Democrat or Republican, all Capitol Hill staffers agree on one thing: It’s terrifying to see your boss’s name in the same sentence with the words “underage Dominican Republic prostitutes.”
There’s just no upside there.
In this case, we’re talking about Sen. Robert Menendez, the senior Democrat from New Jersey. Menendez is no stranger to scandal. Like many single politicians, and even some who are married, rumors of sexual indiscretions have swirled for a while among his staff. In the media, most papers are now delicately mentioning that he is the former political boss of Hudson County, an area of Jersey known for its “rough and tumble” politics. (For those new to Jersey politics, “rough and tumble” is cocktail-hour code for corrupt.)
So far the Menendez flap is following a well-trod path of politicians accused of shedding clothing and common sense: sex allegations that at first blush seem outrageous, followed by denials from the press secretary and other senior staff; outraged calls by “nonpartisan” government groups for punishment or resignation; and a growing media push for either an admission or categorical refutation.
Forgotten in all the back and forth are the dozens of staffers working behind the scenes to prop up their boss and make him look politically viable during the storm. For these sorry souls, the experience—the crisis—is professionally and personally consuming.
Congressional staffers are not like most of us. They become personally attached to their bosses in ways that few regular office workers understand. If dog owners actually do resemble their pets, then staffers take it one step further, sometimes morphing into caricatures of their employer, mimicking everything from speech patterns to habits of thought.
But when scandal hits a congressional office, staffers suddenly realize they really aren’t like the boss at all. They remain loyal to the office, but if the man behind the desk starts looking guilty or evasive, things can get stressful and alarming in the office pretty quickly. It’s not just hurt feelings—staffers’ careers can end if they hang onto a sinking ship for too long.
I’m not in the Menendez office, but I spent more than three years working in the Senate, and I’m now working on a book about staff on Capitol Hill and have interviewed nearly 100 of them. Here’s what they say it feels like when the scandal hits.
Expect to be the last to know. Just about every staffer on the Hill has a small desk TV tuned to Fox News or MSNBC. When the scandal makes landfall, the only way staff know what’s happening is by watching the news.
People who don’t work in Congress often think staffers have the inside line on the lurid details or what’s coming next. In fact, no senator invites his staff into his personal office for a group huddle to discuss his alleged sex problems. When a scandal hits, members almost universally go into lockdown.
Only the inner circle, such as the chief of staff or a longtime adviser, is tapped for advice, whether to plan a PR strategy or the mechanics of a graceful exit. The rest of the staff are reading the generic talking points they’ve been handed (which say nothing and have already been reported), scanning Google for new details, and watching TV for the latest gossip. At no point is there a moment of clarity, unless it’s too late to matter.