And forgive us our politics

3 Sep

We’re getting to the point that, if a politician or candidate should happen to cough without covering his mouth or sigh when people expected her to smile, the media leap on the glitch as if it were a federal case. Perhaps it’s time that we be a bit more forgiving of all our political leaders no matter what party they’re from.

For one thing, they’re human. They WILL make mistakes. Who hasn’t? Who doesn’t?

Second, our political leaders are products of their own eras and environments. Some historians point out that Abraham Lincoln may have denounced slavery but never promoted equality of the races. That’s lamentable, indeed, but remember that Lincoln was living in a time and a world that was very different from our own; to judge him on the basis of what WE live with all the time is not quite right. Simply freeing the slaves was an enormous and risky step forward in a nation torn apart by its divided beliefs on the question. We’d like to think Lincoln came to believe that people of all races are created equal and endowed by their creator with the same inalienable rights, but, unfortunately, he didn’t live long enough for us to see much about how his thought would have developed along those lines.

Third, the media and the satirists — with the happy collusion of the masses of people who really don’t want to pay very much attention to the way their government and their politics work — tend to pick on the dumb things the candidates do or say that probably have little to do with those people’s big-picture abilities. Those gaffes become the identifying features people remember about their leaders and with which they stereotype them: Gerald Ford was clumsy; Jimmy Carter was so timid he was afraid of swimming rabbits; Dan Quayle was so dumb he couldn’t spell potato; Al Gore was so boastful he said he invented the Internet. We could even put Big Bill’s “that depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is” into this category, although his hair-splitting had more real consequences than the other stuff cited here.

Reporters who follow campaigns and hear the same things day after day after day tend to pounce on ANYTHING that’s “new” and make that “news.” Late-night comedians — and their brethren in the print media and the blogs — as well as the stridently partisan promoters on all sides of an issue amplify those things until they overshadow everything else a candidate stands for and supports or an elected leader supports and has accomplished.

Americans need to pay more attention to the context and the big picture when it comes to these political folks. Of course, we should not let them get by with virtual murder. And it’s true that, sometimes, what is just too much for you may be OK for me and vice versa. But we need to judge our politicians and elected officials on more than the last sound bite or political cartoon or easy stereotype.


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