Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Rules

Normally, I am not inclined to feel sorry for politicians, but sometimes I do anyway.

Not really, but sometimes sort of.

Usually, this happens when one of them is going about his business, following “the rules” as he understands them, only to discover suddenly and without warning that “the rules” have changed.

That happened to Richard Nixon. As president, he was preceded by Lyndon Johnson and, before him, John Kennedy. Those two were elected president and vice-president in 1960 (defeating Nixon) in one of the closest elections ever. Vote fraud was uncovered in a number of areas, particularly in Richard Daley’s Chicago and in Johnson’s Texas, and many people believed it was sufficient to have shifted Illinois’s and Texas’s electoral votes to Kennedy and keep Nixon from achieving the requisite 270. Though Nixon’s staff urged him to fight the results in court, he chose not to contest the results. Dirty tricks are just part of the game, he may have thought, and gentlemen don’t call the voters’ attention to them.

But when Nixon got involved in his own dirty tricks in advance of his own reelection as president, the establishment didn’t look the other way for him. While there is no evidence that he was actively involved in or even knew about the Watergate burglary in advance, he did clearly attempt to cover up his people’s involvement in it, and a couple of pesky reporters would not let it go. Before it was over, most of Washington and the country were calling for his resignation and Congress was threatening impeachment. He must have felt that “the rules”—which had applied to Kennedy and Johnson and a number of other presidents before them—had been changed.

Speaking of Kennedy, he benefited from an unwritten rule that said, when a popular leader has a few dalliances on the side, the press looks the other way. Lots of reporters were apparently aware that he had a busy love life, but they didn’t dig into it because it was his own private business. That, presumably, was the rule that Bill Clinton thought he was operating under as well. Unfortunately for him, some of the women whom had propositioned in the workplace spoke out. Still, not much attention was paid to them until one of them brought him to court and his subsequent perjury somehow become part of a totally unrelated special investigation.

Clinton seemed genuinely confused and disappointed that his extra-curricular activity did not get ignored or brushed under the carpet by the press and his fellow politicians as it had for previous presidents. In the end, though, he fared better than Nixon. Not only did he get to keep his job, he went on to be a respected elder statesman.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is the latest high-profile politician to see “the rules” change for him. Everybody knows that New Jersey is one of those places where politics are played pretty rough. (Chicago is another.) Yet normally you don’t often read in the national press about the bullying and the favors for friends and payback for enemies that goes on. It’s just part of the culture. Journalists seem to factor in the local culture when covering politics and, as a consequence, the kind of behavior that would be noted in one place is simply taken for granted in another.

To the extent that this was a “rule” in covering in New Jersey, that rule has now changed—at least for Christie. The fact that his staff did something to punish someone they didn’t like has become national news. At this point there is no way to know how much, if anything, Christie knew about the bizarre vendetta against the mayor of Fort Lee and the traffic jam caused by it.

Maybe this story makes some sort of sense in New Jersey, but it totally confuses me. Why would a governor’s staff want to punish a mayor of the opposite party for not endorsing the governor’s reelection? And how is inconveniencing so many New York and New Jersey drivers (not just those from Fort Lee) a punishment for that mayor anyway? It is baffling. I keep thinking there was some other point to it, but I don’t know what it would be.

What I do understand is that Christie or, by extension, his staff would never have done anything so stupid if they hadn’t reasonably expected to get away with it. In other words, they were operating under a certain set of “rules” as they understood them. And now they have found that those rules, if they ever actually existed as they thought they did, have changed.

As I mentioned, Chicago is another place where, when it comes to politics, “the rules” seem to be a bit different than other parts of the country. Like the time a relatively inexperienced politician was on the verge of losing Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate until the Chicago Tribune somehow got hold of the messy details of the frontrunner’s divorce records from six years earlier and which were supposed to be sealed. Or when the same young politician was trailing the in subsequent general election until the Chicago Tribune (again) got hold of the frontrunner’s messy divorce details (again supposedly sealed) from five years earlier. This time the details were even more headline-grabbing since the ex-wife was a Hollywood actor: Jeri Ryan, whose roles have included the reformed, Borg Seven of Nine, on Star Trek: Voyager.

It doesn’t look as though we will ever know exactly what went on behind the scenes to cause the political destruction ten years ago of those two politicians—one Democrat, the other Republican. Maybe it was just a coincidence and that promising young Senate candidate simply happened to the luckiest politician in Chicago.

Or just maybe, for people working in support of Barack Obama, “the rules” never happened to change.

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