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