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Anthony Weiner’s not coming back. But he has nowhere to go.

  • >> Ben Smith, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-06-07 17:22:21 BdST

Anthony Weiner campaigns for mayor in New York City on July 31, 2013. Weiner doesn't pay the kind of attention to New York politics that he did back when he was running for mayor, twice, before he was sent to prison in 2017 for transferring obscene material to a minor. (Robert Stolarik/The New York Times)

Anthony Weiner doesn’t pay the kind of attention to New York politics that he did back when he was running for mayor, twice, before the exchange of messages with a 15-year-old that sent him to federal prison.

He was good on the campaign trail, though. He was the one Mike Bloomberg worried about and spent millions trying to deny the nomination in 2009. Weiner was a kind of test subject, too, for the sort of media and social media storms that destroyed his 2013 mayoral campaign, and are now just how politics is.

So I was curious what he thought of the current campaign, which is entering its final weeks. It is, as always, a brutally revealing moment for the candidates, for the media, for the psyche of the city. I persuaded Weiner to watch last Wednesday’s debate after his twice-weekly hockey game. By the time we met last Thursday at the Barnes & Noble on Union Square, he had the energy of a star on the bench who knows what he’d do if he were back out there.

First, he said that if he were onstage, he’d break with the escalating sense of panic about New York’s future that has consumed the campaign.

“All right, let’s dial down the apocalypse. Let’s relax, everybody,” he’d say. “It’s going to be all right if we make some smart decisions.”

And then he'd throw some punches. He said he was “surprised at how relatively undisciplined the candidates were.” He watched Eric Adams meander through an attack on Andrew Yang and thought about what candidate Weiner would have said: “Are you from Philadelphia?”

He has also been surprised about how little heat the former aides to Mayor Bill de Blasio, Maya Wiley and Kathryn Garcia, have taken. “How come no one says, ‘Anyone who worked for that administration should have to shower for four years to clean this thing off.’”

He was also puzzled by how an unverified allegation against Scott Stringer derailed his campaign, and about the way the claim seemed to break out ahead of any attempt to verify it.

“This is not a thing I’m in any position to be commenting on,” Weiner said. But “that doesn’t feel right.” (He was speaking before Katie Glueck, of The New York Times, reported a second allegation Friday.)

But Anthony Weiner, now 56, isn’t in politics any more. The barista at the third-floor cafe didn’t even recognize him. “I’d be really good as a campaign manager,” he said, but of course no politician would be caught dead even speaking to him. He said he had given some informal advice to mayoral campaigns, though, “I don’t talk about which ones, because it would hurt them.” They won’t even take his money.

Ten years ago Weiner was a new kind of public figure, a congressman who had become a national star in the hyperpartisan terrain of cable news, and who used social media fluently for authentic, direct connections with supporters and the media. My former colleague at BuzzFeed News Matt Berman called him the most important politician of the 2010s, a man who “helped create social media politics, fully embraced it, and was quickly swallowed by it.”

Then Weiner became a character out of a Philip Roth novel. His scandals all played out through digital media, driven by an inexplicable compulsion to exchange sexts with women who liked him for his politics.

He resigned from Congress in 2011 after conservative media, led by Andrew Breitbart, caught him at it. He was leading in the polls in 2013 when I brought him the news that a young woman in Indiana, Sydney Leathers, was sharing their explicit photos and messages, and his campaign fell apart as she literally pursued him around Manhattan, all under the watchful eye of a documentary crew.

He says that, even at the time, he knew in the back of his head that the 2013 campaign was doomed. “I was famous for being famous, and I was a candidate because I had been a candidate, and I had all this money from past campaigns,” he said. But, he said, he had “too many struggles, too much self-loathing.”

Lately, the news that Weiner said he has been following “with some interest” is the story of Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who is currently trying to brazen out allegations that he paid young women, possibly including an underage girl, for sex. Weiner said that people tell him all the time that, in 2011 and again in 2013, “you never should have quit.”

But the sort of media and social media storm he was in the middle of felt new then. “We didn’t know what we were working with at the time, and I was lying to everyone around me,” he said.

