Get Ahead of the Story Before it Breaks…

Contemporary history has it that President Richard Nixon, in the midst of staving off impeachment at the height of the Watergate scandal, received a particularly damaging piece of information and summoned his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to the White House seeking his advice and counsel.

“If it’s going to come out sooner or later,” Kissinger told Nixon, “better it be sooner.”

It’s a sage piece of advice that Gov. Phil Murphy and his communications team should heed.

Kissinger’s point was clear: Get ahead of the story before it breaks — as it inevitably will — maintain control of the narrative and establish the context in which the information is viewed.

Anything less would force the Administration to play defensive catch-up, always scurrying to respond to developments rather than calmly and systematically directing them.

The Murphy Administration experienced the consequences of ignoring Kissinger’s maxim in two recent incidents involving individuals appointed to governmental positions, one of whom was forced to resign and a second who left abruptly without explanation.

The first, Marcellus Jackson, a former Passaic City Council member, was hired quietly to a $70,000 position as a special assistant in the State Department of Education despite his guilty plea in 2007 to accepting $26,000 in bribes and spending two years in jail.

Murphy initially defended Jackson’s appointment, arguing that he deserved a second chance and had repented.  It fell to Attorney General Gurbir Grewal to bail out the governor by ruling that Jackson, because of his conviction, was permanently disqualified from holding a public office.

Jackson resigned after a weeks’ worth of news stories criticizing Murphy, raising serious questions about his judgment in hiring a convicted felon who had admitted to abusing his public office for monetary gain. 

The second incident involved the sudden departure of Al Alvarez from his $140,000 a year post as chief of staff of the Schools Development Authority, a resignation which Murphy acknowledged but stonewalled when asked for reasons. 

The story burst into the open in a matter of days that Alvarez had been accused of sexual misconduct last year, that the information had been brought to the governor’s office, and that no charges had been filed against him.

The refusal of the governor or his communications office to quickly address the Alvarez resignation was all the more stunning and inexplicable coming as it did in the immediate aftermath of the confirmation hearings for Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the U. S. Supreme Court.

The issue of sexual misbehavior on the part of public officials had dominated the political environment for weeks due to the allegations leveled against Judge Kavanaugh and Murphy should have been acutely sensitive to it in his own Administration.

In both instances, the Administration would have been far better served by announcing the Jackson and Alvarez resignations, placing the former in the context of an unfortunate misunderstanding of the law regarding public employment and the latter as an indication that accusations of sexual misconduct are taken very seriously and that it was prudent for Alvarez to step aside pending further investigation.

By giving in to the temptation to impose radio silence while hoping neither incident would come to light, the Murphy Administration undermined its credibility and created the suspicion that it was determined to hide and cover up rather than be forthcoming and open.

Control of the narrative was placed in the hands of others — the media and Administration critics — and, once lost, is impossible to regain.

Murphy is not alone, though.  His immediate predecessor, Gov. Chris Christie, suffered deeply from his Administration’s attempt to dismiss the closing of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee in 2013. 

Christie ridiculed the entire episode and insisted that no one on his staff was a part of it or knew of it in advance.  The story quickly collapsed and ballooned into what will be forever known as Bridgegate, a scandal which sent the governor’s public standing plummeting below 20 per cent while costing him the admittedly slender chance he had of securing the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.    It played a role as well in his being overlooked for a position of some prominence in the Trump Administration.

It is a mark of inexperience to immediately turn to secrecy in the face of difficult and potentially politically damaging news.  The desire to protect the governor from controversy is understandable but is a serious miscalculation.

Stiffing the media has never put a story to rest.  Rather, it has only whetted the appetite of reporters who work overtime to ferret out the information, print or broadcast it, suggest an official coverup, and force the Administration to defend it as best it can.

It has never worked and it never will.

Henry Kissinger is now in his mid-90’s and the advice he gave Nixon 45 years ago is older than that.  Both have stood the test of time very well.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

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