Politicians and their handlers tend to be adept at diffusing scandals. Employing traditional tactics such as interviews, written statements and press releases officeholders generally attempt to discredit whatever accusations thrown their way, or in some cases the accusers. Unlike corporations, politicians can often wait out bad press and hope it blows over before an election cycle, or hope that whatever superior controls their fate makes a similar gambit. This makes the spectacular meltdown of New York Congressman Eric Massa’s political career this week all the more bewildering, incredulous and of course, entertaining.
Until last week Eric Massa was just a low-profile first-term congressman from western New York State. A moderate democrat who won the seat on the wave of a Democratic wins, Massa was most notable for his fickle support for President Obama’s attempted healthcare overhaul. Massa had a history of health problems, including reoccurring but reputably minor cancer.
On the 5th of this month, Massa resigned office effective the 8th in a post to his web site (which as subsequently been taken down). The resignation was reported on the 3rd by the political web site Rollcall.com. While the reason for the resignation was listed for medical reasons, it became immediately clear that several pending ethics investigations were relevant.
Several websites, including Politico.com broke news via tips from House staffers that said pending ethics investigations regarding Massa’s conduct with male staffers. According to the Washington Post, rumors had circulated for months that he had solicited sexual contact with male aides and staffers, and had groped several male subordinates. Massa made a flat denial of all such accusations, and even denied knowing of ongoing investigations, although this was proven to be false.
It turns out that Ronald Hiekel, Massa’s former Deputy Chief of Staff had come to the Democratic House Leadership twice in the fist week of February and complained of the the troubling conduct, and that a formal ethics committee investigation was underway. In a conference call to reporters the week of his resignation, Massa reiterated that the investigation played no part in his retirement:
“Do I or have I ever used salty language when I’m angry, especially in the privacy of my inner office or even at home? Yes, I have, and I have apologized to those where it’s appropriate,” Massa said. “But those kinds of articles, unsubstantiated, without fact or backing, are a symptom of what’s wrong with this city.”
Massa also contributed his weekly local radio address that week, clarifying some of the details about the accusations. Here he blamed the investigations on White House operatives trying to intimidate him into supporting their legislative priorities.
On Tuesday the 9th, things really got wierd. Massa made back to back appearances on CNN’s Larry King Live and Fox News’ Glenn Beck in which he attempted to clarify which charges were being levied against him. What ended up happening were digressions into the nature of male friendships, and detailed accounts of the tickling, wrestling and other conduct that seemingly characterized Massa’s congressional office. Massa dodged questions about his sexuality, and constantly reiterated that his behavior, which most adults would consider unprofessional at best, was appropriate and nonsexual. Both King and Beck had a hard time keeping up with the details, and all viewers took away was a picture of a confused, paranoid and very odd man.
The media circus that has come about as a result even led to not one but two Massa-related Saturday Night Live segments this past weekend, including one featuring a cameo by Jerry Seinfeld.
Such a disaster could have easily been minimized, if not avoided altogether. What has become clear is that coverage of Massa’s resignation by the media was fueled by conflicting information from Massa’s office as well as the incendiary nature of the allegations against him.
Massa’s initial resignation was the first crucial opportunity missed. The complaints against him were not yet reported by the media, and he had the chance to address and discredit them, taking control of the story. Instead, he cited health reasons, and allowed reporters searching for a story to resort to gossiping staffers and the congressional rumor mill.
Massa also failed from not having his priorities clearly in check. His relationship with the democratic leadership was clearly strained, but one would assume that he held personal loyalties to Democratic legislative priorities and would not wish to harm them by blaming the White House’s strongarm tactics. He should have set clear short- and long-term goals designed to minimize coverage of his departure, preserve his reputation and avoid jeopardizing Democratic priorities by discrediting party leadership or by simply hijacking media coverage for the week.
On a personal level, Massa failed by becoming emotionally involved in the story and taking the entire ordeal very personally. He should have immediately stepped back and handed press matters over to an experienced friend or even outside consultant (ideally someone insulated from the office conduct that got him in trouble in the first place). Anyone with half a brain would never have let him go on national television for hour-long interviews or let his personal sexuality and conduct become interview fodder.
Finally and most importantly, Massa’s inconsistancies in his story were particularly damning. First he claimed to know nothing of the allegations, then it became clear he did. He outright denied groping anyone on Glen Beck, then apologized for just that on Larry King. Such missteps are catnip for reporters, and Massa paid dearly for it.