And after he left public life in 2013, he slipped from compulsion into crime, and the saga broadened from damage to his own life to the nation’s. In January 2016, he began exchanging explicit messages with a 15-year-old girl. After the texts were reported in September 2016, prosecutors seized his laptop computer. And then, 11 days before the presidential election, the FBI director, James Comey, wrote a letter to Congress saying that new emails discovered on Weiner’s computer had prompted him to reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Weeks later, as Democrats tried to understand how Donald Trump had been elected president, Weiner came in for some of the blame. He was the butterfly who flapped his, er, wings and led to the election of Trump. Weiner said he believes, in retrospect, that there were larger forces at play in that campaign and that if it hadn’t been the emails, Trump’s supporters would have seized on something else. And indeed, Trump-like figures have been elected all over the world. It wasn’t just Weiner.

But his own skepticism that he was the fatal butterfly “is complicated by the fact that that’s what Hillary thinks,” he said. (“I wouldn’t call it a net positive,” a spokesman for Clinton, Nick Merrill, told me.)

His life hit bottom in 2017, when he was sentenced to 21 months in prison for transferring obscene material to a minor. He served 15 months in a federal prison in Massachusetts, and three more in a Bronx halfway house. His compulsion destroyed his career and his marriage to Huma Abedin, a senior aide to Clinton. And it has left him nearly unemployable, and officially labeled a sex offender.

Weiner has spent most of the last year running a Brooklyn company called IceStone, which makes environmentally sustainable countertops. He put in place a policy of offering job interviews to formerly incarcerated people. He’s now in the process of stepping down as chief executive, he said, to try to turn the company into a “worker-run cooperative.” He and Abedin, who still works for Clinton, are finalizing their divorce, but they live down the hall from each other in the same apartment building. Weiner is in a 12-step program for sex addiction, and one of its conditions is that he not talk about it. His life, he said, largely revolves around their 9-year-old son.

Sometimes people tell him he should try to “change the narrative” about himself. But there’s no point. There’s no route back to public life for him. “‘The narrative’ implies you’re telling a story,” he said. “To what end?” The exception, he said, is that his agent has shopped a book about sex addiction, which he said he hoped could help other people in his position.

Weiner’s notoriety, and his sex offender status, will make it pretty hard for him to find another job. “It’s very narrow — the places that I can work without having The New York Post just make everyone’s life miserable,” he said.

But he said he has also been wondering whether he can parlay his notoriety into something new. People sometimes yell at him from passing cars (and on Twitter), “Where’s your laptop?!” The device, which is in his closet, was ultimately not found to contain anything incriminating about Clinton. But it retains a certain infamy.

“I’m wondering if I should call up the MyPillow guy and offer to sell him the laptop,” he mused, referring to Mike Lindell, the bedding entrepreneur and Trump loyalist who has promoted wild theories about the Clintons.

He is thinking more seriously — really seriously — about the 2021 version of that transaction: getting into the booming business of digital collectibles, known as nonfungible tokens or NFTs, and starting with some of his own holdings.

“If you do believe in this butterfly effect, I’ve got the butterfly’s wings and its antennas,” he said. He could make an NFT, he said, of the errant tweet that began his long spiral in 2011. He could make an NFT of the search warrant for his laptop, or of the email his old friend, comedian Jon Stewart, wrote to apologize for making fun of his troubles, or of the check that Trump wrote to one of his earlier campaigns.

“Cashing in would be nice,” he said. But he also wonders if he could make a career of it — “to sell my own stuff but also to create a new category that lets people buy and sell political collectibles as a form of political fundraising and contributing.”

(I was a little incredulous, but bounced the idea off a few cryptocurrency enthusiasts at the Bitcoin 2021 conference in Miami this weekend. They liked the idea.)

And why not? It’s not really clear what else Anthony Weiner can do. We don’t live in a moment with much room for redemption — even if, like Weiner, you’ve served hard time for your sins. It’s hard to know what society wants from someone like him.

I played my own small part in Weiner’s demise. After calling to tell him we’d identified Sydney Leathers, I edited the story that named her and helped end his mayoral campaign. Three weeks later, I interviewed Weiner onstage at a raucous bar in Chelsea. I asked him mischievously why he hadn’t used Snapchat for his sexting, so the messages would have disappeared. He winced; the audience laughed. In retrospect, I wince a little, too. The guy was obviously suffering, as the judge would later say at his sentencing, from “a very strong compulsion.”

I asked him what he made of the lack of empathy he found in journalists like me when his life fell apart.

“Journalists, even in their best moments, are what their readers are and what their readers want. Any momentary thing — there’s got to be a lot of pressure on you to be writing it,” he said.

“I don’t know how you guys do it,” Weiner said, invoking the Yiddish word that can mean empathy or pity. “I have rachmones for you guys.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company