“The weirdness of being a political staffer for someone who’s that ambitious is, What does it say about you?” a former Weiner staffer recently told me. He’d worked for the congressman for a year when the first sexting scandal broke in 2011. Political staffers sign up with a candidate for reasons both grand and small: a desire to help people (“all that historical, philosophical shit”), for the biography-as-destiny mythos of your boss, and, of course, for the sake of your own career. “That huge web ends with that one person,” the former staffer said, and that person is “sometimes flawed, sometimes deeply flawed.” The new documentary Weiner shows dozens of men and women, mostly between the ages of 20 and 40, for whom working for the mayoral candidate is a tale of clawing ambition and crushed idealism.
The film follows the Democrat in 2013, when the former congressman, ousted over a sexting scandal, attempted to run for mayor of New York only to be undone by a second sexting episode. During that time I was a political writer with a four-posts-a-day quota, and Weiner was the perfect story for bloggers: There were daily, even hourly chapters in the plot—new transcripts of the sexts, a shouting match with a constituent, a bizarre appearance on cable news, and the inevitable signs of stress inside the campaign.
When the second round of sexts were made public, former intern Olivia Nuzzi wrote a tell-all in the Daily News revealing that Weiner called the interns “Monica.” Barbara Morgan, Weiner’s communications director for his five-month campaign, trashed the former intern to a reporter at Talking Points Memo in a profane rant, “Fucking slutbag. Nice fucking glamour shot on the cover of the Daily News. Man, see if you ever get a job in this town again.” Disloyalty is generally not viewed kindly among political staffers. (Nuzzi is now a reporter for The Daily Beast.) In 2013, I suggested Morgan’s outburst was an example of the impossible position young interns are in, since they are “expected to demonstrate the competence of an adult and the subservience of a child.” Further, I said, as an intern, your existence reminds your older coworkers “that they have passed their sexual prime and are sliding towards the inevitable obsolescence that precedes death.”
Yet Barbara Morgan is the quiet hero of Weiner. The film shows the delicate dance political staffers must do to control a crisis without bruising the ego of their egomaniacal boss. When the second round of sexting breaks, we see Morgan on the phone quietly saying, “I understand.” A policy aide enters the room and asks, excited, “Are we going to be going nuclear? And being like, ‘It’s absolutely not true and this is fucking ridiculous?’ Or is that not our strategy?”
“That’s not going to be the strategy,” Morgan responds. The campaign manager, sitting next to her, repeats, “Not gonna be the strategy.” It’s a subtle acknowledgment that the sexts are real, and their hero has let them down again—you can tell the staffers feel a little bit stupid for not expecting this. Why did they tie their careers to someone with such a capacity for self-sabotage?
The film displays the profound loyalty of the Weiner aide, the ability to hold in one’s head the idea that Weiner would have made a “phenomenal mayor,” as the former staffer maintains, even though he was well known to be a monster boss. What about the devastating 2013 New York Times story that argued Weiner was a famewhore who had no legislative accomplishments? The ex-staffer told me that Weiner felt he was doing an important job as Democratic attack dog, but that his real passion was constituent service—helping a voter with a mortgage modification, getting someone a green card. He was so passionate, though, that he sometimes had to throw a salad at the wall.
Each week staffers had to file short reports about their area of responsibility in “crisp, military-style language” on everything from potholes to Israel policy. They would be compiled and printed out and given to Weiner, and usually later that day the staff would be emailed a scanned copy of the report with Weiner’s feedback scribbled on it in a sharpie. The notes “would range from ‘fine,’ ‘ok,’ a rare ‘good’—but I don’t remember ever seeing one—and then shit like ‘bad,’ ‘stupid,’ the worst being ‘teeth.’ Teeth was bad because it meant ‘I’m grinding my teeth about this issue.’”
The film shows how the press stalked Morgan—she almost cries while talking about reporters who said they would claim she had an affair with Weiner if she didn’t give them information. (Huma Abedin warns her to look happy when she exits the meeting.) “She suddenly became the non-Anthony face of the scandal,” the ex-Weiner staffer told me. She’d be caught looking stressed out, which only gave more fodder for the media, he said, “but you can’t help it, because you’re fucking tired and you can’t quit for two or three months.”
In a scene from the documentary, Morgan reads a reporter’s questions to Weiner while they ride in a car, and together they figure out responses that are truthful but vague enough to give him some wiggle room. But even as Morgan is finessing how to avoid telling the whole truth to the press, she’s trying to get it out of Weiner himself. Did anyone on the campaign other than Huma know? No. “Were there multiple exchanges with multiple people? Or was it just this one?” She looks at him. “Can I just say multiple people? Or was it just this one?” He tries to remember what he’s told reporters in the past, and tells her to say multiple people. “Do you think you’re suffering from any sort of addiction?” He looks out the window, and tries to remember what he’s said in other interviews. She says he doesn’t have to answer right now. “No, I’m giving you the answer!” he snaps. She’s helping him at his hour of greatest need, and he is rude to her. She gently says she thought he was thinking it through, and he yells, “No, I’m talking words!!” Each question is more important to Morgan than it is to the reporter’s readers. “What’s the strategy going forward?” Weiner sighs and keeps looking out the window.
Later, again in the car, Weiner tells a few Rodney Dangerfield jokes and Morgan laughs and laughs; then he tells a sex joke, and it gets silent. It’s not that Morgan is offended, but the look on her face is complex—she wants to laugh, but also is horrified that he can’t help himself. She’s aware there’s a camera recording all of this; she puts her hand to her mouth and looks out the window.