thanks for your time anyway," the young men were eagerly discussing their return to campus in a week. A picture was forming in my head: interns who decided to stay on the Weiner campaign after the scandal because, "Hey, it's something to do, it's good for the resume, and shit, it might just get me laid!" And the staffers? Well, they were probably just hired guns looking to make a buck until the bitter end.
Realizing I had to get back to my real job and confident I'd figured out the Weiner campaign phenomenon, I quickly finished my list of events and called Ben over to show him. As Ben reviewed it, he proclaimed, "These are great! So many voters for Anthony to meet!" I sensed in Ben's demeanor then that he wasn't just in it for a buck, that he truly believed in the Weiner for Mayor campaign. Intrigued by this kernel of hope, I asked Ben what Weiner's event was for the night. He told me it was a screening of "North by Northwest" in Cunningham Park in Flushing Meadows, Queens. I told him I'd be there to volunteer.
I got to the park well before Weiner, so I killed some time by walking around. A jovial fellow who had helped organize the screening was bragging that he went to high school with Weiner—"Brooklyn Tech Class of '81!" And Weiner's pal, City Councilman Mark Weprin—the MC for the night—was making the rounds with his constituents. I spied a tall guy in sunglasses who looked like a D-List Secret Service agent.
This "Weiner advance team" was nervously surveying the crowd, which seemed odd considering this event was organized by two of Weiner's friends and the crowd was made up of families on beach chairs and blankets.
Eager to make sure I got a Weiner sign before the big guy showed up, I approached a staffer I'd met at the office. She not only gave me a sign, but introduced me to an intern and 2 volunteers.
The intern, an earnest Columbia student in purple pants, seemed excited by the competition aspect of politics: "3 of my classmates work for Weiner, more than any of the other candidates!" "Quinn's numbers are cratering in the latest poll!"
But the two volunteers, a petite blond woman named Molly and an African man named Derek, were genuinely passionate about Weiner and his campaign. I was amazed that they were donating their free time to this campaign at this stage, for no credit and no money. They were true Weiner believers.
"How's it been recently?" I asked. Molly responded exasperatedly, "It's hard getting people to look past the scandal, but they have to. This race is about the policies, and Weiner has the best policies for the middle-class. DeBlasio's all pie-in-the-sky. He doesn't have practical solutions like Weiner." Derek chimed in. "On the policies, no doubt it's Weiner. On the personal stuff, I don't understand why they can't give him a second chance (or third chance?)." This was coming from a veteran social justice activist and family man who beamed when talking about his daughter. Their commitment to Weiner in spite of everything that had happened got me thinking that maybe the Weiner campaign hadn't become just a whacked-out vanity project.
But as I was turning this over in my head, I noticed my newfound friends were gone. They'd run over to a tree—and under that tree was Anthony Weiner, with his adorable infant son Jordan.
As soon as Weiner approached the crowd, he was surrounded by well-wishers. "Anthony, so glad you could make it!" "You knock 'em dead in that primary, Anthony!" In addition to the Weiner fans, there was a group of new Weiner staffers who'd arrived with him. And there were people asking to take a picture with him. I'm not sure if they were fans or just curiosity-seekers, but they added to the Weiner entourage, which swelled as he moved through the crowd. I nervously wondered if it was OK to document this spectacle on my iPhone, but when I saw a Weiner staffer filming the whole thing with his Android I figured all bets were off. Besides, Weiner's face lit up the more cameras that were in his face, the more people took pictures with him, or took pictures of people taking pictures with him.
Then I noticed the hecklers.
The two hecklers were burly-looking men. One held up a sign that read "WEINER IS A SICKO"
and the other's read "SHOW US YOUR WEINER / FREAK * PSYCHO * SOCIOPATH * NUT JOB."
A Weiner staffer immediately set up a defense, lest their signs appear in any of the many photographs people were taking. Molly blocked the first heckler with a "Weiner for Mayor" sign, while the Columbia intern blocked the second. I was assigned the Safety role, taking over in a pinch if one of the hecklers were to shake free from my teammate's defensive coverage.
The defense was really aggravating the hecklers, especially the second one, who took to calling the Columbia intern "Lavender" because of his purple pants.
As in: "Lavender, stop gettin' so close to me." Or: "I know you'd really like to be close to me, Lavender, but if you don't give me some space you'll end up on the ground cryin' yer eyes out." Occasionally the hecklers would shout things to Weiner like, "You're a sick individual!" I could tell that Weiner saw and heard them, and he made no great pains to avoid them. He seemed both riled up by these guys and excited that they were contributing to the spectacle.
