Final Ethics Alarms on the Coakley-Brown Race: Fairness and Honesty Take a Holiday

Some concluding Ethics Alarms from the Brown-Coakley Senate race, many with the same dispiriting lesson: hyper-partisan zealotry is causing many Americans to abandon their senses of fairness, proportion, and common sense :

  • Respect is overdue to those in the Tea Party movement. Beginning with Speaker Nancy Pelosi dismissing the grass roots uprising as “Astroturf” and reaching its nadir with CNN anchor Anderson Cooper and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow belittling the protesters with the gay slang moniker “tea-baggers,” a genuine populist protest movement has been labled phony, sinister and worse. It is certainly true that some unsavory groups, including racists and “Birthers,” have been riding the Tea Party coat tails, but this is the nature of such things: genuine opponents of the Iraq war had their protests swelled by anti-American groups, anarchists and fans of terrorism, too. Scott Brown’s victory proved that the Tea Party movement is not a Fox News creation, and that like them or not, these are politically-engaged Americans who deserve to be heard and respected. The networks and news media can begin with a clean slate by banning “tea-baggers” as a mean-spirited slur, which it is.
  • This time it was the Democrats and liberals using cynical tactics. Coakley supporters and Left-end bloggers kept emphasizing the Cosmopolitan Magazine nude fold-out lark that stud-muffin law student Scott Brown posed for when he was a comely twenty-two, as if they were the stereotypical conservative prudes, not Republicans. On Chris Matthews’ “Hardball,” for example,  heads of two national women’s rights groups expressed outrage that the nude pose hadn’t cost Brown dearly at the polls. “Why?,” Matthews asked. Well, they said, if a female candidate had so-posed, it would have made a big difference, so it was a “double standard.” But they would have felt it wrong for a female candidate to be criticized for a grad school fold-out, right? Well, of course! Both liberal advocacy groups believe that a woman has the absolute right to express her sexuality. And has any female candidate actually been subjected to this abhorrent double standard? Uh, no.  Summary: two groups that would fiercely defend a woman from attacks on her fitness to govern based on her student nude photo want a man to be pilloried for the same non-offense, to defy a theoretical double standard that has yet to manifest itself. Or to put it another way, “We’re imposing our own unfair double standard in response to the unfair double standard we’re sure others would apply if they ever had the chance.” As when Michael Steel recently tried to use silly, Left-style political correctness complaints against Harry Reid recently, this just looks dishonest, petty, and mean, because it is dishonest, petty and mean. And what does a photo taken when a candidate was a law student have to do with a Senate race decades later or an individual’s ability to govern? Nothing.
  • Winner Scott Brown showed grace and respect by saluting the late Ted Kennedy in his victory speech, the right thing to do. Not so right, but certainly not worthy of serious criticism, was his awkward declaration that his two marriage-age daughters were “available.” Fox commentator Glenn Beck somehow saw something sinister in this remark, which says much more about him than it does about Brown. Then liberal bloggers, who think Glenn Beck is Satan in a suit, cited him as authority for the proposition that Brown’s Tevye impression was an ominous gaffe!
  • Thanks to Martha Coakley’s otherwise dignified concession speech, I was reminded that “You can’t win them all” is often used as a rationalization for a lack of diligence and competence, to escape responsibility and accountability. The age-old saw can spin as “just bad luck” disappointing outcomes that were absolutely avoidable if everyone had done their job. No, you can’t win them all, but you should win every time you are 30 points up in the polls, running as a Democrat in a state where Republicans are as scarce as Florida panthers. But if it makes you feel better, Martha…
  • One of the desperate anti-Brown attacks, facilitated by, of all people, New York Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman, was a YouTube clip of a 2008 Brown interview in which he was defending Bristol Palin’s unwed motherhood at 18. When Brown noted that Barak Obama’s mother was also 18 at his birth,  the interviewer interjected “And married!” Brown began his next statement with “I don’t know about that,” and then moved on to finish talking about Palin. Incredibly, Krugman and others cited the video as proof that Brown had “suggested” that Obama was born out-of-wedlock. It was a dishonest, unfair and, again, cynical characterization of what was actually said and in what context: 1) Brown was defending an unwed mother in the interview. Even if he had been making an assertion about Obama’s birth, it wouldn’t have been a negative one.   2) Liberals generally have no moral objection to out-of-wedlock childbirth, so they would not regard such an assertion as negative. If it wasn’t negative, what would be the matter with Brown making it, if he did make it? 3) Obama had no control over his mother’s marital status, so such an assertion would not be intended as critical of Obama. 4) “I don’t know about that” cannot possibly be a positive or a negative assertion, “suggesting” anything.  5) He was correct!  Obama’s autobiography reveals that his father had another wife when he married Obama’s mother. Obama’s mother certainly thought she was married, but is the second marriage of a bigamist legally valid? I don’t know about that. Do you? Brown didn’t either. So what was this video clip supposed to prove that was so damaging to Brown? It’s evident that Krugman and the rest thought that they could use any sort of doubt expressed about the circumstances of President Obama’s birth to link Brown to the deranged “Birthers” in the G.O.P nut bin in the minds of undecided voters. It didn’t seem to bother them that this impression would be completely wrong.
  • On the partisan radio and TV blow-hard front: Rush Limbaugh won the award for most unfair accusation and the cheapest shot. He suggested on his radio show that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was a racist because he was cordial and welcoming to white Scott Brown as he entered the Senate, but tried to block black Sen. Roland Burris when he came to Washington months ago. “Burris, of course is dark-skinned and has a “Negro dialect,” Limbaugh said accusingly, referencing Reid’s reported remarks in the new book Game Change about Obama’s electability. This is as mean-spirited and misleading as it gets. Sen. Reid welcomed Brown because he had been duly elected. Reid was less-welcoming of Burris because he had been appointed by an about-to-be-impeached governor who had made it known that the Senate seat was for sale. Reid was quite appropriately suspicious that Burris’s appointment was tainted, as indeed it was. Limbaugh knows all this, making his innuendo thoroughly despicable, and even more so considering how indignant Limbaugh has been over accusations that he is a racist. The incivility prize went, as it often does, to the cartoonish Keith Olbermann, who never will let fairness or decorum interfere with a good, hateful rant. Here’s what he said about Brown on election day: “In Scott Brown we have an irresponsible, homophobic, racist, reactionary, ex-nude model, tea bagging   supporter of violence against women and against politicians with whom he disagrees.” To his credit, MSNBC colleague Joe Scarborough took him to task, though via the mild route of Twitter, writing, “Just as when Beck called the President racist, this sort of rhetorical extremism must be discouraged. It cheapens the debate.” Jon Stewart, on “The Daily Show,” also called a foul on Olbermann for his invective. Good for them.

And good for all those in the media, public and both political parties who managed to stay fair, dignified, respectful, candid and honest before the election, as well as those who avoided gloating, blame-shifting and spinning after it.

There weren’t enough of them.

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