Drinking the Kool-Aid

Kevin O'Toole, former senator from the 40th Legislative District, warns legislators to learn from the lessons of former Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, who was indicted for misuse of public funds and aids for personal gain.

There are few sayings in politics that require a deeper understanding of its origin than the phrase–drinking the Kool-Aid.  In the world of politics, that term is usually used when one is describing the rather rabid or obsessive following that a staffer or supporter has of a political leader. In its purest form, when you have such a hard core believer, you have the most dedicated and possibly the most effective campaign worker or staffer that money can’t buy. In the worst form, you have someone who is so blinded by a strict loyalty or allegiance that he/she is willing to go through any means possible to further the political being’s presumed objective, even breaking the law or condoning of some major transgression. Editor’s note- some of us have crossed paths with the most extreme of these supporters and it is equal parts fascinating and horrifying.  

Those of us in politics usually can point to a core of supporters, family members, childhood friends, ideological supporters, or folks who just happen to get in sync with your office or candidacy. The extreme of these supporters (some say most loyal) are ones who stick with you through the good and bad times. Amongst this group that holds on even in the harshest or leanest of political times, they sometime get labeled as the Kool-Aid drinkers. What an innocent sounding term.  

What does that mean?  

You need to go back to the mid -1970’s to find the actual modern day origin of the term. The term came out of a perverse and tragic chapter in our time and it ended with the death of at least 918 individuals, and among the dead–304 minors. For those unaware of the roots, you need to travel to Georgetown, Guyana to find the resting place of all these individuals who perished during awful time. During this decade, Jim Jones held himself out as a religious and social leader, after heading up The Peoples Temple of Agricultural Project in several cities in the US, including San Francisco, he found solace and space to grow his self-admitted communist movement in Guyana. He relocated hundreds of US citizens and set up shop for his mission, both political and social.  The influence of Jim Jones was so strong that the town that they inhabited was soon nicknamed Jonestown, and word of this movement grew and grew.  After some time, some state side concerned members of the sheltered families asked for some type of intervention. California Congressman, Leo Ryan, took a group of journalist and supporters to investigate and he, after a few days at the camp, traveled off to the nearby airport to bring back to the US the real story and some of the tribe members who have grown disenchanted with the indoctrination. On orders from Jim Jones, the Congressman and his companions were gunned down in cold blood as they boarded the plane to leave.  

This horrific and barbaric act set in motion a mass suicide and murder that the world was not prepared for. Jim Jones ordered his lieutenants and loyal followers to swallow cyanide laced Kool-Aid as they wanted to set in motion a worldwide protest and make some perverse statement. The top of this organization’s hierarchy followed the orders and first gave the unsuspecting children this deadly drink, the adults soon followed. At the end, Jim Jones, despite his pronouncement of unity in this movement, was unable or unwilling to drink the poisonous potion. He was shot by his top lieutenant before she took her own life—depressed yet? Out of all this was born the term–drinking the Kool-Aid.   

A few thoughts to those stirring the cold drinks and starting to mix the magical political loyalty crystals:  

-Loyalty doesn’t mean unquestionable stupidity  

-Sometimes Politicians need to be told NO or that their idea is really stupid

– Bosses in government or in real life have limits –let them know when they are out of their minds    

-A boss will appreciate a discrete nod or tell that the idea bandied about could lead to a comfy visit in a jailhouse  

-Those who request a loyalty oath (lit candle to the palm i.e. Gordon Liddy) are often unworthy of such a test and unable, when trapped or cornered, to pass that same test    

If political life has taught me a few things, it is that blind loyalty to anything in government often leads to a huge mistake or unkind consequences.  We should be encouraged and trained to question and test the integrity of all ideas and concepts. We should accept this from all subordinates.  The irony is the more you encourage dissent and debate, the more likely you will get a better result.  

Completely Unrelated–Best Governor front office staffers that I’ve interacted with:    

Kevin O’Dowd is hands down the best chief of staffer –he is wicked smart and fully understood all levers and pulleys of state government. Kevin was the gold standard and his full understanding of street and board politics was something that couldn’t be taught and served him well as Governor Christie’s go to guy.    

Edward McGlynn was one of the top-notch staffers coming out of Governor Kean’s cabinet. Ed had a steady demeanor and was always willing to listen. 

Pattie McGuire served as deputy chief of staff to Governor Corzine and had a very difficult job. Pattie took great pains to meet regularly with the minority party and that effort bailed the Democrats out of the great State Government shutdown of 2006.     

Tom Scrivo was one of the best Chief Counsels to serve in the front office. While some might think I’m biased as I’ve know my law partner for over 30 years, conceitedly, it is partially because of that association that Tom did so well.  Prior to coming on board during a heady time with Governor Christie, Tom navigated my politics and coupled with his world class legal skills and natural keen intellect, Tom practically ran the office as presidential politics and other things dominated the headlines.     

James DiGiulio deserves a shout out for running point after Tom’s departure and allowing for a smooth transition for the Murphy team.  

Judy Shaw was a consummate professional who brought class and respect to the Governor Christie Todd Whitman front office.    

Jeanne LaRue was Deputy Chief to Corzine and was amazingly insightful with the politics of all the major players.  

Chris Porrino knew nothing about politics before he ascended as Chief Counsel to Governor Christie, but his superhuman efforts to get his arms around a rather staggering problem was a model for all lawyers. 

Jeff Chiesa was the front office staffer that everyone loved and still love. Jeff was a natural as his affability overcame the political deficit as he raged as the closest and most trusted Counsel to Governor Christie. 

Kevin O’Toole, the chair of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is the former state Senator from the 40th District.

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