Hard-wired into our national self-image is the concept of American exceptionalism, the notion that our country stands out for all the ages as the best hope for humanity, despite its original sin of slavery.
Yet as a lifelong resident of New Jersey, the crossroads of the American Revolution, I have had to reconcile this idealized view with my decades of first-hand reporting on the systemic and endemic political corruption in my state, one of the original 13 colonies.
New Jersey is truly exceptional, in a dystopian sense — and no one personifies that better than Sen. Bob Menendez, who was indicted this week on federal charges of bribery and corruption.
According to the U.S. Senate historian, only 13 sitting senators have ever been criminally indicted, out of more than 2,000 Americans who have served in what is sometimes called the “club of 100.” Menendez now has a unique distinction: He’s the only senator to be indicted twice.
People in my state certainly remember the case of Sen. Harrison Williams, a four-term New Jersey Democrat convicted in 1981 on nine counts of bribery for his role in the Abscam scandal. The FBI snared Williams along with a half-dozen sitting members of the House of Representatives, one of them from New Jersey, and Camden Mayor Angelo Errichetti, an infamous South Jersey power broker. (That scandal was the basis for the 2013 film “American Hustle.”)