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Keeping Scandals in Perspective

Recent Political Flaps Shouldn’t Eclipse Discussion of Issues

Michael J. Ring

The local media were abuzz last week with two juicy tidbits of political sleaze, one on the national stage and one in Boston’s backyard. Republican heir-apparent George W. Bush continues to tap-dance around the cocaine use question as the media spotlight on him intensifies. And Massachusetts Port Authority director Peter Blute saw his political career sent to Davy Jones’ locker after a now-infamous Boston Harbor cruise, complete with the twin sins of booze and nudity.

Both of these stories were rather exciting fare for local politicos, considering that government in both Washington and Boston is adrift in the summer doldrums of recesses and budget deadlocks. The daily double of scintillating scandal awoke the weary political scene.

But did either of these stories deserve to be front-page news for several days straight? Are these personal misadventures what really matter in American politics today?

It is a sad commentary indeed when puritanism trumps policy as a consideration for our political leaders. While we should expect certain standards of conduct from our political leaders, we shouldn’t expect them to be saints. While Bush and Blute may each have made serious mistakes, I don’t think either one should be torpedoed for his personal actions. Let us further consider each in turn.

Rumors about Bush’s alleged cocaine use have dogged his campaign from the very beginning, but as whispers in the background Bush was able to more or less ignore them for a while. But after his strong first-place finish in the Iowa straw poll, the vultures from the media, and from other campaigns, began to circle. Under the pressure, Bush felt compelled to not-fully-answer the rumors by first saying he’d been clean for seven years; he then expanded it to 25 years. But these open-ended answers have only fueled more speculation on what happened more than 25 years ago.

Bush probably did use cocaine, but, given the circumstances, the experimentation should be a non-issue in the campaign. Yes, cocaine use is illegal, but in the 1960s and 1970s drug experimentation was wholly typical among baby boomers coming of age. Bill Clinton, remember, admitted to smoking marijuana (with that sorry “didn’t inhale” qualifier) and suffered no political damage from the admission. If Bush’s drug use was limited to experimentation three decades ago, a pattern of behavior which would merely reflect that of his peers, cocaine use should not be an issue in this campaign.

Peter Blute is, similarly, a victim of puritanical purging. A two-term Republican congressman from the Worcester-based 3rd District, Blute was appointed head of Massport by then-governor Bill Weld after losing the 1996 congressional election. Sure, it was a political appointment, but there have been worse. Blute served on the House Transportation Committee and had gained some experience with transportation issues. Even most Democrats thought he was doing a good job at the Massport helm.

That was before the cruise. Blute boarded the chartered ship Nauticus along with local Republican fundraiser and known imbiber Alexander “Sandy” Tennant. While cruising the harbor, they enjoyed a little food and, of course, a little drink. Upon arriving back at the wharf, under siege from Boston Herald reporters and photographers, they claimed the trip was for a charity fundraiser and had been paid for with private funds, but the excuse soon fell hollow. Massport paid about $800 for the now-infamous “booze cruise.”

Spending public funds on such a misadventure is wrong, and Blute deserves a reprimand for his actions. And, even though he did give a false story to the press explaining the cruise, lying -- unless under oath -- is not a crime. Blute’s actions were hardly high crimes but rather low misdemeanors of the political world. His actions deserve some punishment, but not the loss of his talents by the people of Massachusetts.

Of course, we have yet to reach the real reason Blute’s fate was sealed. No, it was not the misuse of $800 in public funds. No, it was not the flimsy excuse he gave to the press. Rather, an action on the cruise for which Blute was not even present caused his head to roll. As the ship docked, a female passenger named Gidget lifted her shirt and flashed her bare breasts to a Herald photographer -- a picture the Herald was all too happy to run. The picture was all the ammunition Blute’s enemies in the Cellucci administration (of which there are many in high-ranking places) needed to pull the trigger. The tawdry aura of sex was injected into the scandal, and Blute’s fate was sealed.

Just Tuesday, we learned that in Blute’s place we will be given Virginia Buckingham, a Cellucci loyalist with no transportation expertise. The appointment is one giant leap backward for Massport.

So the tally of events of the past week: one political career dead, one wounded, and a state agency in desperate need of guidance set adrift, all thanks to the scandal atmosphere.

The scandal preoccupation is especially sad considering the many important issues that should be aired and discussed in the media. The booze cruise has cast a pall over very serious and important discussions regarding transportation planning in New England. And Bush, whose campaign manifesto is a blank slate, has coasted along this year without taking firm stands on policy questions. If the media wishes to probe him, there are plenty of issues relating to the economy, education, crime, health care, the environment, and so forth, on which he richly deserves a grilling.

The Framers who set up our government realized that people are not angels. Hence they put checks on direct democracy and set up our republican system. But we must remember that those filling our government positions are just men and women like us -- certainly not angels. They will make mistakes, and while with mistakes come responsibilities for punishment, we as voters must be willing to forgive minor transgressions. Only when we ignore the Puritan feeding frenzy will we be able to resume serious discussions of national issues.