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Similar circumstances, similar falls [Commentary]

To someone who has been engaged for most of his life in both politics and the media, the parallel story lines of Chris Christie and Rupert Murdoch are fascinating. Both hold reputations as tough, hard-fisted taskmasters — brilliant, successful, in their respective fields: Murdoch as a publisher, Christie as a politician.

Until recently, that is. They've stumbled. Some say mightily; others suggest only modestly.

Governor Christie and his staff are under investigation for allegedly clogging up bridges, using federal funds inappropriately, bullying local officials and plying friendly politicians with appointments and lucrative projects. Mr. Murdoch and officials from his now defunct News of the World British tabloid are under scrutiny for allegedly hacking the phones of royalty, celebrities and a murdered schoolgirl and for supposedly plying officials with cash, enticing invitations and favorable coverage.

Both have admitted limited executive responsibility while steadfastly denying knowledge of any sordid behavior. The two men instead cast the blame on wicked aides who, without their authority or knowledge, did things they themselves would never countenance — even as one climbed the political ladder and the other hauled in buckets of money.

The similar sagas do not seem to be heading for a quick or happy ending. Both powerful men have reason to brood over their brands.

Mr. Christie has jeopardized his presidential ambitions. He has been called inept and been forced to shake up his staff of political operatives. Mr. Murdoch has jeopardized his vast media holdings. A British investigative body has suggested he may not be "fit" to hold a British television license, and he has been forced to shake up his staff of reporters and editors.

These successful people now appear to be hoisted on the petard of their own formidable qualities — the very qualities that led to their success.

Mr. Murdoch made a fortune by appealing to the lower virtues of the dark side of journalism — embarrassing celebrities with devilish gossip and scaring otherwise normal citizens by promoting an ideological mantra that mocked the president's birth or his patriotism. Not even Joe McCarthy questioned a president's birth. Governor Christie took age-old political tactics — patronage, threats, fear — and used them to punish not just his enemies, but innocent, unwary citizens.

And then, of course, there was the almost inevitable slide from pride in their success to hubris and the culture of power, greed and arrogance. Five star hotels, lavish parties, seaside mansions, the infamous entourage of ambitious acolytes riding high on the accomplishments of their famous bosses — opening their doors, laughing at their jokes, barking orders on their behalf and doing whatever it took to get the results that they knew their bosses had come to expect.

Some of the aides have now been fired. Others have resigned. Many are facing subpoenas or are already in court being cross examined by prosecutors and facing horrible sentences — possibly paying for exercising the qualities and unspoken wishes of their heroes.

The irony is that Messrs. Christie and Murdoch, protected by smart, tenacious, high priced lawyers, may well escape punishment for the alleged crimes committed by their subordinates in the name of their respective institutions. Their staffs, however, without such resources (many just minor figures) may go unemployed, bankrupt or to prison while their former heroes remain free — governing a state or running a media conglomerate.

Richard Nixon told us he was not a crook. Mr. Christie tells us he is not a brazen bully. Mr. Murdoch believes he is not a nasty ideologue. They are just successful men on a journey to improve the lot of man and enjoy the fruit of their hard earned labors. They were the victims of stupid staffers, performing unauthorized acts they themselves could not possibly have known about occupied with the pressures of sitting in the back of their limos, possibly sipping Champagne and heading for a weekend at the Hamptons.

Come on, man. How could they possibly have known?

Theodore G. Venetoulis is a publisher, Maryland Port commissioner and a former Baltimore County executive. His email is ted.venetoulis@gmail.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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