On Jon Corzine
by Matt Stoller, Fri Apr 20, 2007 at 01:34:56 PM EDT
As some of you know, I worked for Corzine in 2005, so I figured I'd say a few words. In general, I dislike talking about bad things that happen to powerful figures and how tragic these events are. I don't think that powerful people's problems are any more significant than anyone else's, and so I find the collective outpouring of grief pretty tacky and exploitative. But I know that people in general sympathize with powerful figures, and in some senses express ourselves through them. That's why politicians can become so iconic, because for their supporters they become a part of their identity. So I guess since I know Corzine, I should talk about him and what this event means.
Jon Corzine is a great man. Though I didn't spend a lot of time with him during the campaign for Governor of New Jersey, I learned a lot from him about politics, morality and greatness. I met Corzine during a DSCC fundraiser in 2004 for which I was a volunteer, and asked him a question. "How can we restore legitimacy to our government if one party is criminally corrupt, and the other party must hold them accountable, without it seeming to be a partisan vendetta?" He smiled, and wouldn't answer the question. But he hired me a few months later.
I had two connections with Corzine before I went to work for him. One, I knew that he was intensely concerned about Darfur and genocide, and that was something that I cared about deeply as well. Genocide is a great moral challenge, because there is literally no benefit to dealing with it, but it is the ultimate sin. Except, of course, it's difficult to explain to your grandkids why you didn't act when you could have. Our immigration policies in the 1930s kept lots of Jews out of America, which killed them. My great-aunt worked on this issue with an unbelievable ferocity. She remembered it her whole life, such that in the 1980s she got angry at my grandmother for putting my grandfather in a Catholic nursing home that was near her apartment. "How could you do that after what the Pope did to the Jews?" My grandmother really had no choice, since she couldn't drive. So anyway, I felt deeply about genocide, and I know that Corzine did as well because he pushed through the Senate the Darfur Accountability Act. I genuinely respected him for that, and felt that working for a man like him would be an honor. And it is absolutely true that Jon Corzine is a great man.
But he was also a man who made choices. After all, you don't become the CEO of Goldman Sachs through altruism, and some part of his fortune came from the clients Goldman served, and Goldman served everyone with lots of money. I realized, through the campaign, that there is no such thing as clean politics, that everyone has some dirt on their hands whether they realize it or not, but what is important is whether you have the force of character to recognize the world for what it is and work to improve it. Jon Corzine has the character to recognize his own privilege, and to recognize the privilege that all Americans have, and work to justify it. At the same time, Corzine has burning ambition, white hot. He was willing to work harder than anyone and to discipline his own interactions with others with a shocking and necessary aggressiveness. Though he pushed for an end to genocide, after 2004 he saw that being a Senator with low seniority in the minority party was not a route to the kind of power he wanted. And so he ran for Governor of New Jersey, with the understanding that he was abandoning one route to work on Darfur for a more concrete ability to get things done. He knew his talent, and he knew that in a moral sense he was obligated to use it as effectively as it could be used.
Throughout the campaign, Corzine still wanted to push Darfur, which frustrated his staff to no end (except me). He went to Chad during the campaign, and kept trying to bring up the subject in various churches. The collective response was 'Senator, you're running for Governor of New Jersey'. I happened to be the blogger on the campaign, and I had a friend working for the Huffington Post the day of the launch of that site. Senator Corzine wanted to write a post for the site, and I helped work with his Senate-side staff to do it on the issue of Darfur. I had to fight tooth and nail with the press secretary, who had come from Verizon, to put it up there. Various consultants were worried that Corzine would seem too liberal if he put up something on the Huffington Post. I put it up anyway, and was nearly fired, since I figured that Corzine would want to speak out on Darfur everywhere he could. After he got a call from Arianna Huffington expressing gratitude, I was able to keep my job. And apparently the electorate didn't hold it against him. In all honesty, I couldn't blame the staffers who tried to reign him in, and who wanted me gone. Corzine was running for Governor of New Jersey, not UN Secretary-General. But he just believed, through force of will, that he could make a difference with Darfur because of his willpower. And that's greatness.
Ironically, Corzine knew that he had abandoned Darfur, and I, who admired him because of that work, worked to help him change jobs to one where he wouldn't be dealing with genocide directly. And yet, he would have found a way as New Jersey governor to make an impact; he's been traveling as Governor all over the world, and I'm sure he will be consulted by the next President on foreign policy. Corzine's a great man that way. I'm sure he talked to Senator Menendez about this issue before appointing him to the upper body, and if he recovers he'll work on the issue somehow. He used to say that with the right people and the right amount of capital, we can accomplish anything. That is a line that came straight from Goldman Sachs. That was my other connection to Corzine; he had run Goldman Sachs, and in 2000, I had a great job offer from that investment bank and nearly took it. I respected Goldman immensely, and transferred that respect to Corzine. Goldman recruits people by talking about integrity, and how talent is what differentiates them from every other bank out there. And it's true. Goldman has an illustrious alumni network, because the people in that bank realize that it is global networks, people, that control the levers of power. And integrity is extremely valuable in such a system, it is in fact a competitive advantage.
Corzine was bringing this philosophy to New Jersey, a state that desperately needs fixing. NJ is a rich state with a great educational system, but the infrastructure is decaying and property taxes are outrageously high. Structurally, the problem is that there are too many local fiefdoms, which leads to corruption and waste, and yet, since no one wants to give up their township, the population resigns themselves to a cynical attitude about politics. It's an irresponsible attitude, but then, no governor had challenged the people since the 1970s.
Corzine was in the midst of asking for greatness, of fixing the state. His staffers were always trying to reign his liberal instincts in, whether it was trying to prevent him from putting something on the Huffington Post or discussing gay marriage. I remember one episode, during the third debate with Doug Forrester, when a questioner asked him about the drinking age. Corzine answered that of course it should be 18, that if you're old enough to die for your country you're old enough to drink. Immediately campaign staff panicked and issued a press release retracting the statement, but everyone knew that he had only said what he believed. Corzine hadn't been 18 for some time, so he didn't realize that the drinking age was 21. But still, his instincts might have been more in touch with reality than with the realities of politics.
What struck me about that campaign, most of all, is how meaningless the substance really was. Everyone on all sides - the press, the Democrats, the Republicans - knew that the state was in fiscal trouble. The ads - about handguns, corruption, extremism, infidelity - were put on the air to the tune of 70 or 80 million dollars, yet in May Corzine was leading by 10 points, and in November he won by 10 points. Corzine's liberal instincts were what the public wanted. They wanted someone who would be honest about taxes, about the drinking age, and someone who was principled enough to vote against the war. They believed that these traits went along with his business instincts, because they did. Jon Corzine is something of a throwback to the liberal internationalist businessman, and as such, he has more in common with today's progressive movement than the people he shared space with in the Senate.
Before his accident, he had high approval ratings as Governor and was showing greatness and character as Governor. He had faced down South Jersey bosses and wrestled with tax reform. He was well on his way to fixing the fiscal mess in New Jersey, and even though he kept his staff around him to restrain his instincts, that was really aesthetic. And yet, in his accident, we can see that there is a price to greatness. It may sound simple, but he wasn't wearing his seatbelt. He wasn't following the law. Corzine wasn't a lawbreaker, but, like with the drinking age, he didn't believe in stupid limits on individual freedom. Unfortunately, in this case, his unwillingness to accept the limits of mere mortality, which is something that great men and women often do not want to accept, was exceptionally costly. And that is tragic, because we need more great people like Jon Corzine, people are unafraid to follow their morals, unafraid to get their hands dirty, and unafraid to hold their elite friends to the same standard they hold everyone else.