Jun 19 2006

Looking at people, in parts

Published by at 6:48 pm under Idaho

Since the e-mail was addressed not to this blog but to a personal address, we’ll not note here the writer’s name, other than with the description (obvious enough) of, supporter of Bill Sali. (If the writer wishes to come unmasked, a sign-on in the comments section would be welcome.) It was aimed as a simple blast in response to recent posts about Sali and his campaign, but it contained a center that involves a political argument – one that we think ought not to be a political argument. Hence, worth discussion.

We’ll not re-reference the Sali posts here (run down through recent Idaho category posts and you’ll find them easily enough); suffice to say that there are criticisms, implicit and explicit, of Sali in several. Here’s the text of the e-mail:

I want to thank both you and [Idaho Statesman columnist] Dan Popkey for your “Hate Bill Sali” campaign.You two democrats are doing more to solidify the Sali political base than anyone else. Bill is a decent family man and a moral upstanding citizen who dares to sometimes question another politician. For that, you two spread your hate venom and half truths about him. You are losing all credibility as so called journalists.

The central sentence – the basis of the outrage and the purported reason for the criticism – is of course, “Bill is a decent family man and a moral upstanding citizen who dares to sometimes question another politician.” We’ll be hearing this again, put in various ways, and so it’s worth a closer look.

Let’s take it in order.

To the argument “Bill is a decent family man” we can say only: We have no idea whether he is or not. And: How can you possibly know?

By way of that, a personal note.

A few weeks ago my mother passed away; my father preceded her about a decade ago. They were married, happily, for close to 50 years. I spent my first 18 years living with them, and a good deal of time visiting in the years since. After a half-century, I should know them about as well as anyone can. But how well is that? I had one impression of their marriage when I was growing up. That was altered somewhat through my adult years, seeing them with adult eyes. After my father died, my sense shifted again as my mother recalled her years with her husband. More recently, as she approached death, and as my sister and I reflected on our parents, and talked with other people who had known them, my sense of the dynamic of their marriage was altered again. How perfectly do I estimate I know them now? Not perfectly.

How well do you know your neighbor down the street – the one you talk to regularly? How well do you really think you understand what goes on (in the title of a song my folks always enjoyed) behind closed doors?

Ask, for that matter, a partner in a marriage how perfectly they understand their own partner, and their own marriage. If they’re honest, they’ll admit to not knowing it all. The truth is, no one does – we even know ourselves only but so well.

So is Bill Sali a “decent family man”? Maybe he is. We have no idea, and we will say conclusively that neither does anyone outside the Sali household. Maybe not even there: And that’s no comment on the Salis – we could say the same about the Grants or the Simpsons or the Hansens – but rather on human beings.

This gets political because politicians are so often touted as good family people. In recent Northwest politics, maybe no one was more strenuously hyped that way than Washington Democrat Brian Baird was in the campaigns leading up to his 1998 win of a U.S. House seat (which he still holds). His commercial spots were full of pictures about the loving, handholding couple and their devotion to their kids. Two days after Baird’s election, they announced the divorce – just about no one else had had a clue. And if you think that’s an unusually strong case, you shouldn’t; the disparity between image and reality often smacks hard. You don’t have to follow many of those depressingly familiar headlines out of Washington, especially those about members of Congress, to see it. (You think family member testimony, especially pre-election, is golden? Ask Mary Baird. Do you want a list of Idaho spouses we could add to her name?)

So pardon us if we discount the “family man” goodness. As qualification for Congress, it ranks roughly alongside Sali’s skill as a musician (which, in contrast, actually is demonstrable and evidently quite real).

Part two: “A moral upstanding citizen.” Does Sali fit here?

It may depend partly on what you mean by “moral” – Sali’s definition of the word, and the e-mailer’s, may and probably does differ from ours. Many people have a bad habit of defining morality to render their own actions A-OK and those other things, things they have no interest or inclination to do, as being bad and immoral. (We call it grocery-list morality.) Many people base their definition of “morality” on a reading of the Bible, but those often are selective readings: In some quarters, certain angry sentiments on the part of Paul and imagery in the book of Revelations tend to get a whole lot of emphasis, the book of Leviticus gets swept under the rug, and the teachings of Jesus used selectively as convenient. How does that compare to Sali’s version of morality? To yours? To ours?

Morality is a reasonable subject in a political campaign. But if it’s to be used, it should be not a club used for defense or attack – as is so often the case – but as a doorway into exploring what we think is right and wrong, and why. That would be a fine subject for a congressional campaign. We’d invite Bill Sali, and his opponents, to wade deeply into it. We’re not holding our breath, of course; the results of such an exploration might not be what one expects.

The last word there – “citizen” – is also worth some serious consideration. On one level, and to a point, Sali has been an “upstanding citizen” in the literal sense: He has stood for public office, repeatedly, something most of us don’t do. hre has gotten into the arena, and he has scrapped for the ideas that he appears to believe in. (We have, at least, no evidence of insincerity.)

But when you undertake a job as a citizen, at whatever level, there’s a responsibility that goes with it, to do the job, of behalf of the people, well. Our longstanding contention has been, for example, while citizens have a duty to vote, they also have a duty to cast educated and thoughtful votes – and if they cannot cast such a vote, they should pass. To do otherwise would be irresponsible.

Do we really have to recite the record, again, on how Sali stacks up here? If need be, search our earlier posts – or almost any random collection of news stories about him over the last 16 years. This is, in any event, central territory over which his fitness for Congress should be evaluated.

The third part falls to pieces fastest: When this site sets about praising a politician, or anyone else in a political sphere, as often as not it is precisely because the person has “dared to question.” In itself, we think that can be a wonderful thing to do – we question political acts, policies, systems, ideas and more most of the time – and we don’t see it as particularly rare. (Daring to question Sali and his supporters evidently is less virtuous.) What has Sali questioned? What new answers has he found? His campaign hasn’t much seen fit to give us the bill of goods. What we’ve seen more often than questioning, however, is a legislative version of tantrum-throwing. Legislators – Sali’s colleagues – tend not to mind being questioned, but they do tend to disapprove of discourtesy.

Besides that, any action depends to some extent on its context and consequences: To cry “fire” in a crowded theatre would be criminal if there were no fire, but possibly essential if there were.

So? A look to Sali’s record would be instructive here, too . . . but maybe even more so, a look to his ongoing and upcoming campaign.

At least, when we talk about such things as on-record statements and performance in office – and these, not personal reactions (we don’t dislike him personally) form the raw material for our evaluation of him – we have something concrete to talk about. If Sali’s defenders care to do a counter-analysis of his record in office, using hard facts to build a case that he has been a good overall legislator and done a solid job serving the needs of the people of his district and his state, that would surely be worth considering. It might be a daunting challenge.

The fact that it hasn’t been forthcoming thus far – communications about the candidate instead focusing on what a moral family man he is – is more than a little telling, and says more than our posts could.

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