Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What a Long, Strange Trip It Is

When I was studying journalism in college, one thing my professors constantly told us was that it was essential for journalists to be unbiased, to maintain their balance when writing about the news.

There is a place for opinion, they told us. That is the editorial page.

Maybe they taught me that lesson too well, because there are times when I feel like Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof," mulling the pros and cons of his daughters' choices for husbands. Do you remember those scenes? Tevye would say to himself, "On one hand ..." then he would think of a counter–argument and say, "On the other hand ..." and then he would go back to the original side of the fence, saying, "On the other hand ..."

Like Tevye, I am running out of hands.

There is often ambiguity in news writing because, even though journalists would like to give their readers all the facts the first time, they seldom have the luxury of knowing all the facts. Sometimes it is months, or even years, before all the facts are known. A good example is the recently observed 35th anniversary of President Nixon's resignation. It took more than two years of old–fashioned investigative journalism before the extent of Nixon's involvement in the Watergate coverup became known.

A significant obstacle that confronts journalists didn't really have a convenient name when I started out as a general assignment reporter. But it does now. I refer to the concept of "spin."

Well, actually, I guess it did have a name in those days — "propaganda." I guess that's the sort of thing they studied a lot in public relations classes. In news writing classes, we didn't spend much time on propaganda — except discussing what it was and how to avoid it when we could.

But "spin" seems, somehow, to be a more accessible term for the practice of manipulating the public on issues and politicians.

Sarah Palin, for example, is good at that, as Richard Cohen observes in the New York Daily News. Cohen finds her tactics, now being called "Palinisms," troubling. He compares her rants against health care to Joe McCarthy's rants against Communists.

"For sheer disregard of the facts, her statement about President Obama's 'death panel' has to rank with McCarthy's announcement that 'I have here in my hand a list of 205' (or 57 or 72 or whatever) names of communists in the State Department," Cohen writes. "They were both false — McCarthy's by commission, Palin's probably by omission. She rarely knows her facts."

Well, that isn't too surprising, coming from a woman who claimed to be able to see Russia from her house in Alaska but couldn't say much about world governments when asked direct questions.

Nevertheless, Palin seems to have tapped into something on the health care issue. Those who are fearful of government intervention have rallied behind her, even though her overall approval ratings have fallen. That's good news for Democrats, who seem confident that Barack Obama can prevail over Palin if she is his opponent in 2012, and poll figures appear to support that contention.

But I keep reminding people that this is 2009, and Obama's party still needs to get through the midterm elections next year before gearing up for the president's re–election bid.

Some of my friends accuse me of engaging in anti–Obama propaganda when I say that I think Republicans will make gains in next year's elections. But I'm merely speaking from an historian's perspective. I minored in history when I was in college, and I know that the party that holds the White House almost always struggles in the midterm elections.

In fact, in my lifetime, only two presidents have avoided congressional losses in the midterm elections that were held after they took office. That has been true whether the president was elected by a narrow margin or a wide margin.

Spin it whichever way you will. Facts are facts.

When people protest that Obama was elected by wide margins in the popular and electoral votes, I remind them that Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 by wide margins but his party lost control of Congress two years later; that Ronald Reagan was elected by wide margins in 1980 but his party lost more than two dozen House seats in 1982; that Jimmy Carter won by relatively narrow margins in 1976 and his party lost 15 House seats and three Senate seats in 1978; that Richard Nixon's party lost a dozen House seats two years after he was elected president; that Lyndon Johnson won by a huge landslide less than a year after succeeding John F. Kennedy in 1963, but Democrats lost 48 House seats and three Senate seats in 1966.

These aren't my opinions. They're facts. In the last 17 midterm elections, the president's party has lost an average of 28 House seats and four Senate seats.

Obama supporters also have criticized me for saying that his stratospheric approval numbers could not be sustained. Again, this was historical perspective talking. I've seen many presidents who took office with high approval numbers, but they dropped once the president began governing. The decline is more precipitous for some than it is for others, but some have had farther to fall.

Arthur C. Brooks of the Wall Street Journal tries to explain why Obama's numbers are dropping. He makes some interesting points, but the truth is that it happens to every president. Some people insist on seeing it as racist in nature. I'm not so naive that I don't think there may be elements of racism involved, but I think that is too simplistic an answer. It's a convenient scapegoat for supporters of this president.

But that brings me to something that I read earlier today. My pastor has his own blog, and he wrote today about the "lunatic fringe" and his concerns that some people are getting whipped up into a frenzy that could lead to an assassination attempt.

No matter who the president is, no matter whether I agree with him or not, I have never felt that violence was the answer. Not in a democracy. Not in a nation that is supposed to be free.

But last year, before anyone knew whether Obama or Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic nominee (and I remember saying this even before it was clear that John McCain would be the Republican nominee), I told people — and I wrote in this blog — that the next vice president would be crucial.

Between 1841 and 1974, nine vice presidents became president because the incumbent president died or resigned. That's roughly one every 15 years. It's now been 35 years since the last time that happened so, from an historical standpoint, we're long overdue.

If McCain was elected, I said last year, it was not inconceivable to think a man in his 70s would not live to complete his four–year term. And if Obama or Clinton won, I said, the chances were pretty good that someone would try to assassinate the first black or the first woman president.

Consequently, I said, the selections of running mates had the potential to be extremely important, and I urged people to consider the running mates when they were deciding which presidential candidate to support because the next vice president could easily be president before the next presidential election is held.

Well, we now know the identity of the next vice president — Joe Biden. I hope he doesn't have to assume the burdens of the presidency, but I hope he is prepared to do so if the need comes up.

I don't always agree with Obama, but I don't want to see anyone kill him.

I don't know if my pastor would be shocked if it happened, but it wouldn't surprise me. America is not as post–racial as many people would like to believe.

And the lunatic fringe is just as looney as it has ever been.

That's no spin. Just fact.

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