Sunday, June 25, 2006

In New Jersey, a Political Hatchet Job Backfires

The default mode for big media is to report that politician A said X and politician B said not-X, even when one of the politicians is clearly at variance with the facts.
Which makes today's story in the New York Times about Thomas Kean Jr.'s attacks on the integrity of Robert Menendez so remarkable:
In particular, Mr. Kean said that Mr. Menendez had distorted his own role in the political corruption of Union City, the Hudson County community where Mr. Menendez came to public life 30 years ago as a protégé of an old-fashioned political boss, William V. Musto.
Mr. Kean said that while Mr. Menendez now poses as a brave truth teller who helped topple a regime of political crooks, he had actually issued $2 million in public money to a corrupt contractor "as part of a massive illegal kickback scheme." Had Mr. Menendez not cooperated with prosecutors, aides to Mr. Kean said, he might have gone to jail himself.
To a depth unusual for events that are decades old, the Kean campaign's accusations can be measured against a robust historical record — including F.B.I. tapes and volumes of trial testimony — of a roiling human and legal drama between 1978 and 1982 in Union City.
The Kean accusations find no support in those records or from independent authorities of that era.
Menedez was appointed to the Senate by governor John Corzine to fill his unexpired term. Kean, son of the popular ex-governor, has said that Menendez testified against a corrupt political boss to save his own skin. That turns out not to be that case:
Contrary to the central accusation made by the Kean campaign, the prosecutors all say that Mr. Menendez never had to bargain his way out of trouble in that case by testifying.
Richard L. Friedman, the former prosecutor who questioned Mr. Menendez in court and before the grand jury, said that he had taken risks to tell the truth.
"I thought he was very gutsy and courageous, because he stood up to Musto," Mr. Friedman said. "There certainly was never any deal, or any need for a deal. Menendez just testified truthfully. By the way, I have nothing against Kean. I don't know anything about how Menendez turned out."
Menendez, who got his first public job thanks to Musto's political patronage, later turned against his patron because of the corruption he had witnessed:
On an evening in January 1981, a few months before the indictments, Mr. Menendez convened a civic group he headed in the Italian Community Center in Union City. There, his group announced that it would oppose the re-election of Mr. Powers, whom Mr. Musto favored.
The night was memorable not for the political endorsements, but for a searching talk given by Mr. Menendez. He spoke about the nature of loyalty, pointedly not mentioning Mr. Musto, but invoking their father-son relationship.
"A son who sees his father continuously drinking in excess is much more loyal when he disobeys his request to go to the liquor store and buy more alcohol," Mr. Menendez said that night. "True loyalty is not what is convenient, but what is right. True loyalty can direct, correct and protect an individual from a dangerous course."
The attacks from the Kean campaign may backfire. In the attention Kean has brought on the events from 28 years ago, Menendez comes across as a gutsy and principled guy.


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