All week, the tabloid headlines lampooned Rep. Anthony Weiner as he struggled to explain how a photo of a man's crotch had been posted to his Twitter account. The normally media-savvy New York Democrat squandered his chance to make it right with a cringe-inducing TV blitz that raised more questions than it answered.
It's a surprising turn for the pugnacious 46-year-old Brooklyn native, who until this mess was widely seen as one of the smartest members of Congress.
But the fallout from the incident has highlighted his weaknesses and he's being cast by political opponents and the media as both a thin-skinned brawler who berates reporters for asking questions and a publicity hog who seems to relish media attention, no matter how it comes his way.
"The more he talks about it, the more problems he raises," said former New York City Mayor Ed Koch. "I think he's a very brilliant young man with a brilliant future. But this is unnecessary heartache."
Weiner has spent his professional life in the rough-and-tumble of New York politics, starting as a legislative assistant to then-Rep. Charles Schumer, now the state's senior senator. Weiner (D-Forest Hills) was elected to the New York City Council before winning Schumer's House seat in 1998, representing parts of Brooklyn and Queens.
For years, Weiner was a high-energy but not particularly visible House member. His national profile skyrocketed during the long debate over President Barack Obama's health care plan in 2009 and 2010. Weiner's outspoken support for a government-run program for everyone, known as a "single-payer" plan and later a "public option," to compete with private health insurance made him a liberal icon even though both proposals failed to make it into law.
Since then, Weiner has used cable news appearances and speeches on the House floor to great strategic effect. He lambasted GOP colleagues for slowing a vote on health benefits for first responders to the Sept. 11 attacks. He once suggested a drinking game in which his audience of C-SPAN cable network viewers would "take a shot" each time Republicans made alleged misstatements on the health care overhaul. "Please assign a designated driver," Weiner cracked. "This is going to be a long afternoon."
For the past year, Weiner has taken to the social networking site Twitter to crack jokes and needle Republicans on policy matters. While many members of Congress use Twitter to discuss pending legislation and upcoming appearances in their districts, Weiner has used it to connect with a wider online audience and further burnish his reputation as a champion of liberal causes.
Weiner's marriage last July to Huma Abedin, a close aide to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, made him an honorary member of one of the Democratic Party's leading families. Clinton hosted an engagement party for the couple at her Washington home, where she told guests she considered Abedin her second daughter. Bill Clinton officiated at their wedding in the gardens of Huntington's Oheka Castle.
Few of Weiner's Democratic colleagues have come to his defense this week. That's a consequence, some say, of his reputation for self-promotion.
Weiner has repeatedly denied sending or posting the photo. But observers say the Twitter brouhaha can't help but affect any plan he may have to run to succeed New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg when the mayor's third term ends in 2013.
Weiner lost a bid for the nomination once before, in 2005, and has said it's the only job he wants more than serving in Congress.