Fighting Words

Anatomy of a Scandal

How Anthony Weiner and John Edwards lost control of their private parts.

Reporters question Anthony Weiner about his Twitter photo scandal

In one of the routines from his heyday, Richard Pryor would enact the anguish experienced by a man who cannot get his male organ to rise. In this redefinition of the whole concept of standup, he ended by practically seizing the torpid member by the throat, howling plaintively, and demanding to know, “Whose dick is this?”

Comes now Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., who might be described as a sitting member. His sad story is simply told and requires an answer to the same question. A 21-year-old female student, who follows the congressman’s doings on Twitter, received an unsolicited photograph from that same account. It showed the genital area of a male, lightly draped in hybrid boxer briefs and apparently taken by the owner of the pudenda himself. Weiner denied all knowledge, suggesting that he was the victim of a hoax or prank. But he modestly declined to say whether he had any … connection to the subject matter. Indeed, since there are only two possible answers to the question, his nondenials had the doubtless unintended effect of a confirmation. “Stuff gets manipulated,” as he told Rachel Maddow. “Maybe it started out as being a photograph of mine” that had been “taken out of context.” With CNN’s Wolf Blitzer he elaborated by saying, “I don’t know what photographs are out there in the world of me.” Continuing with his ill-advised choice of metaphor, he added, “I don’t know what things have been manipulated.” When Luke Russert inquired whether Weiner could suggest another possessor of the manipulated organ, he rather lamely replied that he “couldn’t say with certitude” that it was somebody else’s.

Pausing only to pity the poor penis, so shabbily half-disowned (does Weiner think it has no feelings at all; that it must conclude that its owner’s right hand does not know what his left hand is doing?), we move to the week’s other Democratic scandal. Former senator and potential presidential nominee John Edwards now admits that he financed the concealment of his mistress and his then-unborn child with generous funds given by a credulous centenarian named Rachel “Bunny” Mellon. But he denies that this was an improper diversion of money given to his campaign. As the New York Times summarized matters: “The Edwards defense is that the money was used not for political reasons but for personal reasons: he wanted to conceal the affair from his wife.”

Almost as if the disclosure of a betrayal of that dying spouse would have had no effect on his political standing! If Edwards and his fellow-attorney and counsel Greg Craig believe that this will stand up in court, they are counting on a belief in “compartmentalization” that would have made the Clintons blush. Establishing this distinction without a difference will be complicated. The whole idea of special and confidential “Bunny money” was first evolved when she became upset by the publicity attending Edwards’ hair-salon outlays. Why not in the future, said the dear old donor, simply bill her directly for such things, rather than the campaign? Again, we see an effort to distinguish between the politician and his body parts: You start off by treating the hair as a separate entity and end up by shelling out serious dough to someone who has been led astray only by his peccant pecker. Not since Chris Rock proposed that Jennifer Lopez’s derriere have its own agent has the mind-body distinction been so crudely misused.

If this catches on, there will be plenty more lucrative work for lawyers. Imagine the new firms that will go into business to represent independent dicks. Campaigns could be charged billable hours by Nasty, Brutish, and Short or Long, John, and Silver. (There might even be room for Weiner, Weiner, and Weiner.) In the meantime, it will become necessary for all prudent males in public life to register copyright on actual and potential pictures of their private parts, perhaps especially those taken from the apparent viewpoint of their uneasy owners. I am pretty sure I couldn’t be confused with anyone else. I am convinced furthermore that I’d be able to identify my own property, but to avoid any confusion (or “conflict of interest”) between us, I’m arranging for the waistband of my briefs to read clearly: “Hitch: ‘Too Big To Fail.’ Serving the Community and Making a Difference Since 1967.” I shall just have to hope that everything in the vicinity is shrinkproof.

Our everyday language is unintentionally revealing here. A flasher who displays his genitals in public is spoken of as “exposing himself.” In fact, we all expose ourselves, or much of ourselves, every time we go out. The line is crossed only when the exposure is full-frontal. Possibly we use the misleading form in the hope of avoiding the unmentionable. But does this usage not also “expose” something else, as in the even more coy version, “He exposed his person.” This is truly to invest the member with the qualities of an individual. This being the case, the whole issue of personality could be redefined. Passports and drivers licenses could have reserved spaces for beefcake shots, which would provide much more authentic proof of identity. (“Sir, I’m going to need to see some …)

In my time at Oxford, there still persisted a quaint survival from the Victorian era. A special part of the river bank set among the willows was reserved for nude male bathing, with membership restricted to dons and clergymen. Prominent signs and barriers prevented boats and punts containing females from approaching this discreet stretch. On one fateful Sunday afternoon, however, a recent flood had washed away the signs and weakened the barriers. A group of ladies was swept past the rows of recumbent and undressed gentlemen. Shrieks of embarrassment from the boat, while on the shore—consternation. Pairs of hands darted down to cover the midsection. All but one, the hedonist and classicist Sir Maurice Bowra, whose palms went up to conceal his craggy visage. As the squeals were borne downstream, and the sheepish company surveyed itself, Bowra growled, “I don’t know about you chaps, but I’m known by my face around here.” How long will this traditional view endure?

Christopher Hitchens’ Kindle Single,  The Enemy, on the demise of Osama Bin Laden, has just been published.