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Penn State Scandal Gets Political

By Dan Weil   |   Friday, 11 Nov 2011 11:20 AM

The child molestation scandal that has rocked Pennsylvania State University, ending the career of the school’s legendary football coach Joe Paterno, has imposed itself squarely in the middle of the state’s politics. Political figures of all stripes have felt compelled to address the crisis, Politico reports.

And it goes beyond Pennsylvania. Even White House press secretary Jay Carney was asked in his daily briefing Thursday if Paterno deserved to be fired. “You know, we’re not going to get into the decisions made by the university,” Carney said. “What I can say is that if the allegations about what happened up there prove true, then the allegations are outrageous.”

The federal Department of Education is conducting its own investigation into the scandal.

One of Paterno’s former assistants, Jerry Sandusky, has been charged with sexually abusing children. Paterno was told about a molestation incident involving Sandusky years ago, but did nothing beyond alerting his superiors at the university.

Paterno’s storied status -- he recently set the record for wins by a Division I football coach -- have created a huge identify for himself and the university throughout the state, making the whole situation something politicians can’t ignore.

“Penn State is part of the culture of the state,” Vince Galko, a GOP consultant in Pennsylvania, told Politico. “Whether you grew up here or not, it’s a part of your life. It’s a symbol of our state.”

Larry Ceisler, a veteran Democratic public relations consultant in Philadelphia, told Politico, “For politicians to weigh in on this is a temptation they can’t resist because Penn State is an experience that’s so common to their constituents. Almost every person in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania is touched by Penn State in one way or the other.”

Republican presidential candidate and former Sen. Rick Santorum, a Penn State alumnus, said he is “devastated” over the scandal. His candidacy could be hurt by a Philadelphia Inquirer report that while serving in the Senate he sponsored Sandusky for a “Congressional Angels in Adoption” award. To be fair to Santorum, it’s highly unlikely that he had any idea of what Sandusky was up to.

Republican Gov. Tom Corbett has been in a particularly difficult spot. As state attorney general he began the Sandusky investigation in 2009. But Corbett, a member of the university board of trustees, had to remain silent about the whole affair until formal charges came out last weekend.

Corbett said Thursday that he approved of the firings of Paterno and university president Graham Spanier, as he no longer had confidence in “their ability to lead.”

Hours after the firings were announced, Pennsylvania Sens. Bob Casey, a Democrat, and Pat Toomey, a Republican, jointly announced they were withdrawing their recent nomination of Paterno for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

“We hope the proper authorities will move forward with their investigation without delay,” the duo said in a statement. “Penn State is an important institution in our commonwealth. We should turn our attention to the victims of these atrocious crimes and ensure they get the help they need. Our hearts and prayers go out to them and their families.”

It was GOP Rep. Glenn Thompson, a Penn State graduate whose district includes the campus, who nominated Paterno for the award in 2010. He declined to comment on whether he would join the effort to withdraw Paterno from consideration for the medal.

In a statement Thursday, Thompson said, “the focus should not be on Joe Paterno’s nomination or politicians trying to distance themselves from him. It’s about the victims and the future of Penn State.”

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