At its most primal, politics is like a years’ worth of Januarys at the Arctic Circle—a harsh and unforgiving environment that tests the survival skills of all who enter it.
Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain is merely the most recent example as he attempts to douse an out of control fire fed by front page and top of the newcast stories that he sexually harassed at least three women during his time as head of the National Restaurant Association. (Editor's note: As of today, Nov. 7, a fourth woman has come forward and given a statement before cameras.)
And, like a man stumbling in snow and ice, he’s made one muddled decision after another, tracking in an ever-widening circle which threatens to leave him fully lost.
From outright denials to conditional denials, to pleading ignorance followed by partial acknowledgements, to parsing words, to accusing the media of racism, to blaming the campaign staff of one of his opponents, Cain has flailed around in a futile effort to rid himself of the allegations.
He’s run out of time and credibility. His failure to formulate and articulate a coherent response, along with his bizarre comments and attacks on the “liberal media” guaranteed the story would stay alive through news cycle after news cycle and become the dominant political narrative, particularly in the echo chamber of cable television.
Despite leading in a number of national polls, the odds of his securing the nomination were multi-state lottery like. His is a tale of tramping around in the political Arctic until his survival skills failed him.
Like Cain, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is enduring the harsh climate as a result of a campaign appearance in New Hampshire which left some people convinced the Governor had spent more time at the hotel bar than was prudent or that he misread his medication dosage.
He was far more animated than he had been, waving his arms, cracking wise, and riffing on—among other items—the defeat of the Texas Rangers in the World Series.
His campaign insisted there was nothing untoward, that he was being what he was criticized for not being—relaxed and comfortable rather than wooden and intense. His performance was an unseen side of his personality, they said, and not produced by anything from a bottle, pill or otherwise.
Perry will emerge unscathed from the incident, primarily because it didn’t reach the level of the improprieties attributed to Cain, but also because his campaign staff quickly and firmly stepped on the story with a believable response. It was the kind of reaction that not only satisfies the media, but sets it off quickly in another direction pursuing another story.
It was precisely what the Cain campaign failed so miserably at.
The harsh and unforgiving environment applies to those who have left public life as well, particularly if the departure was involuntary.
When the news broke last week that a Wall Street brokerage firm headed by former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine had made high risk investments of such magnitude that it collapsed into bankruptcy, the history of his one term as Governor was re-run in a less than flattering fashion. Corzine has since resigned from the firm and a federal review has begun.
His critics were unable to resist drawing comparisons between his gubernatorial service and his private sector occupation, suggesting that his supposed financial acumen had driven both the state and his company into disaster.
If ever there was an individual who should have stayed away from the Arctic Circle of politics, it was Corzine. He is, by all accounts, a genuine and caring man who was completely out of his element as a political player.
His difficulties were exacerbated by his decision to surround himself with corporate executives whose lack of political instincts or ability to deal with the realities of life in the Statehouse exceeded his own shortcomings.
As a consequence, his relationship with the movers, shakers and powerbrokers—individuals whose support he urgently needed to succeed —was always fragile. His experience at the highest levels of corporate America was useless because he was convinced it would be invaluable in exerting a positive influence on policy and the actions of people who were often—to put it charitably—less than candid about their motives and intentions.
In 2008, the year before he ran for re-election, Corzine paid a visit to my home to chat about his Administration and to seek my outlook on the political climate in general.
He was warm and gracious, posed for a photograph with my three adopted daughters from China, and departed after an hour or so. To be clear, he asked to meet with me; it was not a session I sought or requested and I made it plain that I was retired, not interested in a job or being any sort of adviser. I agreed to his overture just as I did when asked by Republican candidates for similar chats.
My most vivid recollection of our meeting was, after he left, I turned to my wife and said: “There’s a man who just doesn’t belong in this business.” A year later, he wasn’t.
Few people are fully prepared for life in the Arctic Circle of politics. Some possess finely-tuned survival skills and succeed while others fall short. Trouble is, no one knows for sure without trying.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Richard Stockton College.