POLITICS: The 'Issues' Issue


by and

THE "ISSUES" ISSUE Two participants in local politics have importuned me about the issue of “issues” in coverage of this week’s city election -- which will be history by the time some of you read this column. Both of fhe two interlopers have a worthy perspective, but they come from opposite directions. One, who follows candidates and campaigns seriously, contends that the Flyer‘s pre-election review was too heavy on what, in the parlance of the trade, is called “horse-race” coverage and not attentive enough to the substantive issues set forth by the contenders. The other complainant, himself a candidate for a council position, lamented that some of his opponents were able to get too much attention for issues -- two instances of which he characterized as “metaphysical musings” and “five-point baloney.” This candidate, who disdained accepting any campaign donations, insisted that “the real issues” were those of “independence and common sense,” which he professes, no doubt accurately, to own in abundance. To deal briefly with both complaints, neither of which is without merit: I have been, and continue to be, a defender of -- nay, a proponent of -- horse-race coverage: i.e., that sort which attempts to render how well the candidates in a given race are doing vis-ˆ-vis each other by a number of different yardsticks: fundraising, poll results, direct encounters, etc. Superficially, this might look superficial -- and it invariably does so, for example, to the sort of candidate who goes looking (again, in the parlance of the trade) for “free media” -- the sort one doesn’t have to pay for to be broadcast, printed, or delivered door to door by the candidate’s cadres. If one can attract the attention of a columnist or a TV news reporter and reach the public that way, goes the thinking, who needs to raise money or put together a campaign organization? And there’s the rub. Ours is a representative system of government. Candidates for office are not necessarily The Best and the Brightest -- an instructive allusion to David Halberstam’s famous tome by that name, concerning the wizards who got us into Vietnam and kept us there, at the expense of much blood and treasure. The demands of raising money and summoning supporters are much truer tests of a candidate’s aptitude for office than whether he or she is bright enough to spend a few days at the computer waxing brilliant on issues that will look good on paper. Maybe they are good, in fact, but unless a candidate has the benefit of some sort of obvious consensus, (a) that candidate cannot be elected so as to implement these ideas; and (b) that candidate cannot function on behalf of them if elected; and (c) that is as it should be in a representative system as against -- what? A meritocracy whose members are hand-picked by the press? And, to look at the value of horse-race coverage another way: We elect people, not position papers. My favorite way of putting this is to imagine: which person would we have preferred to see in office at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962? JFK, the hero of PT 109? Or Ted Sorenson, the brilliant intellectual who wrote his speeches and policy statements? Even more precisely, we elect the people who support the people we elect. And, yes, of course, this latter fact, means that some ugly money (and some ugly supporters) get into the act. That’s homo sapiens for you. And it’s also why campaign finance laws continually need to be revamped. But it’s a necessary evil of democracy. And it’s why claims of “independence” are, at best, two-edged.
  • Whether as a sideshow to the city election or as an issue in its own right, the question of what to do with The Pyramid was scheduled to be revisited on Wednesday of this week by the Shelby County Commission. Commissioner John Willingham, one of Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton’s opponents, called a meeting of the Public Service and Tourism committee which he chairs to consider Mayor Herenton’s intentions concerning a Willingham-sponsored resolution, passed by both the commission and the city council, authorizing Lakes, Inc. of Minnesota to conduct a study of converting The Pyramid into a casino. The mayor -- “who has the sole contractual power for the city,” said Willingham -- hasn’t signed off on the idea, and the commissioner wanted to know why. Was Herenton waiting until after the election? Did he envision a floating casino proposal instead? And, if he did endorse the Pyramid conversion process, did he have special conditions in mind? “We think he’ll ask for minority participation at a 40 percent level, with a $10 million fee to guarantee it,” said Willingham, who said he was looking into the matter because, “There are going to be some people who think that I’m some stupid sap that doesn’t understand what’s going on.” Gale Jones Carson, the mayor’s spokesperson, said that Herenton had been advised by city attorney Robert Spence to hold off authorizing the contract until some unspecified issues had been clarified and added that she was unaware of any timetable or alternate concept favored by the mayor.
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