I've been exhanging emails today with one of my favorite former students, now an Ivy-League collegian who had the opportunity to work as an intern on Joe Biden's campaign last year. He's a Biden fan. I admit, I also have a soft spot for "Slow Joe." He is one of the folks in politics who actually has big ideas, and makes great sense most of the time, especially on foreign policy. Of course, I don't share all his principles or premises, so I don't always agree with his conclusions. But no doubt, his entry into the presidential field makes it certain that the level of debate will be higher and more intelligent. (For the record, I think Newt Gingrich plays a similar role.) Unfortunately, Biden shares a character trait with me: he has a tendency for his mouth to run ahead of his brain. He made some news a couple of days ago when he said about Barack Obama, and the quote is loose, that he is "the first African American, who is articulate, and mainstream, and nice looking, and clean... that's storybook, man." Of course, the media and the usual suspects pounced on him: are you saying that all African-Americans are unclean? Are you saying Jesse Jackson is ugly, or filthy, or inarticulate? And don't even bring up Al Sharpton, who retorted, "you can tell him I take a bath every day."
Now here's the thing. I read that, and didn't think, "what a fool" or "what a racist." I thought, "poor Joe. You can't give them red meat like that." Of course, what he is saying is true at its core--Obama is the first African-American candidate who has a legitimate chance to win, and his personal attributes and background, including his unique transcendance of race, really are "storybook," which is one of the main reasons he does have a chance. But in this era of blogs (present company included) and youtube, every word any public figure says is guaranteed to be taken in the worst possible light by someone. And once that is done, you've got "news," and then the media will gladly run with it. Now, some of this is good--the wide-open nature of the "new media" allows for an opening up of the former monopoly on news once held by just a few "professionals." But I do find myself lamenting a simpler time when "the media" chose not to show pictures of FDR in his wheelchair because it just plain wasn't good for the country.
This doesn't mean that I want some amorphous "them" to decide what I get to see and hear. But I do wish some human charity were extended to the folks who aspire to public office. The bar is so high that many good people might ask, "who in their right mind wants that kind of treatment?" A few years ago, Trent Lott lost his senate leadership post because he said something nice about Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrat run for president in 1948. Now, he was just saying something kind about an old man on the occasion of his final birthday. I don't think anybody looks back with hindsight now and wishes Strom had won. Maybe a very few oldsters think Dewey should have, although old Harry Truman has been treated pretty kindly by history. But the news ran the "story" of Lott's "bombshell" until it took on a life of its own. In basketball, you would call either the Lott or the Biden quotes, "a good no-call." The world is full of no-calls and non-stories. I wish we (all of us) could stop nit-picking the unimportant stuff and spend time on substance.