Lookit, folks, this whole Twitter scandal involving the inadvertently eponymous Anthony Weiner is more than a sideshow.
The damaging personal impact may diminish with time, particularly if Weiner is able to make a comeback — à la Eliot Spitzer, the sexually miscreant former New York governor who now does prime-time analysis for CNN, or, for that matter, like Bill Clinton, whose presidential legacy and world-wide charitable pursuits seem increasingly untainted by that famous DNA stain on a blue dress.
Time is even better than Tide in washing away the residue of misdeeds, especially if a little contrition goes into the scrubbing. And Weiner certainly indulged in his share of that at his eerily fascinating mea culpa press conference on Monday.
The real long-term effect of Weiner's misguided effort to be as wanky as he is known to be wonky is that it further unravels a seam that, for much of our national life, has separated Americans at large from the, er, junk and jetsam of our public figures.
Decreasingly is it necessary or even convincing for politicians to pretend to a moral standard of living that is qualitatively higher than that of the population they represent. Think the aforementioned Spitzer and Clinton. Think the Palin clan. Think Newt Gingrich. Think, among our own local exemplars, Willie Herenton, a once highly popular mayor whose slide in public esteem owed much more to people's concerns about his administrative actions (or inactions) than to the fact that he owned up to having a child out of wedlock.
And John Ford was ultimately damned for being fast in covert ways with money rather than with women.
The political takedowns of our time — as well as the surprisingly sudden rehabilitations — are a direct result of the social media of the digital age: emails, so much easier to write and dispatch than letters (and so much harder to keep out of public scrutiny); blogs, with their tendency to dissolve the former restraints of composed prose; and Facebook, Twitter, and other network sites, with their — well, with their transparency.
Local public-relations maven Amy Howell was a last-minute substitute at the Memphis Rotary Club's weekly luncheon on Tuesday, and her presence couldn't have been more timely.
"You are what you tweet," she told the Rotarians, and people will read what you write as being a not too complicated code in that regard. She noted, apropos the Weiner episode, "Some of our congressmen have found that out the hard way."
"PR is 24/7. It does not sleep, and it is viral," Howell said, and she made it clear that both the term "PR" and the term "media" are much more all-encompassing in the digital age.
There is the problem of hackers, she pointed out. "Just imagine about anything you say online: Would it be okay if it's seen by your preacher, your teacher, your kids, your parents, your peers?"
But the hacker may be, as in the case of Weiner, who tried to blame his problems on right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart, who first outed the infamous bulging-brief pic, something of a scapegoat.
Ultimately, Weiner outed himself, as all of us are likely to in that 24/7 viral world, of the instant utterance in which we all — man, woman, and child — are thinly clad in Freudian slips.
The high side of all this is that, in the course of seeing that the emperor has no clothes (sometimes quite literally), we begin to understand that we, too, are naked in our essential being. And with that understanding, hopefully will come the kind of general tolerance that, along with unprecedented transparency, will characterize the viral age.
• The two primary local legislative bodies — the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission — began the current week with a resolve to pass budgets that, in both cases, would have to make up for looming financial shortfalls.
And, for better or for worse (see Editorial, p. 16), both bodies engaged in wide-ranging dialogue as to the best means for getting out of economic limbo.
The poles of thought on the city side were best represented by proposals from councilmen Kemp Conrad and Harold Collins, the former producing a comprehensive plan that tilted heavily to retrenchment and privatiazing solutions, the latter addressing the problem from the traditional standpoint of enhancing revenue.
Among other things, Conrad's plan envisioned the out-sourcing of trash pick-up and was based almost entirely on the concept of diminishing public expenditures and taxpayers' burdens and was, as various activists and union members quickly let him know, relatively inattentive to employees' considerations and, for that matter, to the iconic place in Memphis history of the 1968 strike by sanitation workers.
Conrad also proposed speeding up the timetable of a proposed down-sizing of the Memphis Fire Department which had come from that department's director, Alvin Benson.
Collins called for restoring the 18-cent increment of the city property tax which was cut by the council in 2008 when it made the fateful decision to withhold the lion's share of a $78 million annual subsidy to Memphis City Schools. As is reasonably well known, the courts have since mandated that the $57 million remainder from that budget year be paid to MCS.
On Tuesday, Mayor A C Wharton weighed in as a would-be tie-breaker between the two concepts — adopting Collins' proposal along with those of councilman Ed Ford Jr. for increases in court fees and a surcharge on motor vehicle inspections.
Wharton made the case for compromise, producing a revised budget that restored some community services and slightly reduced the number of employee layoffs called for in an earlier budget version.
The county commission has been proceeding to the same hopeful goal — but, more clearly, perhaps, than in the case of the city, has been obstructed by rancor.
A case in point was Monday's public meeting of the commission, which ended without a budget agreement — the issue being carried forth to the meeting of June 20th. Things began with a bitter wrangle over a proposal to modify county purchasing procedures so as to enact a "local preference purchasing program." That one went down, and the aura of contention would continue.
The most notable disagreement was over an issue that has been argued over for months, indeed years, but which has become virtual nitroglycerin in this year of serious financial straits. This was a proposal to institute a new pension plan for new employees that ups the contributions required of the employees themselves. It was approved by a 7-4 vote divided roughly, but not exactly, along party lines.
On this issue, as on several others, a few Democrats crossed over to the position advanced by Republican members.
Yet another such case was the vote, by a surprising margin of 8-3, to delete some $450,000 in funding for the county's Office of Early Childhood and Youth.
Republican commissioner Mike Carpenter, who, with two Democrats, Walter Bailey and Melvin Burgess Jr., voted to keep the funding, pointed out that a no vote meant, in effect, the rejection of some $6 million in federal funding that was "leveraged" with the appropriation for the Office of Early Childhood and Youth. (See also here.)
Tempers frayed even over issues that passed fairly handily, such as an appropriation to endow a Sickle Cell Clinic at Methodist Hospital. The discussion on that measure was characterized by a three-way between Commissioners Wyatt Bunker, who objected to funding a "private" institution; Henri Brooks, who works at Methodist Hospital and disclosed the fact, but, seeing no conflict of interest, resolved to cast her vote; and Mike Ritz, who favored the measure but recommended that Brooks recuse herself on the grounds that "it would look better for all of us."
That was after Bunker had begun making an issue of her employment.
Brooks took offense, but ultimately agreed to recuse herself — but not without some parting shots, including one that might have been expected to turn up in discussion but hadn't: that of the PILOTs (payment-in-lieu-of-taxes) that, arguably, had done as much as anything else in both city and county to depress the local revenue base and to make the disagreements of 2011 inevitable. (To be continued.)