The Meisinger Effect

Chris Meisinger was a school principal in a rich, white suburb of Phoenix, completely oblivious between 1999 and 2003 while one of his teachers molested little girls during fourth grade classes. Meisinger wasn’t a bad guy exactly, but he missed hints and complaints and red flags that would make any Catholic bishop blush. I bring up Chris because during the last few weeks of political catastrophe at home and abroad, the well-intentioned, charming, career educator keeps coming to mind. More specifically, I keep thinking about the way Cherokee Elementary’s parent base reacted during the nasty scandal that followed for months after the teacher, David Renaud, was arrested and confessed.

Renaud, who is now serving many decades in an Arizona prison by his own request to prosecutors, rubbed the crotches of some of his students during class, had a gruesome collection of child pornography all over his apartment, and had cultivated sickeningly close friendships with his students during his time at the upper-class, lilywhite elementary school. When a brave student and her family came forward to Principal Meisinger, first he covered his ass by calling in school district thugs, who then called Paradise Valley police, and finally the word trickled down to me (a newspaper reporter at the time) and the rest of the local media.

Rage at Renaud obviously followed, but the story became juicier when it surfaced that Meisinger had received complaints before and did not act on or report them. A written reprimand from Meisinger to Renaud was discovered, along with a 5-page note on red paper with glitter pen, in which Renaud very personally poured out his tortured soul to the pre-teen. Another bombshell followed when a former student came forward and said she and her family had complained to Meisinger that Renaud had “touched her inappropriately.” The principal apparently talked to his teacher, but took no disciplinary action and failed to mention the incident even after Renaud’s eventual arrest.

With every bit of new information, every nail in the principal’s coffin, Chris Meisinger’s popularity soared among his PTA crowd. The media sharks, myself included, smelled blood and circled outside the school day after day. Parents cursed us and wore Cherokee red in support of their chief, sporting signs in Meisinger’s favor in the windows of their minivans and oversized SUVs. The quotes I took from parents were commonly like, “Hindsight is 20/20, he made a judgment call,” and “He’s a good man and I believe he would do what he feels is right,” and “I know Chris Meisinger and we love him. He’s our leader, the heart and soul of this school.” It grew creepier, like during the school board meeting that unveiled a thick report crucifying Meisinger for his repeated poor judgment and failure to protect his students. The document was a shocking and strong indictment, but as the board voted to accept Meisinger’s resignation, a crowd of red-clad parents sang the Cherokee fight song and heckled the district for their treatment of the principal. After the meeting, parents and teachers gathered at a local restaurant to say a fond goodbye to their beloved leader, who had been asleep at the wheel as a teacher had his way with little girls on school grounds.

Believe it or not, this really long post is about George W. Bush, and those who support him in the face of mounting evidence that he’s a dangerous man. Catfish wants to talk about why Bush still holds any public approval, and I would argue that it’s the same reason Meisinger had a pack of followers to his career’s nasty end. When some people (wealth, security and social standing definitely figure in here) entrust the most sacred parts of their lives to a leader so wholeheartedly, and that leader fails, it becomes impossible to accept. The more blatant the failure, the more passionate their support. The thought that they could have put their children, or their freedom or their own lives in the hands of someone capable of such mishandling simply misfires in people’s minds. To doubt Chris Meisinger was to doubt their very lifestyles, and their concepts of safety, comfort and happiness. The only internal remedy for these people was to back him up with all of their hearts, to say, “Impossible. He could never do such a thing. I don’t believe it. He’s a good man trying to do the right thing.” Sound familiar? Hence, the blind faith of the partisan. I guess we’re all guilty of this, to some extent. I’ve hitched my wagon to John Kerry because he simply has to be better. I don’t want to imagine another scenario.

Franken said the other day that Republicans love their party like small children love their mommys and daddys. They can do no wrong in their eyes, and that’s a much more concise way to put it than what I just rambled. But for me, the more appropriate analogy is a nation of upper-middle class suburbanites, who won’t face the possibility that their beloved school principal allowed the molestation of that which they hold most sacred.

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