Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Where to Err? Politics

(Read the Introduction if you haven't already done so.)

OK, let's move on to politics.

Again, some of the same "trade secrets" items apply to politics, just as they do for business. In this case, let's look at the most notorious breach of political trade secrets (from Harry Rosenthal):

Watergate started on June 17, 1972, as a Keystone Kops caper. Five men dressed in suits and ties surprised in the act of rifling the office of the Democratic National Committee, their hands sheathed in surgical gloves and their pockets stuffed with sequentially numbered $100 bills....

Strangely, 25 years later nobody is sure what the burglars were looking for. What is known is they were attempting to repair a telephone bug they had installed three weeks before, and they were rifling through files, photographing some.

OK, so let's dispense with the illegal activities. What should politicians say, and what should they not say?

There are many documented instances in which politicians have been accused of saying too much:

Racial slurs cost Ford administration Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz and Reagan Interior Secretary James Watt their jobs. Vice Presidents Spiro Agnew and Dan Quayle had to apologize for ethnic affronts. So did presidential contenders Jesse Jackson and Ross Perot.

Presidents Bush - both father and son - blurted out things they regretted. Both former President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore had to recant statements.

Outgoing Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill was shown the door in part because of incendiary ad-libs that rocked financial markets and antagonized Wall Street.

Speaking without thinking is a common malady for those in public life. In some cases, as with Lott's comments suggesting sympathy with one-time segregationist policies, the damage can be severe.

But in some cases, the damage isn't that severe. One can argue that Poland and "no new taxes" cost Ford and Bush 41 their jobs, but those were not the only reasons that Carter and Clinton got elected. More from the article:

In some instances, the utterances - such as Hillary Clinton's March 1991 lament, "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies" - turn out to be more politically embarrassing than career-threatening.

When he became Ronald Reagan's running mate in 1980, George H.W. Bush had to renounce calling Reagan's tax-cutting proposals "voodoo economics."

Both Hillary Clinton and George H.W. Bush survived the episodes above. Jesse Jackson still has a constituency, even after "Hymietown."

I'm not too worried about politicians putting their feet in their mouths. Frankly, I'm more worried about the alternative - the cocooned President or candidate whose appearances are so restricted that you don't know what's going on. Take, for example, the redefinition of the term "town hall":

I find it difficult to view Governor Schwarzenegger's visit to Escondido on Sept. 30 [2005] as a town hall meeting, although that was how the governor's office described it. How could it be a town hall meeting when it was held for (as reported in the next day's North County Times) "an invitation-only audience that seemed to dote on Schwarzenegger's every word?" Anyone who has been to real town hall meetings knows they are seldom love fests. In communities that have a long tradition of town hall meetings, the Escondido event would have been viewed as a partisan political rally. By definition, a town hall meeting can't be restricted to one point of view.

This is tantamount to a debate between one person, a dialogue involving one speaker or a panel discussion with one participant.

Do we want our leaders - Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, whatever - to lead their lives behind a firewall of friendly audiences, with the handlers always worrying that the leader may insult someone, somewhere by a random comment?

Frankly, I'd rather be in a situation where politicians say what they're thinking, and if one of their statements draws fire, they either explain themselves or apologize. Much better than the Ozian politician, hidden by the handlers.

Politics - err on the side of MORE information


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