Rep. Anthony Weiner would be having a much better week if he could establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he wears either old-fashioned boxer shorts or classic tighty-whiteys.

In politics, it’s pretty much an immutable rule that if they’re talking about your underwear, you have a problem. Weiner, a liberal Democrat who represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens, surely knows this. But he doesn’t seem to grasp the other rule about how you should at least try to keep a problem from becoming a crisis.

Let me interject that I’m going to try to get through this column with as few juvenile double-entendres as possible. There will be no jokes, for example, about the congressman’s last name.

So here’s what happened: Late last week, the conservative website BigGovernment reported that someone using Weiner’s account on the social network Twitter had sent a message consisting of a picture of a man’s, shall we say, groin area. The angle from which the photo was taken suggests it is a self-portrait. The man is wearing a pair of those hybrid boxer briefs.

The picture was addressed to a 21-year-old female student from the Seattle area who is one of Weiner’s more than 54,000 “followers” on Twitter. Days later, the woman wrote in the New York Daily News that she had never even met Weiner, much less had any “inappropriate exchanges” with him. But this clarifying information came far too late to save Weiner from himself, and now the issue has become one of credibility.

Weiner’s response was that his Twitter account had somehow been hacked by someone who wanted to play a “prank” or commit a “hoax.” But he didn’t say that the crotch in the picture was somebody else’s.

The long holiday weekend gave Weiner a bit of a break, but also gave the story — and his not-quite-ironclad denial — time to ferment. When everybody came back to work, reporters began asking simple follow-up questions, such as, “So that’s somebody else’s crotch, right?” This might have been a one-day story, a minor episode — the picture, while suggestive, doesn’t depict anything you wouldn’t see on a beach where men wear Speedos. But Weiner’s shifting, complicated, finely parsed explanations make this a bigger deal.

He insisted someone else had sent the photo. But when asked if he had contacted authorities to launch an investigation into the hacking of his Twitter account, Weiner said that he had not. The police had more important things to worry about, he said, so he was conducting his own investigation with the help of a private firm.

Right. So there’s no public interest in tracking down someone who can hack into the private Internet accounts of sitting members of Congress? Many of whom want an FBI investigation every time someone cuts them off in traffic?

And the I’m-doing-my-own-investigation maneuver is never a good sign.

Weiner had a testy exchange with Capitol Hill reporters in which he finally declared, “I’m not going to talk about this anymore.” Predictably, that vow of silence lasted mere hours. When NBC’s Luke Russert asked who was in that picture, Weiner responded “I can’t say with certitude” that it was somebody else.

He told Rachel Maddow that “stuff gets manipulated … maybe it started out being a photograph of mine” that was “taken out of context.” He told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “I don’t know what photographs are out there in the world of me. I don’t know what things have been manipulated and doctored.”

In my case, I’d have certitude: I’ve never taken a beefcake picture of my crotch. But if I had taken such a picture, I think I’d recognize it — and I’m quite sure I’d never mistake some other guy’s nether regions for my own.

Another immutable rule, this one about how high-riding politicians are most frequently brought down: It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up. In Weiner’s case, there isn’t even a crime — he doesn’t think so, at least. Yet his clumsy attempts at telling half-truths and issuing non-denial denials have raised non-trivial questions about veracity, and thus integrity.

Hypothetically, if I were the kind of guy to take self-portraits of this kind, I’d be embarrassed — mortified — to have the whole world know about it. Which brings me to my final rule: Politicians shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near social networking, no matter what kind of underwear they prefer.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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