The Ethics of Compartmentalization and the Undoing of Rep. Anthony Weiner

The resignation June 16, 2011 of former Rep. Anthony D. Weiner (D-NY) sounded more like a political stump speech than an understanding of what happens when a leader loses trust. He commented that “the middle class story of New York is my story,” and expressed appreciation to his parents “who instilled values that have carried me this far.”

The values would appear to be defined in Weiner’s career as a crusader for his constituents. His downfall, at his own hand, suggests a fighter going down for the count because of “personal mistakes” that he seems to compartmentalize as distinct from the rest of his life, and his role as a congressman.

It raises yet again the questions: what is the code of conduct for a member of Congress; and when someone loses personal credibility by lying, is there really a firewall that can keep his or her professional credibility intact?

Ten days ago, after 10 days of denials by Weiner that he’d been involved in sending a lewd picture of himself from his Twitter account, he finally admitted sending the photo. He also admitted to online consensual relationships with six women, involving the exchange of intimate photographs, over a three-year period, before and during his marriage. However, his line in the sand was that he hadn’t met them or “had sex outside my marriage.”

In his June 6, 2011 press conference he insisted he would not resign. While he acknowledged “terrible judgment,” “terrible mistakes” and referred to the photograph as a “frivolous thing,” he indicated he didn’t believe that he had done anything that violated the law or his oath to constituents.

He said he panicked, lied because he was embarrassed and humiliated and was protecting his wife and himself from shame. But he didn’t make the connection that he had violated public trust by his actions, eroded his credibility, or behaved in a way that brought shame to Congress as an institution or body of elected officials.

I thought back to the righteous tone he took last year criticizing BP Americas President and Chairman LaMar McKay during a U.S. House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee hearing in the aftermath of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Weiner expressed outrage, railing against McKay, saying he had no credibility. Weiner also took on former BP CEO Tony Hayward and other executives dismissing them as liars in an interview.

Should his views on how BP handled the oil spill, his crusade for healthcare reform, his voice in public health, or environmental protection, or any other issue be discounted now that we know he had a secret life sending sexual pictures to a college student among others he met on Facebook? Is it irrelevant because he wasn’t blackmailed? Or are leaders’ voices only heard as long as they maintain trust and losing that, their voice disappears as well?

Weiner’s legacy may end up being the photo of him without underwear. Or it may be what he does in this next act of his life.

How we recover from reckless behavior, bad judgment, or self sabotage and figure out who we really are, warts and all, and how to stop derailing ourselves… well, that is a comeback. And there is no room for compartmentalization or self-deception in that scenario. Comebacks can create a new leadership opportunity out of an integrated, not divided self, where ethical behavior isn’t encumbered by dark secrets.

In thinking about Weiner, I’m reminded of a last line in a Yeats’ poem. Yeats asks the question:

“How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

The answer is we can’t. We are the dance.

Gael O’Brien   June 16, 2011

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine


2 thoughts on “The Ethics of Compartmentalization and the Undoing of Rep. Anthony Weiner

  1. Ethics Sage

    I agree with your thoughts. I am concerned, however, that if we are to apply the standards we all want and that are appropriate to our “leaders,” there may be few remaining people in Congree. My guess is there are a lot of Anthony Weiner’s in the House — maybe even the Senate — in one form or another. The fact is we no longer can or should look at these people as role models. Quite the opposite. All too many are arrogant, like Weiner, egotistical, like John Edwards, narcissists, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and, well you know, I could go on. What’s the answer? Is there an answer? I say this is it! This is what we have today representing our country. Our political system has morphed into a self-serving, sell your soul to get re-elected, vote your personal pocketbook approach to decision making. Where is Benjamin Franklin when you need him?

  2. Carl Wellenstein

    Isn’t it great that we live in a country where we are free to explore, uncover and disseminate publicly the darksides and misdeeds of our elected officials. All politicians, such as Italian premier Berlusconi, have lived quite happily with their darkside successfully, or somewhat successfully, hidden from the public. Facebook and Twitter have opened up new opportunities for people to make fools of themselves and for others to uncover them.
    Ben Franklin might not have been as beloved if the Internet was around and had exposed that he had a nasty temper, was temporarily kicked out of the Pennslyvania Assembly, or revealed that he rejected his son after the revolution and considered him a traitor for siding with the British.

    I guess it isn’t just about politicians but just plain old human nature. And that isn’t going to change. People will do what they think they can get away with (pardon the grammar).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s