Waffling politicians on the campaign trail and misbehaving pols already elected? Not the same thing, James Warren

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 😉


  1. Anonymous August 29, 2010

    You can make excuses for lying during a campaign if you like, but the fact is that Mark Kirk, who’s been my congressman nearly 10 years, has been lying consistently since he first ran in 2000 and throughout his 5 terms. The only real news here is that the Chicago media ignored his lying and exaggerations until the NY and DC media, as well as cable TV, started reporting it, and then the Tribune, Sun-Times, and local TV stations had to follow or show just how biased their reporting is.

    Not only has Kirk consistently avoided the truth, but in this year’s race he has flip-flopped on all the centrist positions he pretended to take so that he could win a center-left district. Look up “hypocrite” in the dictionary and you just might find his photo – although he has a lot of Republican competition for the honor.

  2. Anonymous August 29, 2010

    The author here has made a mistake. He has accepted as fact the reporting of a journalist who misrepresented the fact. Its called blogging echo-chamber. The author here assumed that Robert Dold changed his position on the issue of abortion. The fact of the matter is that Mr. Dold has not changed his position on abortion and has been consistent throughout.

  3. Anonymous August 30, 2010

    Paul claims, “The fact of the matter is that Mr. Dold has not changed his position on abortion and has been consistent throughout.”

    Paul, nowhere in Warren’s column does he claim that Dold flip-flopped on abortion.

    Rather, Warren quite plainly lays out the fact that Dold has pivoted from claiming he was “the conservative choice” for the primary — including scooping up support from right-wing, anti-abortion groups like Eagle Forum and Illinois Right-to-Life — to now saying in his general election ads that he is “a social moderate”.

    That’s not flip-flopping. That’s saying two different things to two different audiences (ie, talking out of both sides of your mouth).

    Had Mr. Warren devoted his entire column to Bob Dold he likely could’ve gone into more detail, including salient points like how Dold said he is “more conservative than he lets on” to the Palatine/Arlington Heights Tea Party back in March.

    Mr. Warren might’ve also discussed how Dold posted on Facebook that he “agrees with” Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) who put out the ultra-conservative (and rather radically controversial) “Roadmap” plan last spring. Ryan’s roadmap includes such socially im-moderate proposals as:
    – privatizing Social Security
    – converting Medicare to a voucher scheme with vouchers that lose value the older you get
    – adding another few trillion to the national debt
    – and, of course, a reverse robin hood plan to boost taxes on the middle class in order to give yet more tax-cut giveaways to the super-wealthy

    Dold deleted that post a few hours after he made it public. Oops.

    You can look up absolutely all of these things… including how Dold deleted that Facebook post, never mentions the Right to Life support, etc.

    Paul, talking out of both sides of your mouth isn’t necessarily flip-flopping but it is just as ugly.

    There’s a reason the Daily Herald recently wrote that Dold’s campaign was using tactics that are “fundamentally dishonest”. (You can look that up too. It involves Dold staffers sockpuppeting on the Herald’s article comments sections.)

    As for Anna’s post here … I strongly doubt that anyone is going to come away from Warren’s column thinking that anti-corruption laws are too *strong* and that the laws are nabbing too many pols. If anything given the reaction to the recent Blago hung jury the public likely feels just the opposite — that the laws are too weak.

  4. Anna Tarkov August 30, 2010

    10th voter: It’s a very serious allegation to say that the Chicago media ignored lying on Mark Kirk’s behalf. You’d have to be more specific about your claims in order for me to judge whether there’s any merit to the accusation. You also say that our local media is biased as compared to the national media. Can you explain what you mean by that?

    Paul: I’m going to stay away from the issue of whether or not Dold “flip-flopped.” I’ll only say that I’m the one who used the term, Warren did not use it in his column. Indeed, as the next commenter pointed out, Warren didn’t say that Dold completely changed his position, just that he framed his views differently to different constituencies. On the topic of this being a blogging “echo chamber,” James Warren is not a blogger. More on him here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Warren_(journalist)

    Rob_N: Thank you for offering a reasonable, well thought-out comment. I hope you’re right about no one taking what Warren said to mean that our laws are too strict. Then again, it’s hard to account for the idiocy of people who truly think that Blago was the victim of a conspiracy to take him out of office for having done nothing wrong. Even the one juror who would not vote to convict on the charge of selling the Senate seat didn’t appear to be a raving loon based on the interview she gave to the Tribune, but simply someone who was not convinced.

  5. Anonymous August 31, 2010

    Anna, While I can’t speak for 10th Voter, I do agree that the Chicago-area media dropped the ball with regards to Mark Kirk’s now well-known history of exaggerating/ fibbing/ lying/ what-have-you.

    They did this either out of willful bias (as 10th suggests) or blissful ignorance wherein they chose not to investigate.

    I will also point out, as I often do when the topic of Kirk’s media coverage comes up, that one of Mr. Kirk’s current Senate campaign press secretaries is also a former Chicago Tribune beat reporter who covered 10th district politics for many years. Folks from Rich Miller to local bloggers questioned her impartiality from time to time when it came to articles about Mr. Kirk. As of her being hired by Kirk last year, we now know why.


  6. Anna Tarkov September 7, 2010

    There are many things the media misses. I can’t speak specifically to the Mark Kirk issues, but if things were overlooked or not closely investigated, it certainly wasn’t the first time and it likely won’t be the last. There are many reasons these things happen, with some reasons being better than others.

    As for this reporter who went to work for Kirk, it’s also not uncommon as I’m sure you know. Same as when a reporter goes into PR and might find themselves in the position of pitching their former colleagues. I believe it’s possible to maintain one’s integrity through all of this, but of course even that is somewhat subjective and we all know that a worker’s primary loyalty is usually to the people who sign their paychecks. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that of course; it’s just something to keep in mind.

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