BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield. In 2011, New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, rising star in the Democratic Party and husband of Hillary Clinton's right-hand woman, Huma Abedin, saw his career implode, thanks to one bad tweak.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: It all started Friday night at 11:30 pm.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: A photo of an anonymous men's bulging underwear –
MALE CORRESPONDENT: - was tweeted from Congressman Weiner’s account.
MALE REPORTER: Tell me definitively, is that a photograph of you”
ANTHONY WEINER: I’m reluctant to say to you definitively anything about this.
MALE REPORTER: So it’s possible that it is –
ANTHONY WEINER: We’re trying to – we’re trying to get to the bottom of what it's of and who it’s of.
BOB GARFIELD: Weiner denied the charges, then admitted to them, and finally resigned, another politician brought down by the deadly combination of lust, hubris and technology. But two years later, Weiner was back, this time running for mayor of New York City. He was a new man, he had repented, he wanted to talk about the issues. But the people and the pundits were dubious. As it turned out, they were right. Within a few months, Weiner was once again humiliated by a sex sting scandal and forever branded as his nom de plume, “Carlos Danger.”
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Under the screen name, Carlos Danger.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Danger.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Danger.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Carlos Danger.
[THE COLBERT REPORT CLIP]:
HOST STEPHEN COLBERT: I assume it was to avoid using a ridiculous name like “Anthony Weiner.”
BOB GARFIELD: But before his indiscretions dashed his career for a second time, Weiner agreed to let a pair of documentary filmmakers record his campaign, indeed, his entire life, hoping that they would capture not his downfall but his redemption. Elyse Steinberg is a writer and documentary film director. Josh Kriegman is a director and former political consultant. Together, they produced and directed Weiner. Elyse, Josh, welcome to On the Media.
JOSH KRIEGMAN: Thanks for having us.
ELYSE STEINBERG: Yeah, thanks so much.
BOB GARFIELD: You approached this film as the comeback story of a promising young politician who was derailed by a horrendous and/or delicious sex scandal. And you begin, really, by taking pains to remind people of Weiner's pre-scandal political reputation, this up-and-coming guy with passion that we seldom see. It sounds something like this:
[CLIP/2010 HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES SPEECH]:
- ANTHONY WEINER: You vote yes if you believe yes! You vote in favor of something if you believe it’s the right thing. If you believe it’s the wrong thing, you vote no! We are following up with –
SPEAKER: Yes, will the gentlemen yield –
REP. WEINER: I will not yield to the gentleman and the gentleman will observe regular order!
JOSH KRIEGMAN: It was important for us to establish, you know, where he had come from. And one of the, the key things about his history is that he really was a rising star in the Democratic Party.
MAN: It was an absolute pleasure to see a Democrat not cowering.
MAN: No question the guy knows how to fight.
WOMAN: He’s scrappy, he’s combative. He’s always been a great fighter on behalf of the people.
MAN: He never backed down from anybody.
REP. WEINER: You should urge them to vote yes, something the gentleman has not done!
JOSH KRIEGMAN: He was one of the best in politics at understanding kind of the contours of modern media, whether it's, you know, going viral on YouTube or, or using Twitter or, you know, clips on, on cable news.
BOB GARFIELD: The tools of modern media, oy vey! [LAUGHS]
JOSH KRIEGMAN: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BOB GARFIELD: They build him up and they, of course, were his undoing. Would you have focused on this campaign, had it not been for his kind of sordid history?
ELYSE STEINBERG: When we began filming, we thought this could be a remarkable comeback story. And when we were in the middle of the filming, I guess at six weeks in, Anthony was at the top of the polls. And it would have been an exciting story, had he won. But then, obviously, things took an unexpected turn, and our documentary, from a story perspective, changed.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Breaking news just into our newsroom in New York City. The New York mayoral candidate, Anthony Weiner, sent additional explicit photos and texts to a woman online.
BOB GARFIELD: Unexpected turn, Elyse?
ELYSE STEINBERG: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Based on what you knew of him and what you knew from him, you didn't see that coming?
ELYSE STEINBERG: I didn't know Anthony prior to working on this film. Josh had known him, but I didn’t. And, in many ways, I was just like the audience, watching the events unfold. But what I realized, when I met Anthony and I looked through the footage, was that I saw a much more complex, nuanced person. And that was the story that we were excited to tell.
BOB GARFIELD: And that was the story, clearly, you pitched to him, right, in order for him to make the fairly counterintuitive move of opening up his entire life to filmmakers, in the midst of his attempted comeback.
