The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Massa’s in de Cold, Cold Ground

And the New York Representative Put Himself There
All by Himself

Round de media be a ringin’
One Democrat’s mournful song,
While de majority be a singin’,
Happy as de day is long.
Where de groping charges be a creepin’
Ova de healthcare mound,
Dear ol’ Massa lay a sleepin’,
Sleepin’ in de cold, cold ground.
– with profound apologies to Stephen Foster

Who says that folksy radio host and newspaper columnist Garrison Keillor is the last of the great American storytellers? Democratic Representative Eric Massa of New York, who resigned his seat this week amidst controversy, can spin a yarn like nobody’s business. Ask him why he isn’t in Congress anymore and then sit back and listen to his answer. In fact, listen even if you already asked him because I guarantee the answer he gives today won’t be the one he gave yesterday.

It started last Wednesday when Massa, a first-term Representative, announced he would not be running again due to health reasons. Originally stricken with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1996, Massa said his cancer had returned in December. During the press conference, he rebuffed a reporter’s inquiry into rumors that he had been accused of sexually harassing a staffer. He admitted, however, to using “salty language” around his staff.

“There is no doubt in my mind that I did in fact, use language in the privacy of my own home and in my inner office that, after twenty-four years in the Navy, might make a Chief Petty Officer feel uncomfortable,” Massa acknowledged.

On Thursday, the House Ethics Committee released a brief statement confirming that it was investigating allegations against Massa. The complaint came from a male staffer who felt uncomfortable during an exchange with Massa that reportedly had sexual overtones.

On Friday, Massa held another press conference, this time to tearfully announce he was resigning immediately. He cited the pending ethics probe as the reason for his decision, saying it “would tear my family and my staff apart.” He also explained the circumstances behind the charges against him, which were more specific than generally salty language.

Massa said he was attending a New Year’s Eve wedding reception for a member of his staff. After Massa danced with a bridesmaid, the lawmaker said another staff member sitting next to him suggested Massa should be “chasing after” the woman. Massa said the staff member’s language was actually “more colorful.”

Massa reported he then grabbed the staffer who made the comment and told him, “Well, what I really ought to be doing is fracking you.” Presumably, Massa’s own language was also more colorful than “fracking.” He then “tousled the guy’s hair and left . . . because I knew the party was getting to a point where it wasn’t right for me to be there.”

Over the weekend, Massa suddenly seemed to find conspiracies everywhere behind his resignation. Massa was one of thirty-nine Democrats who voted against the healthcare reform bill passed by the House last November. His departure reduces the majority House Speaker Pelosi needs for passage of the Senate version of the bill to 216 votes.

“Mine is now the deciding vote on the healthcare bill,” Massa said during his weekly radio address on Sunday. And this Administration and this House leadership have said, quote – they will stop at nothing to pass this healthcare bill – unquote. Now they've gotten rid of me and it will pass. You connect the dots.”

White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs initially characterized Massa’s accusations as “silly” and later upgraded them to “crazy.”

Massa also claimed that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had always hated him and was out to get him. He detailed a bizarre encounter between them in the showers of the House gym.

“I’m sitting there showering, naked as a jaybird, and here comes Rahm Emanuel, not even a towel wrapped around his tush, poking his finger in my chest, yelling at me because I wasn't going to vote for the President’s budget,” Massa dished. “Do you know how awkward it is to have a political argument with a naked man?” he added.

Massa went on to portray Emanuel as a ruthless, evil person who would “tie his own children to railroad tracks” to get what he wanted. However, Massa subsequently backed off that statement, admitting it was “over the top.” White House officials flatly denied the shower incident ever happened.

Then, on Tuesday of this week, the story took a new twist when the Washington Post reported that rather than a single allegation, Massa was being investigated “for allegations that he groped multiple male staffers working in his office,” dating back at least a year and involving “a pattern of behavior and physical harassment.”

Massa promptly hit the talk show circuit, appearing on programs hosted by Glenn Beck and Larry King on Tuesday evening. He acknowledged groping one male staffer to Beck but denied it was sexual in nature, describing it instead as a “tickle fight” in which he tickled the man in question “until he couldn't breathe.” Later, he told King that he had never groped anyone, calling the allegation “not true.”

There is something in the nature of a sad clown regarding Massa’s responses to the accusations against him. The man cannot stop owning up to his actions fast enough once caught.

As regards the use of salty language, “there is no doubt that this ethics issue is my fault and mine alone.” In the case of innuendo at a wedding, “Now was that inappropriate of me? Absolutely.” Concerning groping/tickling, “It doesn't make any difference what my intentions were, it's how it's perceived . . . My behavior was wrong.” Even wild conspiratorial charges, “I wasn't forced out; I forced myself out.”

Yet he makes these concessions not to accept responsibility but rather to demonstrate some sort of faux nobility that, in his mind, absolves him of any real ethical or criminal wrongdoing. This was epitomized during his appearance with Glenn Beck, when Massa insisted he was personally powerless to change the system in Washington or anything else. This earned him a derisive “Bull crap! Bull crap, sir!” from the pugnacious host.

In just one week, Massa has offered, by my count, no less than five different explanations as to why he is no longer in Congress. Perhaps the truest and most self-reflective comment from him during this short but lurid saga came during his resignation speech, when he called himself “a deeply flawed and imperfect person.”

Some are already labeling Massa the Democratic equivalent of Mark Foley, the former GOP Representative from Florida who was also driven from Congress over ethics allegations with overtones of homosexual behavior. Like Massa, Foley offered a series of implausible denials, explanations, and excuses before finally owning up to the truth. Whether Massa’s personal transgressions will come to tar his Party in the way Foley’s did the GOP remains to be seen, although New York has proven to be an embarrassment of riches for Republicans this month, first with former House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel and now Massa.

However, there is no question that Massa’s attempts to quietly slink away have backfired on him in spectacular fashion. As is the case in so many similar scandals, it is not the initial offense(s) that have damned him so much as the subsequent denials and cover-up.

After talking with Massa for an hour, Beck ended his program by apologizing to his audience. “America, I think I've wasted your time.” This is more or less what Massa has been doing to his family, colleagues, constituents, and the country as a whole for about a week. Unfortunately, he shows no signs of giving up until he finishes stretching his fifteen minutes of fame into infamy.

Despite attempts by Massa to equivocate and pass the buck, it is not salty language, an out-of-control wedding reception, healthcare reform, or Rahm Emanuel’s prison shower tactics that ultimately buried him. For that, he need look no further than his own behavior and his lack of integrity in owning up to it. Character matters.

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