The Magruder Media's Ethical Compass

November 2002

Media Rants By Tony Palmeri

Remember Jeb Stuart Magruder? He was Deputy Director of Communications for Tricky Dicky's 1972 reelection campaign. Like most of the CREEP (Committee to Reelect the President) crowd, Magruder was a midlevel mediocrity caught up in a Washington whirlwind of power lust and corruption. Unlike most CREEPs, Magruder-who before working for Nixon studied ethics with William Sloane Coffin-experienced doubt about his misdeeds as he committed them. But while Magruder knew the Nixon campaign was corrupt, he said and did nothing. Before being sentenced to seven months for perjury and obstruction, Magruder told the judge, "Somewhere between my ambition and my ideals, I lost my ethical compass."

The current mess in Madison suggests Magruder analogies. When dealing with Chuck Chvala and especially Scott Jensen (this is a guy who responded to high gas prices by using tax dollars to sue the EPA), we are clearly in the realm of midlevel mediocrities. The whirlwind of power lust and corruption, a by-product of the state's hopelessly flawed system of campaign financing and "see no evil, hear no evil" Ethics and Elections Boards, proved to be too much for politicos from Chuck and Scooter on down (or more accurately, on up) to handle.

In one major respect Chvala, Jensen, Brian Burke, Steve Foti and others charged with corruption fail the Magruder test: they acknowledge no wrong doing. Their ethical compass points toward blaming everything on overzealous prosecutors, malicious reform group leaders, and grudge-bearing pundits. I keep waiting for Chvala or Jensen to say, "My mistake was in not burning the caucus files."

Our indicted former leaders are not in the Magruder mold. They are more like little Nixons, shifting blame and dodging responsibility, with persecution complexes to boot.

So who are the real Magruders here? Who sat back and said nothing while corruption festered? Who now expresses grief and sanctimonious self-righteousness about the state's political climate while forgetting to acknowledge their own aiding and abetting of the corruption during the Thompson administration?

The answer should be obvious: The Magruder Media, that's who. During Tommy's time, the Wisconsin Magruder Media sat back and watched shamelessly as the governor and his cohorts brought a kind politics to this state that we thought Fightin' Bob had rooted out 100 years ago. The Magruder Media regularly praised the governor's "reforms" of everything from welfare to the budget process, but minimized or ignored the extraordinary influence of road builders, investment brokers, and other big campaign contributors.

Tommy's administration gave new meaning to the phrase "movers and shakers": they moved budget decisions to the backroom and shook money out of the lobbyists. And then we wonder where Chuck and Scooter learned the tricks of the trade?

The Magruder Media did have at their disposal two major reports suggesting improprieties, but neither led to calls for special prosecutor investigations, John Doe proceedings, or even hard-hitting editorial denunciations of the Thompson inner circle.

The first report was a November of 1997 five-part Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel series called "Money and Influence Inside the Thompson Administration." Reporters Steve Schultze and Dan Bice in their eight-month investigation found " . . . a trend in which donors and well-connected firms enjoy a close and mutually beneficial relationship with the Thompson administration. The story uncovered pay-to-play politicking, improper influence of state agencies, and placing fund-raisers in key state positions. Yet in the end the paper could only muster the nerve to urge the governor to clean his own house and "be mindful of appearances and vigilant against abuse." No call for Michael McCann to investigate, no call for resignation, no call for an overhaul of business as usual in Madison.

The second report was Rob Zaleski's July of 2001 Madison Capital Times four-part series on "Power vs. People: How did Wisconsin lose its Democracy." Dozens of citizens interviewed for the series agreed "Thompson's ascension to the gubernatorial throne in 1987 ushered in a new era of Wisconsin politics, the likes of which this state had never seen before." Tommy not only refused to abide by state spending limits in his first (and subsequent) re-election campaign(s), but also turned the Public Service Commission into a rubber stamp for the utilities, the Department of Transportation into a budget-busting and bullying behemoth, while dismantling the Public Intervenor's Office in the interest of big government projects and big corporations. Following the series, The Cap Times editorialized about the need to "restore Wisconsin democracy," but Teflon Tommy hardly lost any popularity.

Headlining a Republican rally in Green Bay on October 21st, Tommy was asked about the current scandals rocking the capital. "I'm very sad," he said. " . . . I'm just sad about the system."

The Magruder Media presented these comments without irony, as if Teflon Tommy had nothing to do with creating the mess.

Somehow the media needs to straighten the travel arrow on their ethical compass. How? First, they must call on investigators McCann and Blanchard to expand their corruption probes to include an examination of the Thompson administration.

Second, the media must restore their watchdog role during the next governorship. No longer must a governor of any party be allowed to serve as powerbroker in chief with a wink and a nod from the Magruder Media.