JOSH KRIEGMAN: Well, you know, it was a conversation that actually went on over the course of a couple of years. It was right after he resigned from Congress that I started a conversation with him about doing a documentary and, and telling his story. You know, of course, you know, he was hoping for a comeback story and in the first six weeks of, of filming the first half of the campaign or so, despite a lot of pundits counting him out or thinking he was a joke, to begin with, he was – you know, rose to the top of the polls. And, as filmmakers, we felt we might be capturing really one of the more remarkable comeback stories in American political history.
BOB GARFIELD: And then [LAUGHS] you manage to document one of the most remarkable un-comeback from comebacks.
ELYSE STEINBERG: As documentarians, we couldn’t believe that we were there. We couldn’t believe that we were in the room while this is unfolding.
ANTHONY WEINER: The question is do we answer it or not. I think we have to answer these questions.
HUMA ABEDIN: I think we have to answer because if somebody else comes out and we don’t –
ANTHONY WEINER: Okay -
ELYSE STEINBERG: The greatest documentaries are the ones where you go in with a certain expectation of the story and then it dramatically changes.
JOSH KRIEGMAN: You know, one of the things that we knew going into the story was whatever happens in the headlines, in the tabloids, in the cable news, the contrast between that and what we were hopefully going to be able to capture behind the scenes, that was something that, that we knew, you know, however it all unfolded, was what we were excited about capturing in the documentary and what we - in general, what excites us about documentaries.
BOB GARFIELD: And then, perhaps most mysteriously, there is Weiner's wife, Huma Abedin. Throughout the film at various points she is offering strategy and tactics to him. At other points, she is standing at a podium in front of a press scrum, voicing her support for his candidacy.
HUMA ABEDIN: When we faced this publicly two years ago, it took a lot of work and a whole lot of therapy to get to a place where I could forgive Anthony.
BOB GARFIELD: And at various other points, she’s just sitting there looking really pissed off. This is a moment where her husband is trying to show her an interview he did, a very contentious cable interview, and he's trying to get her take on it.
HOST LAWRENCE O’DONNELL: You knew, Anthony that you were a gravely damaged candidate.
ANTHONY WEINER: I said so, I wouldn’t do a thing –
ANTHONY WEINER (WATCHING LAWRENCE O’DONNELL SHOW VIDEO):
Who do you think looks better there, me or him?
HUMA ABEDIN: Why are you laughing? It’s crazy.
ANTHONY WEINER: It’s terribly crazy, but what am I supposed to do? I mean, [LAUGHING] tell me what I’m supposed to do.
[SOUND OF CHILD]
This is where it continues.
HUMA ABEDIN: No, no, no.
ANTHONY WEINER: No?
HUMA ABEDIN: Focus on your speech.
ANTHONY WEINER: This just makes me feel better. Get more fight in me, less emotional.
HUMA ABEDIN: Oh, really?
BOB GARFIELD: At one point, she mutters about living in a nightmare. Did you feel guilty being an eyewitness to her ongoing nightmare?
ELYSE STEINBERG: One of the things that was really exciting for us was to show what it means to be caught up in a media firestorm, the humanity behind the headlines.
JOSH KRIEGMAN: There’s so much impulse to judge, especially in the reality of sort of the modern media culture where everything comes through these, these tiny snippets - tweets and cable news soundbites and things - it’s such a reductive flurry that we get. And so, you know, so much of the intention of the film is to spend some time with these people and to see that it's complicated and that this idea that we could possibly know what's going on, you know, in anybody's relationship, I think, is worthy of scrutiny.
ELYSE STEINBERG: And especially, you know, with Huma, there was this judgment against her. Huma, along with many other women, have been criticized for staying with their husbands who have done something wrong or embarrassing.
PUNDIT: Huma Abedin, what is the simple explanation for why she decided to get out there in front of this?
PUNDIT 2: I fall back to the, the – Blaise Pascal, the philosopher, who said, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.
PUNDIT: I counter that with Shakespeare, “Has she eaten on the insane root that devours intellect and takes reason prisoner?”
ELYSE STEINBERG: And, you know, our film is to question those types of judgments. I mean, shouldn’t a woman be able to make her own decisions without judgment, and why should they be charged for decisions made by their flawed husbands? Our hope with this film is to go beyond those judgments and to question them.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the most poignant moments in the film, it seems to me, comes when, when Weiner, like many a politician, has utterly lost traction with the voters, with Election Day fast approaching and, you know, he becomes sort of the black knight from Monty Python. And he's denying the predicament he's in, until he has a very fraught conversation with his pollster.
POLLSTER: There’s no chance to win anymore. Winning is now defined as if Anthony wants to continue here, keeping his head high and saying something that matters and getting some at least grudging respect back. I don’t think there’s a path anymore….
ANTHONY WEINER: So this is a solo flight.
