Cynical cultures and political self-destruction

Feb. 15, 2014 @ 11:16 PM

The other day, an anchor on CNN asked a guest about the allegations New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie may have known more than he is admitting about the traffic tie-ups in Fort Lee, N.J., last September.

If you haven’t followed that tangled story, Fort Lee was enveloped in massive traffic jams because two lanes leading onto the busy George Washington Bridge connecting the town to Manhattan were closed. The jams were apparently no accident – Christie lieutenants had allegedly contrived to have the lanes blocked.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” one had emailed another shortly before the debacle.

They – and the famously vindictive Christie – were upset with the mayor of Fort Lee – a Democrat – because he wouldn’t endorse Republican Christie for re-election.

With that backdrop, the CNN anchor inquired why would a politician of Christie’s stature, a strong contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, even care about the endorsement of a small-town mayor in a race he was destined to easily win? Why take the high-stakes risk for such small-stakes gain, the question implied.

Why, indeed, do powerful politicians do what they do? Why did Richard Nixon launch the “plumbers” of Watergate fame? Why did rising New York political star Anthony Weiner tweet racy photos to teen-aged strangers? Why did N. C. Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps, member of a legendary political family, take tawdry payments from carnival ride operators seeking State Fair contracts?

Hubris, that dangerous state of exaggerated self-confidence, can be a tricky thing for politicians and others.

My all-time favorite example of a politician felled from great heights for the smallest of gains came out of Kentucky. When I moved there in 1994, the protagonist had been dead a decade, but his disgrace – and eventual redemption – still was a legend.

Edward F. Prichard Jr. was a Harvard graduate, a New Deal brain-truster and widely figured in the 1940s to be on his way to high political office in Kentucky and perhaps the nation.

But instead of federal office, he ended up in the federal penitentiary for stuffing ballot boxes.

Here’s the irony – the candidate he backed for the U. S. Senate race was certain to carry Prichard’s county by a wide margin. His statewide margin was a comfortable 21,000 votes.

And Pritchard’s fraud contributed exactly 254 of those votes.

He didn’t do it to win a close election. He did it to run up the score.  His family had a tradition of delivering lopsided margins in Bourbon County, and he didn’t want to let the family name, as it were, down.

Prichard emerged from five months in prison to eventually become a revered champion of education reform in Kentucky, a state that badly needed it.  But although governors and others avidly sought his political counsel, his own aspirations were shattered.

In the Bourbon County historical museum, there is “a certain monument” to Prichard,  Kentucky history professor (and Duke graduate) Tracy Campbell  writes in his biography, “Short of the Glory.”

It is a small metallic box for donations that is an example, a notice informs patrons, “that such devices were once used in county elections.”

“Most visitors casually dismiss the tattered box as simply a nostalgic relic from a long dead era,” Campbell wrote in the book’s Epilogue. “But the box recalls a cynical political culture that once seduced a young political prodigy and, in the end, sowed the seeds of his downfall.”

That, of course, is a story arc just as likely to occur today.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6679 or bashley@heraldsun.com.