How to Deny with Class
When the Denial is True

It was around 1970, I think. I was driving solo from upper New York State to St. Louis. It was a long trip and it was getting late. Cleveland seemed a good resting point and there were plenty of motels along the way. After checking in, I turned on the television and began watching a public access station.

They were broadcasting a meeting of the City Council. Mayor Carl Stokes was answering questions. It was confrontational. I later read that confrontation was a common occurrence between the Cleveland City Council and the city’s first black mayor.

Conservative icon William F. Buckley once referred to him in an interview as a political genius, and Carl Stokes was certainly holding his own against a room full of politicians the night I turned the dial on that motel television.

Age and time do tax my memory. 1970 is a while back. But I do recall one partly angry exchange. It could be said to be half angry. Mayor Stokes seemed amused as he held up his end.

A member of the council stood behind of his desk and faced the mayor. He told of his visit to some city agency to perform some small favor for some constituent. He was irritated at having to wait in line, then having to wait some more while a local clerk performed whatever it was the councilman wanted done. He complained to the clerk about the slow pace. And now, as he stood facing the Mayor, his voice got louder and angrier. The clerk had told him he might be getting better service if he would learn to play ball.

“Mr. Mayor,” he was yelling at this point. “Mr. Mayor, THIS councilman does NOT play ball!!”

And with that bit of triumphant fury, he sat.

Mayor Stokes had listened to the sad and angry story silently. Now he stood. He seemed to be fighting back an urge to grin. He looked about the room and then began speaking calmly. As he spoke, he turned from the councilman and looked into the television camera. He assured the entire city, but especially the residents of that councilmanic district, that he was committed to providing the best service the city could provide to all citizens of Cleveland. Then, allowing himself a half smile, he gently insulted the angry member of the City Council of Cleveland in a way I can still hear today.

I am not an expert on law. My imagination tells me that slowing down city services in order to punish part of the city would be illegal. After all, isn’t that why several members of the New Jersey administration of Governor Chris Christy now sleep at night in prison?

The story as narrated by the Cleveland councilman did not seem likely to me. Still doesn’t. It would have involved a huge risk by a tiny figure in a fairly large city government. Confronting a member of the Council that controls one’s paycheck, even a hostile Council member who does NOT play ball, still strikes me as a poor career strategy. It would have required a degree of courage seldom found in the lower levels of any bureaucracy.

Attacking elected representatives by punishing their constituents seems to me to require some more powerful figure. Like, perhaps, the Governor of New Jersey or, collectively, high members of his administration. Just saying.

In the New Jersey Bridgegate scandal, a local mayor, a Democrat, had refused to endorse Republican Chris Christy for re-election. So several members of the Christy administration decided to punish the mayor by closing lanes at an entrance from that town to the George Washington Bridge, the main highway into New York City. They then refused to accept increasingly panicked phone calls from that Mayor.

It got pretty serious. Folks missed work as the jam went on for hours. It happened to be the first day of school and children were trapped on buses throughout the entire day. Medical crews abandoned their ambulances in order to hurry on foot to emergencies. One patient died.

All the while, the perpetrators exchanged gleeful email messages about the punishment they were inflicting on that mayor and those who had elected him.

Those gloating messages may have been the key to later convicting the public servants who arranged the traffic snarl.

The meticulous, detail oriented, Governor Chris Christy still insists all this went on a few feet away from his office without his knowledge. He never suspected a thing.

I thought of Chris Christy’s angry denials, and I thought of Mayor Stokes’ long ago confident assurances as I heard about Alaska.

Donald Trump’s campaign to cancel Health Care failed. It failed by one vote in the United States Senate.

One of those votes came from Senator Lisa Murkowski. She represents Alaska. In her last election, she lost in the Republican primary to a Tea Party conservative. She is Senator today because she was so popular the citizens of Alaska elected her over the Democrat AND the Republican. They did it by writing in her name. The conservative challenged her victory because some voters misspelled “Murkowsky.” The challenge did not carry.

She voted against the Trump plan to cancel healthcare because it would have hurt thousands of her constituents who would lose health coverage, and it would hurt many thousands more who would pay dramatically higher premiums.

The Trump administration decided to get tough after the fact. The day after the vote, President Trump used his Twitter account for a typical boast about having drawn the largest crowd in the entire history of the state of Ohio, then attacked Senator Murkowski.

After that, he had his Secretary of the Interior telephone her with a threat. Alaska has a lot of territory that falls under the jurisdiction of the Interior Department. Residents depend on cooperation for mining, energy, and jobs policies. The President would see that that cooperation would stop. Alaska’s other Senator, Dan Sullivan, voted in favor of healthcare repeal. He also got a call about retaliation. He called it “troubling.”

“I’m not going to go into the details, but I fear that the strong economic growth, pro-energy, pro-mining, pro-jobs and personnel from Alaska who are part of those policies are going to stop,” Sullivan said.

“I tried to push back on behalf of all Alaskans. … We’re facing some difficult times and there’s a lot of enthusiasm for the policies that Secretary Zinke and the president have been talking about with regard to our economy. But the message was pretty clear,” Sullivan said.

The Alaska Dispatch News, July 26, 2017

As it happens, Senator Murkowski turns out to be a lot tougher than our President. She is the chair of the Committee that controls the budget of the Department of the Interior. She postponed a hearing on important nominations the Department needs to have confirmed. She postponed them indefinitely.

Indefinitely. That would be for as long as she decides to keep postponing.

She is also quoted by the Alaska Dispatch News: “I base my votes on what I believe is in Alaska’s best interest…”

Later on, Senator Murkowski was generous in her eventual interpretation. She did not contradict the threat that her colleague had reported. She simply said that she did not find Secretary Zinke’s conversation personally threatening or intimidating. He was just a messenger for the very tough, very hard, President.

That was where the threat came from.

I do not believe that Secretary Zinke was being threatening or intimidating. He made clear to me, and I absolutely believe him, that he was just delivering a message that the President was not happy with my vote. And, as I said, I knew that he wasn’t. The President and I had a very hard phone call.

– Senator Lisa Murkowski, July 26, 2017

Secretary Zinke did not quite deny the threat that Senator Sullivan reported. He just said it was laughable:

Q: It’s been characterized as a threat.

A. You know, the moon has been characterized as other things too. So, I think it’s laughable.

Bureaucrats and politicians will sometimes threaten retaliation against political opponents. They will hold off on Post Office namings, or the appointments of friends. They will threaten to pull their support in the next election. If they threaten constituents, the threats will often backfire like a cheap Saturday Night Special. If they are caught, or even accused, they will deny thinking, even for a moment, about hurting ordinary citizens.

Sometimes they are clumsy enough in their denials to go to jail. After all, email messages, Governor Christy?

Sometimes they are ham handed enough to simply look foolish.

I think it’s laughable.

…he was just delivering a message…

And sometimes a politician, when subjected to an accusation that is absurd on its face, can come across as a class act.

Mayor Stokes was confronted by what looked like contrived outrage: This councilman does NOT play ball.

He answered with a half smile:

I can assure the city of Cleveland and specifically the residents of the councilman’s district, that I am committed to providing the very best service, and to provide it equally to all citizens of Cleveland without regard to the quality of their council representation.

Carl Stokes died in 1996. If the world does not miss him, it ought to.

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