When I overheard an older man interviewing Derek and scribbling in a notepad, I gave up my Safety post and went over to investigate.
It turned out the gentleman was a reporter for a major men's magazine assigned to write a piece on the last days of the Weiner campaign. We compared notes until I noticed a dreadlocked guy carrying a DSLR camera outfitted with a high-end telephoto lens: there was a paparazzo here!
At this point I realized I was smack dab in the middle of a media circus. Weiner would walk through the crowd, and trailing him would be the well-wishers, the staffers, the photo-seekers, the reporter, the paparazzo, and me, all solemnly documenting everything as if we were witnessing the Yalta Conference rather than a thoroughly disgraced politician dispensing pleasantries like, "Jordan's a Mets fan, but I'm sure he'd get along with your son the Yankees fan."
When Mark Weprin finally formally introduced Weiner to the crowd he got a round of applause.
As Weiner walked toward his waiting SUV, I thought the circus was over - but it was just heating up. Weiner and his son stopped to watch some old men play bocce, and the hecklers really went at it.
There were 4 of them now. They were yelling things like, "Carlos Danger, text me! Carlos Danger! You're so dangerous! You're like a superhero!" and accusing him of using his son as a shield against the hecklers. But if Weiner thought his son would protect him, he had another thing coming. Amid cries of, "Vote for Weiner, he'll show ya his!" Weiner responded to the hecklers as he walked to his car with, "That's some pathetic existence you've got there buddy." One of the hecklers responded, "We'll get ya Doctor Kevorkian [to examine you because you're sick]," and Weiner let out, "It's a good thing you don't procreate." He repeated it once more for good measure.
CLICK HERE TO WATCH ANTHONY WEINER TELL A GUY HE HAS A "PATHETIC EXISTENCE" AND "IT'S A GOOD THING YOU DON'T PROCREATE"
I was pretty surprised Weiner would lose his cool like that and engage in mudslinging with these guys. Yet that was nothing compared to what happened next. The hecklers were still yelling, but Weiner was firmly ensconced in his SUV. And then he decided to get back out of the SUV. Waving the hecklers away, Weiner screamed, "HEAD BACK TO NASSAU COUNTY!" After a few more seconds of verbal fireworks, Weiner yelled, "NICE MUSCLE TEE!" to one of the hecklers, and then he was off. Watch the video.
CLICK HERE TO WATCH ANTHONY WEINER FLIP OUT AT A HECKLER, SCREAMING AT HIM TO "HEAD BACK TO NASSAU COUNTY!"
For those of you not familiar with the New York area, Nassau County is the area directly to the east of Queens on Long Island. And to tell these guys, "Go back to Nassau County," and then insult their muscle tees, is to basically say, "Get out of my face, Bridge and Tunnel crowd." Not exactly a great message to be shouted by a potential Mayor of New York City, which depends heavily on the suburbs for workers and spending dollars. I don't know if the hecklers were from Queens or Nassau County (they claimed to be from Queens), or if they were sent to the event by a rival campaign or union. I do know they were assholes. But so what? This incident shows a stupendous lack of judgment and self-control on Weiner's part.
Weiner seems to have just snapped, and I could believe that having seen him around the Congressional office. But when I really think about Weiner's recent pattern of behavior, I have a sinking suspicion he may have known what he was doing. Ever since the scandal broke, he's been getting media coverage for his campaign in outlandish ways. He recently gave an erratic interview to Britain's ITV where he did the weather in London ("It’s going to be raining, cloudy and gray, so do what you can, guys. Try to keep your head up"). Rumors are flying that he has a filmmaker following him around for a documentary. As I saw, magazine writers and photojournalists are swirling around him. The attention feeds Weiner's ego, which is the only remaining rationale for a candidacy that, post-scandal, has been incapable of pushing any substantive issues. I feel bad for good people like Ben, and Derek, and Molly, who are really looking for a leader who cares about improving the lives of New Yorkers. Anthony Weiner is not that leader.
Perhaps I'm wrong about Weiner's calculation. But there are only two possibilities here: Anthony Weiner is either completely out of control, or he's in control and his plan is to do anything in his power to get attention for himself. Either way you're left with a smart, talented candidate who's turned his campaign into a media circus, with him as the ringleader. And none of this—the security detail, the coverage, the screaming—is doing one bit to help the middle class in New York City.
So I hereby announce that I'm resigning from the Weiner for Mayor campaign. I'm hanging up my hat, and I think Mr. Weiner should too.
But what do I know? I can't even set up a coffee machine.
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