Eric Massa: Who is the man behind the hard stare?

"Massa was strong on the issues, particularly foreign policy. And he was eloquent. He engaged audience." -- The Rev. Jason McGuire on his impression of Eric Massa, above, on the stump.
"Massa was strong on the issues, particularly foreign policy. And he was eloquent. He engaged audience." -- The Rev. Jason McGuire on his impression of Eric Massa, above, on the stump. (Chip Somodevilla - Getty Images)
By Wil Haygood, Carol Leonnig and Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 16, 2010

When the members of the Class of 1981 at the U.S. Naval Academy posed for their out-of-uniform senior portraits, most gravitated outdoors for the backdrop. Some stood by the water, others leaned against buildings. It's clearly a wonderful time in their lives and most are smiling broadly, their gazes seemingly unencumbered by worry.

There is, however, an exception.

Eric J.J. Massa looks into the camera with a severe intensity and no hint of a smile. He stands, half-concealed, behind a shrub.

Last week, Massa's image could hardly be hidden from anyone.

Over the course of a week that seemed to get more bizarre by the day, Massa (D-N.Y.) resigned his seat in the House of Representatives on March 8 amid allegations that he sexually harassed male aides. Then he gave a series of radio and television interviews in which he accused Democrats of forcing his resignation because of his opposition to the health-care bill, claimed the White House chief of staff once accosted him in the shower, and talked about tickling men until they had difficulty breathing. (Through a spokeswoman, Massa declined to comment for this story. He has previously said that he is guilty of nothing more than using "salty language.")

Republicans have all but forced the resumption of an ethics investigation into whether the House leadership acted appropriately when it learned of Massa's behavior toward staffers. Democrats, dealing with multiple ethics issues on top of an ailing economy and two wars, are facing an investigation of a man who had support from some of the party's biggest names and could potentially become a millstone, dragging them down to defeat in November.

Now a gnawing question has settled over Washington: Who is Eric Massa and who helped him while he was here?

In dozens of interviews -- with politicians, congressional staffers, former aides, military personnel, neighbors and others -- Massa emerges as a complex figure. A formal naval officer who is married with three children, he loves walking the family dog. A fellow congressman described him as tightly wound and "very intense." He is a cancer survivor who won a close congressional race while opposing the Iraq war.

Once in office, he entered into an unusual living arrangement, sharing a townhouse with several young, unmarried male staffers. Reports emerged of a dinner date with a congressional aide in his 20s, part of a pattern of spending time with young gay staffers. As the story exploded last week, old allegations of sexual harassment from his Navy days came to light.

Conversations with those who knew him sketch a portrait of a former military man who appears to have been at constant war -- often with himself.

Incidents in the Navy

Eric James Joseph Massa was born in Charleston, S.C., on Sept. 16, 1959. His father, Emiddio, was a World War II vet and career Navy man. Young Eric did not see the South go through its racial convulsions; he was growing up in disparate locales -- Argentina was but one stop -- as his father moved around the world. Eric was as proud of his Italian heritage as he was of the insignia on his father's shoulders.

After attending high school in New Orleans, Massa went on to the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Vice President George H.W. Bush addressed his graduating class, telling them that America lived in "dangerous and difficult times" and vowed that the Reagan administration would continue to insure a strong military.

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