History repeats itself in the Brodkorb ... affair

  • Article by: D.J. TICE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 24, 2012 - 8:09 PM

Remember James Callender? Well, no, you probably don't -- but you might find his story fascinating in this context. Michael Brodkorb is a virtual reincarnation of a figure from the early years of our democracy.

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Michael Brodkorb

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Politics, we seem to believe, has seldom been so bare-fisted and ill-tempered as it is today. At the least, we're sure political reputations weren't so regularly wrecked by sexual misbehavior in decorous days gone by. America's founders, we fear, with their noble bearing and lofty principles, would be appalled at what has become of their handiwork.

Actually, they might marvel at the way we've cleaned things up.

But it often doesn't seem like that. Even here in meek and mild Minnesota, the political pot has boiled over. Consider the saga of switch-hitting demolition expert Michael Brodkorb.

Brodkorb, in case you don't know, made his name as a sharp-clawed political falcon. For years Minnesota Republicans happily unleashed him against DFLers.

As a blogger, originally anonymous, on "Minnesota Democrats Exposed" Brodkorb inflicted wounds (related to financial, literary and political embarrassments) on the reputations of Keith Ellison, Al Franken, Matt Entenza and others.

His tenacity and resourcefulness wielding the poison pen helped propel him to leading roles at the state GOP party office and as an exceptionally powerful communications director for Republicans' new majority caucus in the state Senate.

Then, in December, disaster. The story broke that Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch and Brodkorb had been consulting altogether too closely. Koch lost her leadership post; Brodkorb was canned.

And now the full Brodkorbian treatment is being threatened against his former allies and patrons. Brodkorb says he'll sue, alleging gender discrimination, and that he'll prove his case by exposing other improper Capitol relationships that produced a different outcome for the underlings involved.

A tawdry mess, to be sure. But also something of an American tradition. Brodkorb, in some uncanny ways, is a virtual reincarnation of an influential but little remembered figure from the heroic early years of American democracy (and, um, journalism): James Callender.

Callender was a kind of 18th-century blogger -- an anonymous pamphleteer and scandalmonger for partisan newspapers. He specialized in exposing government corruption, and more spectacular misdeeds when he could find them. He made enough trouble in his native Scotland, to the displeasure of the authorities, that he soon fled to the New World and found a land of opportunity.

Callender quickly became a leading literary saboteur for the "Republican" political faction led by Thomas Jefferson. Properly venerated for his eloquence, intellect and leadership, Jefferson was also politically ruthless, and he found the value of a tireless tattler like Callender self-evident. Jefferson paid Callender and got him jobs, and Callender responded with a devastating barrage of exposes and denunciations against the opposing "Federalists," led by George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.

Hamilton was the main game (the heroic Washington was largely off-limits), and Callender hit his mark when he detailed a foolhardy and obsessive affair the nation's first and greatest Treasury secretary had conducted with a married woman -- whose husband then proceeded to blackmail Hamilton. Callender tried to prove that Hamilton had diverted public funds to cover up his sins. He failed in that, but even so the reputation of Jefferson's great rival never really recovered.

Jailed by the Federalists under the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts, Callender was freed after Jefferson was elected president. But when Jefferson refused to go further and give his former henchman an administration job, Callender turned with a fury on his onetime benefactor.

And what kind of a weakness do you suppose he exposed?

It was Callender, in the early 1800s, who first reported the charge that Jefferson had kept a slave, Sally Hemings, as a concubine, and fathered slave children by her. Long the deepest stain on Jefferson's name, the truth of the allegation is debated to this day, complete with DNA tests on Hemings' descendents. Currently the weight of evidence is widely thought to show that Callender was right.

Does any of this sound familiar? Along with affirming an ancient moral or two (those who sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind, and all that), the Callender-Brodkorb parallels should reassure us that when it comes to human behavior and ethics not so much has really changed -- either behind closed doors or under the bright lights of the political arena.

In fact, things simply aren't as crazy as they were. Keep in mind that while Jefferson survived his scandal and his presidency and lived to enjoy an honored and mostly happy old age, Hamilton did not.

On a summer morning in 1804, this brilliant and accomplished giant of the American Revolution and the nation's founding was shot to death in a duel by Aaron Burr -- who at that moment was the sitting vice president of the United States.

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D.J. Tice is the Star Tribune's commentary editor.

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