Feeling my oats after my Scott Brown prediction came true, let me revisit the saga of Bob Menendez—the senator from New Jersey currently being dogged by the limitations of scandal coverage. Ever since Menendez was lifted up to the Senate by then-Gov. Jon Corzine, New Jersey-watchers have waited for some scandal to catch up with him. His power came from two wellsprings—the Union County Democratic machine, and his prodigious fundraising. The two factors were connected. The only real panic of his 2006 senatorial campaign came when Chris Christie, then U.S. attorney, investigated a charity that paid rent to Menendez, after he'd secured it some federal funding (this was similar to a subplot in a Sopranos episode). From 2009 through 2010, Menendez ran the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which connected him to even more money.
And that, according to the NYT's quad-byline A1 story, was how history repeated. In the 1990s, Menendez befriended an ophthalmologist named Salomon Melgen. The ever-wealthy donor flew the congressman, later senator, to Dominican Republic vacations on a private jet ("Both enjoyed a good cigar and playing golf," reported the NYT). When Menendez ran the DSCC, Melgen made it rain. When Menendez faced a most re-election risk last year, Melgen gave a helpful Super PAC $700,000.
In a vacuum, this might be the Menendez scandal. In 2010, Melgen bought an ownership in ICSSI, a port security company with a gloriously one-sided contract. If the contract were enforced, the owners could make half a billion dollars. Menendez, who now runs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wants the contract enforced. That could hurt Menendez!
But that's not "the Menendez scandal." That scandal is a wanly sourced rumor that one of the Melgen-Menendez parties featured prostitutes. Not just prostitutes—underage prostitutes. The evidence for this comes from an anonymous source who has released emails that prove not that he has the goods, but that he has been trying to tell people he does, and two anonymous women who repeated the tale to the Daily Caller, in a Skype interview. (Part of the tale. They didn't claim to be underage.)
Because the second story involves sexual intercourse, the media has packaged it with the first story. It's been strange to watch. Chris Cillizza pronounces that Menendez had the "worst week in Washington" because when he denied the prostitution story, he was nonetheless seeing his name "in the same headline with 'prostitution.'" In this CNN report, the first (sourced) story is mixed together with the second (unsubstantiated) story because both "raise questions."
And New Jersey reporters, who were never—and still aren't—able to substantiate the prostitution accusation, are just up and running with it. My favorite example comes in this Star-Ledger story, in which a reporter asks senators to respond to "unsubstantied allegations," and their refusal to do so means they're "mum." ("Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said, 'I don’t know enough about what’s been going on' and otherwise declined comment." What's he hiding?) In the CNN piece, Frank Lautenberg's rambling response to the question—which doesn't even mention the prostitution rumor—is presented without the context that Lautenberg might like to see Menendez go, for reasons real or trumped-up. (A special election for the junior senator's seat would give Cory Booker an even clearer path to Congress than his current challenge of an 89-year old who walks with a cane.)
Here's the irony. Taken on its own, an A1 story about the Foreign Relations chairman's mobby relationship with a donor would be devastating. But it's less devastating than what the conservative Internet has tried and convicted Menendez for—an unproven sex scandal. If Menendez did decide to ruin his career by telling prostitutes his real name and stiffing them on a bill, obviously, he'll go. But if that part of the story is bogus, while some number of people will always believe it, Menendez will skate on the financial sleaze that he never even tried to deny.