I’m somewhat of a fan of the Chicago News Co-op.
Their Twitter feed is one of a bunch that I have on mobile alert, I admire them for hiring the best and the brightest, for doing regional stories that Richard Longworth (another ex-Tribune lifer) would applaud, for having interesting ideas about making money from news content and overall for being a small, but quite nimble news shop that does both breaking news and longer stories well.
However, this James Warren column is a miss. The headline is true enough. It is indeed easy to mess up as a politician. And though Warren doesn’t exactly comment on how we should feel about that, it’s something we can agree on. Politicians are under a microscope and every move can be judged to be an error.
Getting more into it though, it’s clear that the “messing up” that Warren refers to runs the gamut from fudging a few facts to full out corruption. This is itself a problem, but we’ll get back to that in a moment.
Since we now realize that what is being talked about is not just overall public scrutiny, but law-breaking in some cases, is it not worrisome that Warren puts in the headline how “easy” it is to go astray? If it is easy to go astray, then maybe that means the laws are too rigorous. After all, everyone breaks the speed limit, right? You can hopefully see the problem with this kind of thinking and while I don’t think everyone who reads Warren’s piece will began to think that way, some might. This kind of thing is the responsibility of the journalist, whether he is a beat reporter or a columnist. Unless I missed it, nowhere in the piece does the author hedge against the possibility that someone will read it as “well, it’s really tough to stay honest in politics, so we might as well not even try.”
What he does do though is conflate the half-truths and wobbly positions we see from pols on the campaign trail with malfeasance once in office. Warren begins by talking about office-seekers Robert Dold, a congressional candidate in the north suburbs, and Mark Kirk who is vying for the Senate. Dold has, according to Warren, flip-flopped on abortion while Kirk has been caught misremembering his military past. Eventually, Dold, Kirk, Blagojevich, Pat Quinn and others are mentioned in a single breath and this is really the crux of the problem.
Political campaigning is not the same as governing once elected. This is Politics 101. While there are laws governing political campaigns, I don’t believe there’s anything on the books that requires a candidate to hold fast to issue positions. If there was, almost no one would be fit to run for office. So Dold’s alleged changes of mind regarding abortion done for political expediency? Yes and yes. Now, is the sky also blue?
Kirk mis-characterized his military record to enhance his reputation with voters? Call the authorities! Next you’re going to tell me that politicians sometimes exaggerate something about themselves, while downplaying something else. And maybe they even take credit for things they didn’t do at times? I’m shocked!
The point I’m hopefully making is that we all expect politicians to be less than forthright while campaigning. We do the same in our private lives. Have you ever gone on a job interview and professed your love for two hour lunches and taking sick days while not actually sick? I didn’t think so. Once both you and candidates for office get the job though, you relax a bit. You still have to perform and be accountable, but now you’re in. Now you can stop showing off and getting everyone to like you. You still want them to like you enough to keep the job (or get re-elected), but the honeymoon is over and the real work begins.
Being in office and “messing up” is quite a different matter. Here you’re playing fast and loose not just with voters’ expectations, but with taxpayer dollars and a great deal more which is not measurable.
Now for my own hedge. All this is not to say that it’s ok to lie your ass off on the campaign trail and then become a saint once elected. The ideal is of course to lie as little as possible in all your dealings. But there is a certain school of political thought that says that the ends justify the means and if you want to do good and change the world, you have to win office first. Or you could become a journalist. But let me warn you that that vocation is a lot less lucrative than politics 😉