A story in the news this week made me think of The Contender, a 2000 movie starring Joan Allen as Senator Laine Hanson, the first woman to be nominated for vice president. Those trying to sink the nomination dug up some pictures of a college sex party starring Hanson—or at least it looks that way. In retaliation, the White House wants to dig up something on Shelly Runyon, played by Gary Oldman, the chair of the Congressional committee questioning the Senator, and the leader of the move to undermine the nominee. When an aide says he found some SEC violations involving representative Runyon, the White House chief of staff, played by Sam Elliott, goes ballistic. “Stocks?!? That’s what we’ve got. I want something embarrassing, something sexual.”
Which brings us to the sordid story of New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez. He was accused of accepting several free trips from Salomon Melgen, a big campaign donor, to the Dominican Republic, where Menendez would have sex with underaged prostitutes. Republican operatives offered the networks interviews by Skype with three of the young girls who claimed to have sex with the Senator. From the beginning, Menendez denied the allegations, but the story persisted. It is a testament to the current low standing of Congress that hookers are considered more credible than a U.S. senator.
This week, one of the young women who made the claims against Menendez recanted. She told police in the Dominican Republic that she never met the Senator and was paid to make up the story. The Senator is furious, as he should be, and wants a full investigation, as there should be. Although there are new reports that the woman may have been coerced by friends of Melgen to change her story, it still all stinks of gutter politics.
But this does not mean the New Jersey Senator has done nothing wrong. Menendez still took the trips and failed to report them, a violation of congressional ethics. And there is evidence that Melgen received political favors from Menendez for his gifts. But allegations of financial misconduct are nothing in Washington; Menendez will easily beat the rap. The political hit men who leaked the story knew that very well, which is why the prostitutes were so important in their plan. A sex scandal is the lead story for weeks, and dealing money for power is nothing new—everybody does that. Menendez will go through the same soft process as others who have been caught with their hand in the campaign cookie jar. There will be a behind-closed-doors ethics investigation, and the senator will get his hand slapped. At worse, he will be censured, which amounts to another member of Congress saying “you’re censured” and that’s it.
That’s where we are at in 2013 tabloid, reality show America. We look the other way at the dirty deals that are ruining the country because if we started throwing everyone out of office who traded power for money, there would be no one left.
By the way, in The Contender, the good guys win in the end. In reality, there are no good guys in politics, just those who aren’t quite as bad.