In 1969 Norman Mailer ran for mayor of New York. He called for the city’s secession from the State of New York to become the 51st state; a ban on private cars in Manhattan; free public bicycles; devolution of powers over policing, education, housing and welfare to neighbourhood authorities; a casino on Coney Island or Roosevelt Island to generate tax revenue; and something called ‘Sweet Sundays’, one day each month on which all mechanical transportation, including lifts, would be banned. His fliers were apocalyptic: NEW YORK GETS AN IMAGINATION – OR IT DIES! His slogan was ‘No More Bullshit.’ On the campaign trail, when a student asked him what he would have done about all the snow that hadn’t been ploughed in Queens that winter, Mailer said he’d have pissed on it. One night he called his own supporters ‘spoiled pigs’. It was well known that nine years earlier he’d been arrested for stabbing his wife. ‘The difference,’ he said, ‘between me and the other candidates is that I’m no good and I can prove it.’ He won 41,000 votes, or 5 per cent, and came fifth, though not last, in that summer’s Democratic primary. His running mate, the columnist Jimmy Breslin, got 11 per cent in the race for City Council president. ‘I found out,’ he later said, ‘I was running with Ezra Pound.’ Nothing of the pair’s campaign platform was absorbed into city politics, unless you count the public bicycles that arrived this spring, which rent for $9.95 a day.

When Anthony Weiner entered the New York mayoral race in May, everybody knew he was, by a new measure of techno-uxoriousness, no good. The former congressman’s saga has now taken the form of a trilogy: less Mailer, whose hero’s excesses are ever on display, than Roth, whose repressed outsiders climb to the top only to be undone by urges not so different from the ones that got them there. First there was Weinergate: in the spring of 2011 Weiner tweeted a photograph of his crotch in tight underpants that he seemed to have intended to send to a female college student via a private channel. He said he’d been hacked. The right-wing media pounced. More photographs emerged – of his bare chest, of his crotch without underpants – as did some of his sexy correspondence with a few other women, among them a porn actress. Within three weeks he’d resigned from Congress and exited the scene with his pregnant wife – Huma Abedin, a glamorous aide to Hillary Clinton – bound for therapy, ante-natal classes and lucrative consultancies in the private sector.

Twenty-three months passed before we got the sequel: splashed across the cover of the New York Times Magazine, the happy couple are back for more; inside, for family-oriented readers, Abedin and Weiner are seen by their son’s crib, the boy playing with his toys. Abedin describes waking up, a few days after dinner at Buckingham Palace with her boss, Obama and the queen (‘I cannot believe what an amazingly blessed life we live,’ she wrote to her husband from London), to the awful text message about her husband’s hacked Twitter account. Weiner regrets lying – to everyone. But Abedin has given him another chance: if only the public would do the same! He entered the mayor’s race the next month, and proved the slickest in the pack, in and out of first place all summer.

Part three came as a surprise to everyone except Weiner: on 23 July, Sydney Leathers, a 23-year-old living in Indiana, told a blogger that at the time when he was portraying himself as a contrite new father pushing the pram, Weiner had been sending her erotic messages under the screen-name Carlos Danger. In 2011 she’d written him a Facebook message telling him how disappointed she was in his bad behaviour; a few months went by before he ‘poked’ her, and then the sexting began. It consisted of some banal obscenities and another batch of lewd self-portraits. Amid fairly tame scenarios of hotels and ‘fuckme shoes’ (Weiner seems not to have been able to lose himself completely: she calls him perfect and he says, ‘I’m deeply flawed’), he told her he was ‘an argumentative, perpetually horny, middle-aged man’. (He’s 48.) Leathers said they had phone sex, used the word ‘love’ and discussed procuring a Chicago condo for a romp. (They never did meet in person.) She cast herself as a spurned victim at first but quickly gave that up. Now she just cashes in: she’s done an American flag-themed softcore porn video, a parody music video, and cut an endorsement deal with a swingers website called iHookup, among other activities closely tracked by the Daily Mail. The New York Times has called for him to drop out of the race, chastising him for dragging the public into the ‘tawdry’ cauldron of his appetites. He hasn’t dropped out, but he has dipped to fourth in the polls.

