If there is any other reason to be sick and tired of the presidential election campaign aside from the fact it has gone on longer than America’s participation in World War I, it is the sudden emergence of the speech police ready to parse every remark for political correctness.
Thus, Hillary Clinton’s mention of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination is regarded as not only a serious breach of campaign protocol that not only required an immediate apology but now may make her seriously unacceptable to join Barack Obama on the Democratic ticket. Add to that her statement in Florida where she compared disenfranchised voters to those in Zimbabwe and her lack of racial sensitivity is certified.
Are we nuts? Well, of course we are and to make things worse, we are going to get nuttier before there’s a chance to end it all and return to some sanity with a ballot in November. By then we will be unable to mention that Obama takes his coffee (if you will excuse my own insensitivity) black or symbolically adds milk without being accused of a slur on the fact he is half and half. It will be, as my mother used to say, a time to walk on eggs. The best course of action may be to feign some sort of mental disability or just remain mute through the entire ordeal.
We are approaching the 40th anniversary of Kennedy’s tragic death after clinching the California primary. Remembrances of that horrible night in June 1968 have been exacerbated by the news that Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, the remaining son of the original political dynasty, is facing an uncertain future because of a brain tumor — if I am allowed to mention that. It was in this context that Clinton observed that it is not unusual for the nomination not to be decided until this late in the process. Her own husband’s nomination wasn’t sealed until June and Kennedy was killed in June while campaigning, she said, in reply to a newspaper editorial board’s question about why she was resisting pressure to drop out of the race (oops).
Obama’s agents immediately saw an opportunity to pounce on her, perhaps in hopes of raising another red flag to those who are quietly pushing for her to become their boss’s running mate. Why she is suggesting, they said, that Obama might meet the same fate as Kennedy, assuring her of the nomination. The national press took up Obama’s cudgels and Clinton found herself apologizing for uttering an historic fact and explaining that the Kennedy family had been much on her mind of late, certainly not surprising. One notoriously inaccurate, over-the-hill analyst on national radio accused her of having a “tin ear.”
One obviously should not use the “A” word lest it encourage some crazy out there. But in reality Clinton’s innocently stated reference about a past tragedy on the eve of its anniversary is hardly as stimulating to that hideous scenario as the number of stories previously written about the constant fear of it taking place.
When stories appeared nationally several months ago about the dangers involved for every candidate but particularly the first African American with a chance to become president, I couldn’t help thinking that this public speculation might not be the best thing. It’s naove not to believe that ideas can get planted firmly in certain elements in a society wallowing in firearms and hate.
But that is another problem. What is difficult to understand is the constant effort to turn every phrase, every word uttered no matter how innocently or for that matter correctly into a national indictment of the person who said it. Obviously with Obama in the picture, the inclination to assign never intended motives to every utterance is bound to be stronger. The mention of an African country where voters have seen their wishes thwarted by the longtime ruling party is an example. It is contended that a completely fair comparison is really a racial slur. Please.
People often say things differently than they mean them. It is excusable, particularly if there is no past record of insensitivity. In the heat of a campaign there will be any number of opportunities to make a mountain out of a molehill or to twist and misinterpret on both sides. The impulse to do that should be resisted if we are to get through this political hurricane without badly dividing the country. The speech police should go away.
(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)