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June 28th, 2017

Insight

'Tis the season -- of ill will

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published Oct. 13, 2014

  'Tis the season -- of ill will

It happens every two years, regular as the autumnal equinox. It has to -- by law. Specifically, by the Constitution of the United States. It's also an essential exercise in responsible, representative government in a free country: fair elections. And this isn't just a free country, but a rambunctious one, where elections can resemble a combination rodeo, mud race, rasslin' match and general name-calling contest. As they've been doing at least since 1800, when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson put aside their powdered wigs and came out swinging. Call this the Season of Ill Will, aka the fall elections.

And so, right on time, we get this nationwide seizure of attack and counterattack, smear and counter-smear. It can't be helped. Any more than some nice, perfectly ordinary man can help turning into a werewolf every full moon. Some of this season's candidates must feel a little like Lon Chaney Jr. in "The Wolf Man" and its various sequels, which started coming as regularly as mid-term elections. The first one included a Greek chorus of villagers who would regularly recite these warning lines:

Even a man who is pure in heart

and says his prayers by night

may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms

and the autumn moon is bright.

The warning is still apropos, for once again the time has come perfectly respectable politicians will turn into raving demagogues. Some have already begun the transformation. 'Tis the season when the nicest, kindest, most civil and respectful ladies and gentlemen start competing for public office -- and suddenly they turn into smear artists, saying the most unladylike, the most ungentlemanly things about each other. For beware, the full moon is bright these increasingly cold fall nights. And there are werewolves out there, or even inside your television set.

Earnest politicians by day can become crawling creatures of the night without warning. And there's not even a gypsy woman with a name like Maleva around to let them know what's about to happen to them. They may undergo the change with the all too willing help, or even at the urging, of those sorcerers' apprentices now known as political consultants or, more formally, Directors of Communications. Every candidate for high office must now employ a full complement of spokesflacks to explain away what the candidate really meant when he said all those awful things about his opponent -- and what a nice, basically simple country boy he really is.

Being a Deputy Asst. for Public Relations can cover a multitude of sins and campaign commercials. You know the type: hired hands without an over-developed regard for mere scruple. Their specialty is handling the kind of sleaze their nice respectable bosses wouldn't ordinarily dirty their hands with.

But, hey, it's campaign season -- and open season on details like the mere facts. Why confuse the poor, easily manipulated public? Just hand 'em the party line, appeal to their worst fears about a nominee of the other party, and wait for 'em to start baying like a pack of Pavlov's dogs at the right applause lines. It's not a pretty thing to see, mass hysteria. It's a bit like having to sit through a national political convention with all its carefully staged "spontaneous" demonstrations.

Happily, the law now says, quite properly, that the candidates themselves must publicly take responsibility for their political commercials, however sleazy. Some of the more respectable candidates must have to swallow awfully hard when they're obliged to endorse their own guff. But somehow they manage it.

As political ambition shifts into noisy first gear, like an 18-wheeler just starting out on a long-haul trip, it can easily overcome any sense of decorum in a public servant or anyone who aspires to be one. So he puts his self-respect into storage for the duration.

Why do they let themselves sink so low, some of our politicians? Maybe because they want that public office so much, even too much. Maybe it's an excess of political ambition, or just the pressure of competition. So does low ambition have the power to corrupt even the best of us.

'Tis the season when every political race seems to become a contest between a candidate's self-respect and his lust for political office. And all too often his self-respect -- and self-restraint -- loses. Some candidates withstand all the pressures and remain themselves, but too many good people start sounding like the worst.

Once passions ebb along with the heat of the campaign, and these candidates have to face up to what they've done, surely they won't be proud of it, not the best of them. Only after the election is history may an old lesson occur to them: No political office is worth risking self-respect.

But for now it's campaign season -- actually, just the start of the fall campaign season, though it's ticking away fast and you can feel the desperation setting in where some candidates are concerned. With the primaries mercifully behind us, now we enter the home stretch of this race on an already muddy track. And you know it'll get even worse before it gets better.

But it'll all be blessedly over election night, when the votes are counted and peace begins to descend. Till then it's whatever a candidate can get away with. So hold on tight. As that sage political scientist Bette Davis, speaking as Margo Channing in "All About Eve," put it: "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night!"

It's a great show, politics, but it can also be an all too revealing one. For a moral comes with every story. And 'tis the season for sad transformations. Few better tests of character have been devised than running for public office. It tends to show which of us which stick by our principles, or even common decency, and who'll buckle. And for what? The mess o'pottage known as public office.

But keep the good thought: Christmas is coming, however slow, and with it the season of good cheer. I for one can hardly wait for the holly and tinsel to start appearing, and even for that inescapable Little Drummer Boy to start humming in elevators, department stores and on radio stations with lots of air time to fill. It'll be a relief, all that peace on earth and good will toward men, and maybe, just maybe, ladies and gentlemen, even those in politics, will start acting like ladies and gentlemen again.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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