Scoppe: When the going gets tough, cast yourself as victim

Associate EditorJuly 31, 2012 

A RESPECTABLE argument can be made for putting Gov. Nikki Haley’s 14-year-old daughter to work in a part-time, seasonal job at the State House gift shop.

It goes like this: The child did not ask to be the governor’s daughter. The child quite responsibly wants a job. If the child got a job in the private sector, state taxpayers could end up spending far more money providing security for her than we’ll spend on her summer job.

Not everyone would agree with that argument, but aside from the professional Haley haters, everyone would lose interest in the topic, oh, five minutes after they heard it.

Unfortunately, our governor didn’t choose to explain how the child ended up working for an agency her mother controls in such a rational way. Instead, she refused for more than a week to answer questions — or to let the agency that hired her daughter answer questions. Instead, she tried both privately and publicly to intimidate the media into keeping quiet.

After the controversial blogger who used to work for Ms. Haley broke the story but a week before The State published anything, she went before her Facebook fanatics to declare that “it’s a sad day for journalism in South Carolina when The State newspaper goes after my 14 year old daughter.” When other news organizations tried to figure out what she was talking about, she made a vague threat about how “This is a sign to the media” and told a roomful of reporters, “Y’all are not allowed to talk about my children.” She only relented and provided such basic information as whether the child is paid (she is) when it became clear that another newspaper was going to write about the situation whether she answered questions or not.

Whatever happened to politicians who learned the central lesson of Watergate — that it’s not the crime but the coverup that gets you in trouble?

It’s not the Paris economic-development trip; it’s insisting that deals were inked during the trip — when they weren’t. It’s not that the first daughter got a job, but that her mother threw a temper tantrum when reporters dared to question her about it.

The ostensible basis for the governor’s outburst was that it would endanger her daughter’s safety to report in the newspaper what already was being widely discussed in the blogosphere: that the child was working inside one of the most secure, limited-access buildings in the state, a few yards from her mother’s office and under the watchful eyes of three or four separate sets of security officials.

Clearly, some state government jobs might put the first daughter at risk. And if she had one of them, it would have been reasonable for the governor to request and the media to agree to report merely that the child was working for an agency her mother controlled. But that was not the case here; it was the very security of the job site that made it a sensible choice for the first daughter, and the high visibility that made it inevitable that it would become public knowledge.

Not news? Would it be news if a governor’s wife got a job working for an agency he controlled? Or his campaign manager? Of course it would be. Maybe not big news, maybe not even controversial, depending on how much the job paid and whether the wife or the campaign manager was qualified for it, but certainly news.

Still, we all recognize that even the most reasonable and rational parents can sometimes lose perspective when their children are involved. And so the governor’s concerns would be understandable — if not for the fact that she has shown no hesitation about broadcasting information about her children’s ongoing activities. Information that could place them at far greater risk than reporting that one of them works inside her mother’s secure office building.

As far as I know, SLED Chief Mark Keel was correct when he said this was the first time in his more than 30 years with SLED that the media reported on the activities of politicians’ minor children without their parents’ consent. But that’s not because the standards have changed. It’s because, as far as I know, this is the first time that the minor child of a governor has gone to work for state government.

When the governor allowed her daughter to go on the state payroll, she transformed her from the minor child of a chief executive, deserving of a high level of privacy, to a state employee.

State employees have no right to expect that the fact that they work for state government will be a secret.

The fact that a governor who fashioned her political ascension around the promise of government transparency would have a difficult time grasping that is, well, difficult to grasp.

But of course her rise wasn’t just about transparency. It was also about casting herself as a victim — of good-ol’-boy politicians (you know, the folks who get their kids jobs on the state payroll), and of the news media who dare question her. And once again, she has taken legitimate questions about her official actions and recast them as out-of-bounds, personal attacks.

“Y’all are not allowed to talk about” … fill in the blank.

Yes, we’ve known for some time that our governor has an imperious streak. But the unprofessional way she handled this incident suggests that she honestly believed no one would notice that her child was working within the confines of the state’s most scrutinized fishbowl.

This calls to mind those self-delusional, narcissistic politicians who simultaneously believe that they won’t have to answer for their actions because no one could possibly find out about them and that they can talk their way out of any problem because the world revolves around them. It’s the sort of cognitive dissonance we usually see when politicians engage in breathtakingly reckless behavior that leads to self-destruction. Not when their kid gets a summer job.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571.

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