HAVING pronounced on national television that Ed Rollins' notorious statement about the New Jersey governor's race was "the stupidest political remark since George Romney said he'd been brainwashed," I now feel the need to restore some balance. The great Ed Rollins controversy has gone entirely too far.
If Ed Rollins had bought votes, tampered with voting machines or engaged in a thousand other frauds familiar in the history of every democratic republic, the outrage and upheaval his statement has ignited would be understandable. But he did none of those things.
Even if the very worst is believed -- that despite Mr. Rollins' subsequent denials, the Whitman campaign made contributions to the favorite charities of various black ministers in exchange for their agreement to refrain from getting out the vote for Jim Florio -- this is hardly a hanging offense. After all, the joke would be on the Whitman campaign, for believing that black preachers can manipulate their parishioners with such ease. The truth is that black voters are like all other voters -- they may listen respectfully to what the minister has to say, but they will vote using their own best judgment.
Nor is the generous distribution of "walking-around money" a novelty or a Republican invention. Joseph P. Kennedy made sure that plenty was available to persuade voters of the virtues of his son, John F. Kennedy. And Chicago's famed mayor Richard J. Daley reportedly used it to perfection.
Still, I do not happen to believe that Mr. Rollins did what he initially boasted of doing. This may mark me as naive. But Ed Rollins now says that he made the whole thing up in a misguided attempt to get James Carville's goat. (Mr. Carville managed the losing Florio campaign.) Mr. Rollins claims that he was trying to "play head games" with his rival consultant.
Why believe a man when he says that his first statement was a lie? Several reasons. In the first place, Mr. Rollins' reputation was so damaged by the first lie that he must have learned his lesson. The only refuge of a man in his predicament is the truth. Another lie would be easily proved -- any New Jerseyan who knew anything of money changing hands between black churches and the Whitman campaign could unravel Mr. Rollins' new story in a flash, if it were false. And if that happened, whatever shreds of credibility Mr. Rollins retained would be smashed. He must know that.
Second, the reason Mr. Rollins offered for his statement, though labeled "bizarre" by New Jersey Democratic State Chairman Raymond Lesniak, seems eminently believable to me. "I committed the cardinal sin of believing my own press clippings," wrote a sorrowful Mr. Rollins in the Washington Post. "I was the reason [Christine Todd Whitman] won . . . 'How'd you do it, Ed?' the reporters all wanted to know . . ."
In a refreshing departure from the usual stance of snared malefactors in our society, who tend to blame alcohol, drugs or their tortured childhoods for their actions, Mr. Rollins acknowledged quite frankly that he was motivated -- and undone -- by hubris. "Succumbing to the vanity of thinking you are more important than others is usually what puts us all out of business and is now my albatross," he wrote.
Mr. Rollins recognizes the full weight of the damage he has done. He damaged not just his own career but the reputation of DTC the woman he worked to elect. He also cast aspersions on the integrity of black ministers -- all because he couldn't resist the opportunity to make himself look like a kingmaker.
But the man's contrition is complete. He writes that his particular mortification is to be perceived now as racially insensitive, when in fact he is a former poverty worker and civil rights champion.
I believe him and further believe that Ed Rollins has enough talent, intelligence and capacity to learn from his mistakes and rise from this unfortunate pitfall in his career to make something good of it all.
In the meantime, his indignant critics, particularly Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who want the black ministers of New Jersey to sue him for libel, should stand down. American politics has much more to fear from the likes of Al Sharpton than from the misbegotten boasts of Ed Rollins.
Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.