A Master Of Political Theater, Congressman Anthony Weiner Has Leveraged His Strong Liberal Opinions, New York Attitude And Willingness To Go Head-To-Head With Republicans On Cable TV To Fill A Void In The Democratic Party.
A few minutes into my conversation with Anthony Weiner, the Democratic congressman excuses himself to vote on the House floor. Ten minutes later, he is back in his spacious office in the Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill, not the least bit concerned that the health care bill he championed was just repealed by a vote of 249 to 189.
“It’s largely symbolic,” Weiner says calmly, shrugging as he once again makes himself comfortable beneath photos of himself posing alongside figures ranging from former President George W. Bush to the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. Leaning back in his leather armchair, feet on the coffee table, arms crossed against his chest, the tall, lanky 46-year-old exudes cockiness and poised confidence. Indeed, it’s that self-assuredness—coupled with an in-your-face brashness—that has made him into a national figure. He’s reluctant to pinpoint a single date or issue that thrust him into prominence. But he’s eager to make one thing clear: “I’m a big deal.”
On any given night, the Democrat from Queens, New York, can be seen sparring with Republicans on cable TV. Weiner can yell, interrupt and verbally joust with the best of them. On shows, he smiles directly into the camera and, even in a roundtable discussion, looks straight into the lens. He’s also funny and makes for great—if somewhat irreverent—television. In one widely reported appearance on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News, he faced off with Tea Party darling Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) about raising the debt ceiling. “All the surplus in Social Security is a big vault stuffed with IOU notes,” she said. “There’s not one dime sitting in there.” He responded without missing a beat: “Are you surprised to learn, Congresswoman Bachmann,” that “we don’t have a room filled with dimes?”
Indeed, Weiner is filling what some onlookers say is a gaping hole in the Democratic Party. Republicans have their fair share of talking heads and headline-grabbing gurus, ranging from personalities such as Rush Limbaugh to Sarah Palin, but few Democrats today have the kind of pizzazz that holds audiences in rapt attention. “He’s very telegenic and he gives great sound bites,” says one ABC News producer. “Everyone wants him on their show.”
With a narrow face and a prominent nose, Weiner certainly isn’t telegenic in a traditional way. But he’s got that certain something that keeps viewers coming back for more. He’s also got a fair share of star power. There’s his long-time friendship with Comedy Central’s Daily Show host Jon Stewart—the two lived together in Manhattan and shared a beach house in the 1980s. Then last year, Weiner married Huma Abedin, a close aide to Hillary Clinton, who had been on Vogue’s Best Dressed list of 2007. Abedin’s connections and background—she is Muslim and was raised in Saudi Arabia—have made the Jewish congressman even more of a celebrity.
If you ask Weiner, snagging the spotlight is not difficult. “Being the most interesting guy on C-SPAN is kind of like being the tallest pygmy,” he’s quipped in the past. All he is doing, he says, is speaking out where others aren’t. “There’s a desire among many Americans, among Democrats, to become more committed to the fight for the values we believe in,” he says. “I think I am saying things that a lot of Democrats want to say.”