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'Wally Edge' phenomenon an example of why N.J. politics needs more intrigue

leerichard_optBY RICHARD A. LEE
COMMENTARY

Summer 2010 made its official arrival on June 21, but the slow news cycle that generally accompanies the months of July and Augusts has already begun in the Garden State.

Sure, there has been plenty of shouting and name-calling going among our leaders in Trenton. But there has been a dearth of actions that are tangible. Even the June 8 primaries were largely uneventful.

It is no wonder then that one of the more intriguing news items to emerge in recent weeks was the revelation of the identity of the individual who, for more than 10 years, used the pen name Wally Edge in his role as editor and columnist for the popular New Jersey political website PolitickerNJ.

As The Star-Ledger reported on June 5, former Livingston Mayor David Wildstein was the man who, as Wally Edge, posted frequent updates and insider information online, evoking strong reactions from elected officials, consultants, lobbyists, staffers and more.

Wildstein's unmasking came almost exactly five years after we learned the identity of one of the nation's best kept secrets. On May 31, 2005, Vanity Fair reported that former FBI Associate Director W. Mark Felt was "Deep Throat," the code name for the anonymous source used by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to tie together pieces of the Watergate scandal.

No disrespect to David Wildstein/Wally Edge, who was a leading figure in New Jersey politics and government for more than a decade, but Mark Felt's place in history is bound to be much greater — as it should be.

Nevertheless, the interest surrounding the identities of these two men helps to demonstrate just how much the American public loves mystery, secrets and intrigue. For example, more than 13 million people watched the final episode of Lost. Likewise, other TV shows where the outcome is uncertain, such as American Idol and Dancing with the Stars, regularly draw huge audiences.

Compare the level of excitement that these shows generate to public interest in a state budget debate, and there is no contest — even though the state budget, unlike the television programs, has a direct impact on our quality of life.

Part of the reason why is that politics has become too predictable. Think about the patterns in our state over the past few months. Governor Christie unveils a proposal. Republicans shower it with praise and hail him as the savior New Jersey needs. Then Democrats scream bloody murder and issue warnings about the dire consequences that will result from the Governor's actions. Finally, it all comes back to Christie, who dismisses his critics and always does so without any sugarcoating.

Everyone is on script. Suspense and surprises are at a minimum. By contrast, David Wildstein and Mark Felt kept us interested for years as politicians, journalists and others speculated about the identities of Wally Edge and Deep Throat.

Someone else who has done this very effectively — although not in the political arena — is singer/songwriter Carly Simon, who still has people guessing the identity of the man who was the subject of her 1973 hit single "You're So Vain." Over the years, Warren Beatty, Mick Jagger and David Geffen have been among the possibilities, but Carly has kept mum — well sort of. She has kept the intrigue going by divulging a few of the letters contained in the name of the man who inspired the line: "You're so vain I bet you think this song is about you." At one point, she actually did reveal the name — for a price — at a charity auction, and under the condition that the winning bidder never share the secret.

With a fiscal crisis hanging overhead in New Jersey and public confidence in our elected officials waning, perhaps there is a thing or two that state government could learn from Carly Simon. Not only has she managed to keep the public interested in one of her songs for over 35 years, but in the process, she also raised $50,000 for charity.

Richard A. Lee is Communications Director of the Hall Institute of Public Policy — New Jersey. A former journalist and Deputy Communications Director for the New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey, he also teaches courses in media and government at Rutgers University, where he is completing work on a Ph.D. in media studies.

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