There have been sideshows: Eliot Spitzer, who was governor of New York State until he was revealed to be sleeping with prostitutes with his socks on, is running for his own redemption – he has the more modest office of city comptroller in his sights. Of course, he has joined the chorus telling Weiner to go away. And an intern of Weiner’s wrote a tell-all about the campaign (he calls the interns ‘Monica’; people work for him to get an in with his wife, and thus with Hillary Clinton); Weiner’s communications director called the treacherous intern a ‘slutbag’.

Until it emerged that he had his id wired to his portable electronic devices, I had thought Weiner a rather bland politician: a striver and a party hack, another jockish pretty boy, a Paul Ryan of the centre left. In the 1980s, just out of college, where he played hockey (still does, every Monday night), Weiner rose through the office of then Congressman Charles Schumer (now known as ‘Wall Street’s senator’), and was elected New York’s youngest ever city councilman in 1991, using race-baiting tactics in a predominantly white district. He won Schumer’s congressional seat when Schumer ran for the Senate in 1998. In Washington he fell in line, and voted for the invasion of Iraq in 2002. He made a failed bid for the Democratic nomination for New York mayor in 2005, remembered mostly for a neighbourhood sanitation programme called ‘Weiner’s Cleaners’ (the name has now been scrubbed of all but phallic resonances), raising his profile as a ‘wonkish’, essentially Clintonian Democrat. The allegiance was confirmed in 2010 when he married Abedin in a ceremony presided over by Bill Clinton. In no time they’d assumed the familiar pose of the shamed libidinous pol and his long-suffering loyal bride. Marriage turned out to be a political liability for Weiner. His phone was the thing he used to rattle the cage.

Joe Flaherty, Mailer’s 1969 campaign manager, wrote that it was ‘a dull campaign in a sad city with a grimace of despair carved into its face. Mailer and Breslin managed, for a short season, to turn that grimace into a grin.’ Weiner put grins on the faces of all the city’s political reporters, and his rivals are a fairly dull bunch. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn would be the first female and uncloseted homosexual mayor of Gotham; she’s also been tarred as an accomplice of Michael Bloomberg in rendering New York a city run by and for the rich. To her left, at least tactically, is public advocate Bill de Blasio, a veteran of Bill Clinton’s administration, who focuses on inequality; his script sounds like an awkward adaptation of the ‘Two Americas’ routine deployed in 2008 by John Edwards (who showed that a genuine sex scandal comes with a divorce, a love child and a near-miss at a thirty-year jail sentence). Between Quinn and de Blasio is the mild-mannered, African-American Bill Thompson, a former comptroller who tends to split the difference between their policy prescriptions. The pugnacious current comptroller, John Liu, is mired in campaign finance troubles and running behind Weiner. Whoever emerges top out of this vacuum of charisma will have the advantage over the Republican who trumps an even weaker field.

A Roth character will never turn into a Mailer character, because Alex Portnoy, an ‘assistant human opportunity commissioner’, will always want to look like somebody’s clean-cut son when he shows up for dinner at Gracie Mansion, even if he’s sexting with Indiana under the table. Mailer would have sexted in the third person. ‘I am repaying my debt to society,’ he said, ‘that’s why I’m running.’ He might have incorporated a scandal like Weiner’s into his platform: he wanted his neighbourhood authorities to be able to mandate free love (or compulsory church attendance) if they saw fit. Weiner hasn’t become Mailer, or Ezra Pound for that matter, but as Leathers stalks the talk show circuit, he’s started to cast himself as someone not beholden to special interests because the special interests won’t have anything to do with him.

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