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Raise the level of rhetoric


Political fortunes are won and lost on sound-bite campaigns. Pity there aren’t more journalists willing to dissect the current tour de spin, and thus debunk the myth that Americans are either too addlebrained or too distracted to know when they’re being manipulated and whipped into a frenzy.

The Wall Street Journal’s David Wessel explained both President George W. Bush’s and Sen. John Kerry’s positions on taxation policies by using a quotation from Bush as a springboard. Other journalists merely seized the rhetorical nugget – “He (John Kerry) said he’s only going to raise the tax on the so-called rich. But you know how the rich is [sic]: They’ve got accountants. That means you pay. That means your small business pays. It means the farmers and ranchers pay.” – but Wessel gave readers what they needed: an account that treated both candidates equally.

But reports like Wessel’s are an exception. Until journalism like his becomes the rule, the best we can hope is that people are smart enough to look beyond all the mind-numbing spin and sort out, for example, that an accusation about flip-flopping on issues doesn’t mean a candidate is weak, subject to character lapses, indecisive or unfit to lead.

That’s what the Bush campaign operatives want voters to think. And they hope voters won’t remember that Bush opposed an independent commission to examine whether the 2001 terrorist attacks could have been prevented until he acquiesced to pressure from families of victims; that he argued against a Department of Homeland Security, then created one; or that he fought against, then ordered, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice’s testimony before the 9/11 Commission. Or that he denied the need for additional funding in Iraq, then asked Congress to approve a $25 billion contingency reserve fund to meet all military commitments to troops in Iraq; that he said as a candidate he’d force OPEC to lower its prices, then as president refused to lobby the cartel when U.S. gas prices began their upward climb; that he said weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, then admitted they weren’t; or that he pledged support for mandatory caps on carbon dioxide emissions as a candidate in 2000, yet as president said the government shouldn’t impose mandatory emissions reductions on power plants. Oh, and he said same-sex marriage is an issue states should decide in 2000, but in 2004 called for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

The truth is, both candidates have changed their positions. A bigger truth is, does anyone really want a leader who refuses to budge from a previous stance, even in the light of new information that make the previous position ill-advised, shortsighted and detrimental to the country’s standing in the rest of the world? There’s little to admire in such consistency.

I’d hate to go through life unable to admit when I’m wrong. Were that the case, I’d still be maintaining that even though strong businesses make their host communities strong, covering business would blur the lines between a newspaper’s editorial and advertising functions, and not at all an important function of community journalism. Misunderstandings with friends and families might have become humongous gulfs too treacherous to navigate. And, quite possibly, I’d still be wearing hip-hugging bell-bottomed jeans with parts of an American flag holding the rear end together.

Ordinary people figure they need to take a retrospective look at where their decisions landed them and change their minds if it’s an undesired place. Why do we expect less from our leaders?

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