JOSH KRIEGMAN: You know, after the clip that you just played, you know, he jokes about being liberated in a death row kind of way. And I think that when the race was mostly lost and he knew that his chances of victory were slim, you know, it freed him up to continue to go out there and basically just champion what he was fighting for.
There’s a later scene in, in City Island in the Bronx where he takes a, a room that’s initially very much opposed to him and he stands up in front of them and he gives an impassioned speech, and he basically says, I’m not gonna go away. ‘Cause this embarrassing thing happened, I’m actually talking about something I care about.
ANTHONY WEINER: Do you think it was easy? Let’s go to City Island, knowing that I’d get this question? The reason I did that is because I’m trying to communicate something here. These are my ideas, I care about them. You did something we don’t like. The camera’s in your face, change your mind, back down quick! That’s not the kind of mayor I’m gonna be. Sir, I say to you, with all due respect, do not vote for me but don’t deny these people the right to vote for me.
BOB GARFIELD: Much of the depictions of the media in the film are of them just schooling around Weiner, you know, like barracudas around a sick grouper. Are the media a villain in this story, or something else?
JOSH KRIEGMAN: That’s a great question. The media is, without a doubt, a main character in the story. Anthony says this in the film. You know, the media has this rhythm that, that he's well aware of, and he got into the campaign with his eyes wide open, understanding the way that it might go.
ANTHONY WEINER: They love stoking it, they love talking about it, they love building me up, having me on their show so they can excoriate me and everything else. But that’s – let me make this very clear. I mean, I did the thing though, so it's not their fault that they played their role. They just were doing - you know, it's the frog and the, and the scorpion.
JOSH KRIEGMAN: And I think that that's – I think that’s right. I think the media certainly has its role to play, you know, in the way that the, the political conversation is driven so much by spectacle. But, of course, Anthony has his role to play, as well. And we, as consumers, have our role to play.
ELYSE STEINBERG: One of the things that was important to us with this film is that it would go beyond just one person or one campaign, that it would provide a look at how our politics today is just driven by an insatiable appetite for spectacle and entertainment. And we don't have to look very far to see that being played out, with Donald Trump. While I think Anthony and Trump are very different, politically and personally, I do think that they both understood that in order to be a successful politician in today's 24-hour news cycle, you need to put on a show. By being brash and having an air of authenticity, you get votes.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, in case anyone in the audience has forgotten, Election Day came and Weiner just got absolutely thumped. He ended up with about 5 percent of the vote. And after that, we see you asking him why the hell would he have sat down with you during this period, to begin with? And he, he literally just shrugs. But a little bit later, you get the answer to your question.
ANTHONY WEINER: I wanted just to be viewed as a – as the full person that I was. And I can't believe my entire everything is being engulfed by this, by this thing, and maybe that's what happened.
BOB GARFIELD: Is that really the truth, do you think?
ELYSE STEINBERG: I think it was the truth. I think it's been said that those that are the most exposed are the least revealed, and that was certainly the case with Anthony.
JOSH KRIEGMAN: Look, Anthony, of course, I think we can all sort of recognize, is the kind of person who is, in some ways, more comfortable when a camera is, is pointed at him. You know, that, that’s an element of who he is. I think, in some ways, it's an element of our politicians, in general; it’s kind of a requirement. You know, if you’re not excited about seeing your picture in the paper in the morning, you’re not gonna make it very far.
But I’d also say, you know, to what he says to us at the end of the film, you know, remember, he's a really smart guy. He had been through this scandal and media firestorm once already and he’d had this experience of having his whole reputation, his whole person just entirely wiped out and replaced with this one thing. Having another version of his story documented and told, it might be something that, in the end, he can appreciate.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to play Family Feud, and I want you to answer me [LAUGHS] simultaneously.
JOSH KRIEGMAN: Okay.
BOB GARFIELD: The question is, is Anthony Weiner a courageous political leader and public servant or an exhibitionist?
JOSH KRIEGMAN: You’re gonna – you’re gonna hate this response but I think we have to refuse.
BOB GARFIELD: Actually, the answer I was looking for was yes.
JOSH KRIEGMAN: [LAUGHS] I mean, yeah, the answer is yes. I think that’s exactly right.
ELYSE STEINBERG: Yes, both, yes.
JOSH KRIEGMAN: And, and that’s the point of the film and, obviously, that's what you're getting at.
BOB GARFIELD: Elyse, Josh, [LAUGHS] thank you very much.
JOSH KRIEGMAN: Thanks for having us.
ELYSE STEINBERG: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman are the directing team behind the new documentary, Weiner, which traces the rise and fall of former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner's 2013 mayoral campaign. It’s in theaters this coming week.