Insight. Antics.

The Great White Grope.

In Media, Politics on March 13, 2010 at 1:55 am

The fall of Eric Massa from Congress and subsequent rise as one-size-fits-all media personality has been strange indeed. Last week, Massa was a run-of-the-mill upstate New York Representative and married father of two. This week he’s the scuttlebutt, lightning rod, and punch line of the political establishment.

His whirlwind run through the gauntlet of a roughly 96-hour news cycle is a parable on scandal (don’t do sketchy stuff in office) and the state of media and politics (it’s messed up).

He didn’t truly garner attention until early this week, but when he resigned last Friday with “a profound sense of failure,” he spoke more of health reasons related to the cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he was first diagnosed with 12 years ago. (By the way, how come we never hear about Hodgkin’s lymphoma?)

A little time passed and then he said he was being forced out by Nancy Pelosi and the House leadership for signaling his vote against the final health care reform bill.

What also came out in the midst of this sudden surrender of office were accusations of inappropriate physical conduct around young male staffers, laughably labeled as non-sexual groping and tickling. Ah, the non-sexual grope. It’s like Othello: “A minute to learn, a lifetime to master.”

It gets more awkward. On a radio show over the weekend, Massa recounted the now famous anecdote of his encounter with the White House Chief of Staff:

”I’m sitting there showering, naked as a jaybird, and here comes Rahm Emanuel, not even with 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. Do you know how awkward it is to have a political argument with a naked man?”

A few points here. One, Rod Blagojevich believes it. Two, a “jaybird,” really? I mean all animals are technically naked, but birds’ skin is pretty well ensconced by plumage. And three, if you want to talk about awkwardness, get back to me after you have spent a few minutes negotiating your way around the hulking flabbiness of septuagenarians in the locker room at NYSC. (I also left out that Massa had called Rahm the “son of the devil’s spawn.” Does that make the devil his grandfather? I think I need to see a genealogical chart.)

So, at this point, Massa was out of Congress, but his story was far from straight (as perhaps he is), and he was far from gone.

Congressmen were asked about him and gave answers that protected themselves. Of course, news outlets speculated curiously over this elected official whose name recognition had previously been lower than the percentage of Americans who can name all nine Supreme Court justices.

A curious thing happened next. As the story of his departure was still unfurling, a bizarre bandwagon followed him: the conservative media took interest, even leapt to his defense in some cases, and wanted to speak with him. Rush Limbaugh ran his mouth. Fox News pounced on the idea that he was pressured out by the White House. Glenn Beck seemed to champion him.

What resulted was a highly avoidable backfire. This guy was not so simply a fallen Democrat turned Tea Party convert. Ten minutes of research would have revealed that there are personal elements of Massa’s past (his bi-curious exploits in the Navy or habit of spending non-work time with young, often gay, men) that nobody would want to associate with, and that his political past, despite differences with leadership, was less than enticing to a conservative.

In reality, Massa is all over the place. Sure, he’s a Democrat who voted against the health care bill in the House. But that’s because he felt it wasn’t liberal enough. And a handful of years ago he was a Republican. He only became a Democrat in 2004, unhappy with the outcome of that year’s election. He then joined the campaign operation of Wesley Clark, who he’d worked under in the military.

Limbaugh praised Massa on Monday for standing up to the Democratic machine. But the tickles put him in a pickle. On Tuesday, he doubled back, saying, “Anybody who embraces this guy is in big trouble.”

In addition to all that, Massa also went on Larry King, who cawed at him like a vulture scavenging for food. Which is to say Larry King cawed at him like Larry King. More importantly, Massa contradicted half of what he said on Beck’s show.

Taken together, his comments on Beck and King’s programs are a globby mixture of repressed sexual denial, refreshingly un-rote replies, and honest commentary on the political system.

Beck, who touted Massa as his most important interview in years, just may have looked slightly less ashen when the former Congressman said, “Not only did I grope [a staffer], I tickled him until he couldn’t breathe,” than when Massa explained, “You can be a progressive and be a fiscal conservative,” as part of a plea to media figures to stop calling people names like “socialist” and “communist.” Oh no. Massa, that is Glenn’s shtick. Please don’t ruin this for him.

Shown up by a more unpredictable, self-victimizing figure than himself, Beck felt bamboozled. How could he sell his preconceived narrative over these statements? He forfeited, ending the program by saying, “I think this is the first time I have wasted an hour of your time.” Au contraire! It was quite instructional, just not for the reasons you wanted, Glenn.

A week ago Beck wouldn’t have dared have this guy on and Limbaugh wouldn’t say a kind word about his grandma. But when they heard he was railing against the Obama Administration, it was like, “Move over Scott Brown, this guy is a national treasure!”

When Larry King asked Massa whether he was gay, he called the question “insulting” and refused to answer. He went on to call it an “insult to every gay American.” Why? Is it an insult to be associated with you?

But then, he was also disarmingly candid in responses to some of King’s questions, like when he simply said, “I can’t answer this in a sound bite” and “I don’t have the energy to fight everyone all the time.”

Similarly, he made a point of telling Beck outright that, “Congressmen spend between five and seven hours a day on the phone begging for money … [political parties] have coaches that tell you how to make people more apt to give you money.”

For someone so unaware of the faux pas he had made, his self-awareness was striking: “I’m collateral damage. I’m road kill and in 72 hours nobody is going to remember who I am nor are they going to care.”

In the end, Massa spent much more time (four years) running for Congress than serving in it (just over a year). He will most likely be forgotten in two weeks time. Yet, there is at least one incisive thing we learned from this “exercise,” shall we say, that is worth retaining: when someone does not fit into a simplistic political bucket the media does not know what to do.

In researching Massa, I found a piece on him from an unlikely source, Esquire magazine. It’s odd to look back and see how he was portrayed a few years ago in the Esquire 100 (he was #35). Funny that the first thing you notice is the second paragraph, a standalone sentence, quoted out of context now, but oh so relevant: “And it’s not like he shouldn’t know better.”

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