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A Tale of Two Pols

New York municipal elections are normally pretty rollicking affairs, often pitting charismatic foes in bare-knuckles showdowns for real power and influence. This year’s electoral primaries offer something quite novel. They feature three career politicians, Anthony Weiner, Vito Lopez and Eliot Spitzer, who are adding a certain sexual spice to an otherwise merely contentious campaign.

Weiner, a former Congressman and running for mayor, was outed in 2011 for sexting, sending provocative image and text messages via his smartphone. Lopez, a former state Assemblyman and running for the city council, was forced to resign earlier this year over accusation of sexual harassment. Spitzer, New York’s former governor and attorney general, is running for comptroller; he was outed in 2008 for engaging in commercial sexual relations with a 21st century call girl. (As only in Gotham, also unofficially running for comptroller is Kristine Davis, a former madam who claims to have provided sex workers to Spitzer.)

Until the latest revelations about Weiner’s sexting life, it appeared that these pols were poised for “rehabilitation,” their apparent “sins” to be forgiven. If Mark Sanford could find redemption in very Christian South Carolina, could one expect less in the Big Apple? Now for Weiner, it might be a different story.

* * *

Political scandals involving New York pols are as old as the city itself. One of the grandest sex scandals of the early colonial era involved Lord Cornbury (Edward Hyde), Britain’s governor-general of New York and New Jersey from 1702 to 1708. He is reported to have opened the New York General Assembly of 1702 in an exquisite, formal gown in the Queen Anne style — a hooped gown with an elaborate headdress and carrying a fan. As has become a popular legend, the governor insisted that he dressed in drag to better represent the Queen, his first cousin.

An image of Cornbury in drag is immortalized in a painting first exhibited in London in 1867 and now held by the New-York Historical Society. In addition to his alleged drag outfit worn at the opening of the 1702 Assembly, he reportedly dressed in drag at his wife’s funeral in 1707, deeply upsetting others in attendance. There is even a story that he was arrested as a prostitute soliciting soldiers. Looking back, Lord Cornbury may well have been the nation’s most famous drag queen, if he dressed in drag at all.

Measured against the Cornbury scandal, Weiner’s actions seem so pathetic – both in his execution and his cover-up. The online site, thedirty.com, revealed the latest episode in Weiner’s clandestine sex life and the rest of the media – especially the Big Apple tabloids, cable shows and talk radio — are having a field day with it. After endless saccharin gossip about the royal baby, the media needed something sleazy (even something as tasteless as Weiner’s exploits) to clear the palette.

Those interested in the seamy side of the Weiner roast should check out The Dirty’s presentation of the email exchanges between the mayoral candidate – aka “Carlos Danger” — and his smartphone paramour. Its reporter, Nik Richie, summarized the exchange as follows:

She really thought Anthony Weiner and her were in love, they spoke on the phone daily multiple times a day for 6 months. Anthony Weiner played with her emotions and mind. Most calls were phone sex. He promised her many things including a condo in Chicago (1235 S. Prairie Ave) where they were planning to meet up to have sex. Anthony Weiner has a shoe fetish, particularly heels.

And adds, “Ladies if you exchanged sexual pictures with Anthony Weiner aka Carlos Danger please come forward.”

Weiner’s scandals seem so banal, even adolescent, when compared to grand exploits of city’s good-time mayor, James J. Walker, often called “New York’s Night Time Mayor.” “Beau James” was elected mayor in 1926 and was forced to resign in 1932, the victim of a clean-government campaign organized by then-governor FDR before his first presidential run.

Walker was raised in Greenwich Village and, before turning to politics, he wrote popular songs for Tin Pan Alley, including “There’s Music In The Rustle Of A Skirt” and “Will You Love Me in December As You Do in May?” He was a true son of the Tammany political machine, his father a former district leader. Walker the younger worked his way up the ranks of the machine, serving in the state assembly and senate before becoming mayor.

When “Gentleman Jim” took office, booze flowed freely and New Yorkers had accommodated themselves to the inconveniences of Prohibition. During the Roaring ‘20s, Walker was a regular at the Central Park Casino, a speakeasy located on city land in Central Park and in which he had a financial interest. He also partied at Texas Guinan’s famous El Fay club. She drew a distinguished crowd, including writers like Ring Larder, Damon Runyon and Heywood Broun; actors Tom Mix and George Raft; and gossip columnists Walter Winchell, Ed Sullivan and Mark Hellinger. Walker, along with Algonquin Roundtable regulars Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker, paid an occasion visit to the brothel run by the city’s most famous madam, Polly Adler.

Looking more like a movie star than politician, Walker was often featured in page-1 newspaper headlines accompanied by a sexy young starlet at the latest Broadway opening, political fundraiser or 5th Avenue parade. But he was married and a Catholic. His very public affair with the Ziegfield showgirl, Betty Compton, most antagonized the Church and respectable society, particularly the New York Times. That was a scandal that everybody knew about and it didn’t drive him from office.

* * *

Something about sex scandals and politicians has been lost over the last 80 or so years. The Rudi Giuliani scandal of 2000 found the mayor and his soon-to-be-ex-wife holding dueling press conferences; he was also outed for having an ongoing affair while married to a women who would soon become his second wife. But no one in New York seemed to have cared about Giuliani’s dalliances, but they likely influenced his later presidential aspirations, especially among the Christian right. Looking back, the Giuliani affair seems so shabby – and no less pathetic than the revelations that brought down Spitzer and Weiner.

Where is Beau James when we really need him? For all the outrage raised by the moral guard of old, the sinners of those by-gone days seemed up to the challenge. Gentleman Jim brought certain panache, a stylish je ne sais quoi, to his scandals. With few exceptions (e.g., Sen. David Vitter and Con. Mark Sanford), today’s (male) politicians flee in the face of scandal involving an “unacceptable” sexual indulgence. In the hell of old, a sinner suffered for eternity; today’s hell is being out of the political spotlight for only a couple of years.

The media loves a good sex scandal, the sleazier the better. It makes a great headline and pulls numbers. It also reinforces the moral belief as to what is “acceptable” – and “unacceptable.” This is their unacknowledged but obvious moral value system. It is the sexual tease separating the “normal” from the “abnormal,” the “moral” from the “illicit.”

But who sets the standard for what’s “acceptable”?

A century ago, American women wore ankle-length dresses with corsets, masturbation was decried, intercourse was for procreation not pleasure, abortion a crime, contraceptives banned, interracial sex a hanging offense, pre-marital sex forbidden, pornography an obscenity and homosexuality a sin. Today, that world is over.

The media, let alone their pundits, are the parrots or puppets of a compromised value system. Mass-media programming – e.g., cable shows, national magazines — promote a highly sexualized presentation of self, especially the female self. And they reinforce beliefs that certain practices such as sexting and commercial sex are wrong, immoral, if not illegal. Scandals are social rituals helping set the boundaries of what is sexually acceptable. Stay tuned for the further (mis)adventures of Anthony Weiner.

David Rosen writes the “Media Current” column for Filmmaker and regularly contributes to AlterNet, Huffington Post and the Brooklyn Rail. Check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com; he can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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