Milbank: Political narcissism's echo chamber

Over two decades of covering politicians' scandals, I've often been asked a version of this question: What makes them do such stupid things?

Based on my extensive experience, I respond with a version of this answer: I don't know.

But I do have theories. And that brings me to last week's McWeiner controversy.

Most news accounts treated these as two separate scandals: Anthony Weiner, the disgraced Democratic congressman and would-be mayor of New York, had been exposed again as a digital flasher, sending "selfie" pictures of his privates to women. Bob McDonnell, the Republican governor of Virginia, was found to be taking gifts and loans from a businessman McDonnell had helped.

Their offenses — particularly their responses upon being caught — are much the same.

By coincidence, both men found themselves apologizing for their misdeeds on the same day, Tuesday. McDonnell's was cowardly, done via Twitter while he was out of the country; Weiner's was handled in yet another bizarre news conference. But both were reluctant, their statements less expressions of contrition than naked efforts to make the problems go away. These were the apologies of narcissists.

"I want you to know that I broke no laws," McDonnell wrote in a statement expressing regret not for the gifts he took but for "the embarrassment" — which occurred when he was found out.

Weiner, though acknowledging his misbehavior, quickly pivoted to blaming others. "With 49 days left until primary day, perhaps I'm surprised that more things didn't come out sooner," he said. "This was a very public thing that we had happen to us," he added, as if somebody else had forced him to send out photos of his genitals.

Their offenses are similarly pointless: Weiner threw away a promising career by exchanging smut with women he claims he never met. McDonnell, once mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, undid his reputation by accepting sums — a $6,500 Rolex, a $15,000 splurge at Bergdorf Goodman — that were trivial compared to those he could have earned when he left office.

Both men seem to have the condition that afflicts so many officeholders who get into trouble, from Clinton to Foley to Sanford to Spitzer: a sense of invincibility and a belief that the usual rules don't apply to them. They take ever bigger risks, as if it is a form of thrill-seeking, or they can no longer gauge risk.

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