Not often do a congressman and an anchorman see their careers simultaneously lurching onto parallel and perilous tracks. But that’s one way of looking at what’s happening with Aaron Schock and Brian Williams.
The situations facing both the Republican House member from Illinois and the face of “NBC Nightly News” appear strikingly similar in many ways.
For a long time now, some of their behavior has been unusual for people with such high profiles in their lines of work, but the head-scratching chatter about the more outlandish traits of both Schock and Williams was confined to a relatively small cadre of mostly admiring enabler insiders. Just one colorful story about each in the mainstream media, however, has been able to induce nationwide waves of ridicule — along with surging interest in any evidence revealing patterns of poor judgment.
Now, only a week after the sparks were lit, both are confronting the same reality: An intensely cultivated and long-sustained professional reputation has been jeopardized very quickly.
Both of their positions of prominence have the potential to disappear thanks to the same toxic combination. Unprecedented amounts of laughter from the masses threatens to neutralize their effectiveness as players on the national stage, while long-tolerated behaviors by both the lawmaker and the newsman have colleagues questioning their fitness to remain as leading figures in their industries.
For politicians and reporters alike, it’s a general principal that your work — not you — is supposed to be the only story. For people at the top in both businesses, becoming a punchline in the public sphere and, at the same time, a punching bag in your own world is rarely sustainable.
Williams’ travails are understandably getting more attention than the troubles of a member of Congress in his fourth term. The newsman’s future will probably take a more decisive turn first, once NBC News concludes its internal investigation into his truthfulness. The network’s most prominent journalist last week apologized for telling a false story about being aboard a U.S. military helicopter when it was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade early in the Iraq War. (He says he was on a ‘copter trailing the craft that was hit and “conflated” the situation over the past decade, an explanation that has fueled much of the mockery and journalistic suspicion.) His admission has raised questions about whether Williams misled the public while covering other stories, including claims he witnessed a suicide in New Orleans and saw a body in the floodwaters of the French Quarter after Hurricane Katrina. And several NBC colleagues have been quoted anonymously lamenting Williams’ tendency to embellish his eyewitness accounts.
If the 55-year-old anchor turns out to be habitually fact-challenged, his network will be pressed to show him the door rather than have its own trustworthiness questioned.
The 33-year-old congressman faces no such imminent professional death penalty. He doesn’t face the voters again for 21 months in a district so solidly Republican he won his last two elections with 74 percent. And the House Ethics process tends to move very slowly, as Schock himself can attest. In May 2012, the semi-autonomous Office of Congressional Ethics found “substantial reason to believe” he solicited a donation above the legal limit for a political action committee, but the House Ethics Committee has never said a word about the matter.
It’s not clear whether the latest reports about Schock’s finances will lead to new investigations.
He took the over-the-top decoration of his new office suite (on the fourth floor of the Rayburn Building) from politically questionable to ethically suspect by accepting the makeover as a gift from Euro Trash, a firm in his Peoria-centered district. It’s not clear he will be allowed to undo a possible House Rules violation by offering to pay retroactively for the blood-red paint and fabric, crystal chandelier, pheasant feathers, eagle-themed mirrors and tables, gilded trim and presidential portraits.
But even while moving to address that misstep, first chronicled by The Washington Post, Schock had to confront two other problems. Racist-sounding Facebook posts surfaced from Benjamin Cole, the communications aide who only magnified attention to the office by trying to prevent the Post from publishing its photographs. And the liberal-leaning Blue Nation Review reported Schock had sold his 4,100 square foot, four-bedroom home in Illinois to a campaign benefactor just before the 2012 elections for three-and-a-half times its assessed value.
Cole was quickly forced to quit, and Schock offered a detailed defense of his real estate transaction as above board. Still, the rapid burst of bad press created the perception that his ability to perform substantively had been crippled by an unexpected inability to manage his flamboyant reputation.
Since arriving as the youngest congressman in 2009, Schock had impressed Hill insiders as adept at balancing congressional seriousness and youthful eccentricity. Republican leadership concluded early on he was not only a prodigious fundraiser, but also a savvy inside legislative player, rewarding him with seats on the Ways and Means and House Administration committees and deploying him as a bridge between the centrist and confrontational wings of his caucus. All the while, those same leaders have tolerated his exposed abs on the cover of Men’s Health, his steady stream of Instagram posts in unusual costumes and exotic locales — even a not-quite-so-elaborate Euro Trash treatment of his previous office. (Deep green was the dominant color on Cannon’s third floor.)
The question is whether making his own little “Downton Abbey” in the House amounts to one “out there” step too far, with Schock’s colleagues concluding over time he’s no longer welcome to stand outside their cookie-cutter version of conservatism.