It has become the animating
question of our age: What was he thinking? We've all said it numerous times in recent years, about golf stars, about governors, about generals. Indeed, we're living through a virtual renaissance in the history of male misbehavior, and the tabloids and Twitter never stop churning out fresh da Vincis of degradation for us to gasp at. Whenever you want to return to a state of collective confusion and disbelief in the face of another man's act of operatic self-sabotage—and address that question of misguided motivation—a few memorable syllables usually do the trick. Client 9. Wide stance. Winning.
With those examples and many more, the answer is: He wasn't thinking at all.
Really, though, the more compelling question is the one that tends to come next: How in the hell can he ever come back from this?
And that, it turns out, is what separates the professionals from the amateurs. Anyone can get into trouble. "The art of losing isn't hard to master," as the poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote. The art of crawling back? That requires a virtuoso. Whether we're talking about politicians, athletes, or celebrities, the most dynamic and dominant figures are the ones who somehow rise above it—and get back in the game. The indestructible ones. The ones who chart an epic course from debasement to deification—or who at least get an Oscar nomination.
With apologies to F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author's famous adage is feeling a bit dated: Not only are there plenty of second acts, but they're usually a lot more interesting than the firsts. As leaders from the Beltway, Hollywood, and Wall Street can tell you, the whole triumph thing grows exponentially more honeyed when it comes on the heels of rank, eviscerating failure. By now, "Americans love a comeback" is much more than a slogan. It's practically a mission statement for the country, and you could argue that there is no one more unshakably red-white-and-blue than that public figure who manages to go from being roasted, reviled, and humiliated to being toasted, beloved, and honored.
Consider: Rob Lowe. Woody Allen. Bill Clinton.
So how do these Teflon heroes manage to worm their way back into our hearts? It takes a village. Behind-the-scenes machinations orchestrated by an army of lawyers, publicists, and fixers make every move, every apology, and every interview a crucial building block in career reconstruction. From Hugh Grant's stammered response to Jay Leno's "What the hell were you thinking?" to Justin Bieber's apology for smoking weed in an SNL sketch—they're all savvy maneuvers ripped from the same redeem-thyself playbook. Even cutting a rug on Dancing With the Stars may have helped, momentarily, to mend once-convicted felon Tom DeLay's fractured image.
And what of 2013's most memorable scandal? How can anyone map a way out for a dude who, having already gotten busted once, began operating under a nom de sext that sounded as though it had been lifted from a Christopher Guest movie and proceeded to share a series of priapic selfies with a young admirer whose actual name seemed to have been pinched from the annals of seventies porn? And yet, at the start of the New York City mayoral-primary season—when the world had not yet met Carlos Danger and not yet realized this was one politician who flipped the bird at contrition (among other things)—Anthony Weiner had a pretty straight path to redemption and, with it, the power to run America's largest city. Many of us were even rooting for it. Because if some famous guy can get his freak on so transparently and so egregiously and somehow go on to almost lead a productive and meaningful life, well, hey, that means there's hope for the rest of us. Maybe we too can find redemption. And these days, in America, you're nobody if you haven't been redeemed.