Friday, February 02, 2007

Pick Your Poison: Unpolished Candor or Spin Doctored Political Correctness?

Almost before he has the chance to get started, Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Joseph Biden shot himself in the rhetorical foot with the following remarks in an interview with The New York Observer:

"I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. "

It is clear that this was a colossal blunder and - besides being patently false - reveals some underlying assumptions that - frankly - few of us can claim freedom from. Most of the commentary I've seen focuses on how Biden is off-base and how the rest of us should examine our own hearts for prejudice and stereotypes, even the most "progressive" among us.

I'd like to offer another angle on this issue, and that regards the transparency of our politicians in general. Simply, I think we as the public are hypocrites. We communicate a double standard to our candidates. On one hand, we want transparency, humility, and humanity. For example, we criticize Bush for a lack of humility in not admitting forthrightly that he has ever been wrong in his policies. We also complain that every glimpse of a candidate we see is so heavily spin doctored, edited, and screened that we never know if or when we are catching sight of the real person.

But then, from the other side of our mouth, we crucify politicians when they go on their own and subsequently make a mistake (or are even guilty of inarticulate phrasing). Sen. Kerry has already seen his possible '08 run torpedoed by one poorly executed joke, and now Biden - a credible candidate in many people's eyes - looks to face an even steeper uphill battle for saying something that - although poorly put - probably makes him much more like the average person than less.

We can't have it both ways. Do we want the real people, who will sometimes be messily human in their thinking, their logic, their imprecise wording, their prejudice and stereotypes, and their sinfulness (to use a "churchy" word)? Or do we want sound bytes and scripted appearances that are so heavily mediated by a staff of spin doctors that the public appearances may as well be made by their press secretaries or even robots? Do we demand transparency and perfection at the same time? Do we judge Biden on a career record that shows support of communities of color, or do we cross off his civil service career for one boneheaded comment?

[A parallel in the church is wanting transparency in our leaders, then thinking less of them (or running them off altogether) when they bear their hearts and show us that they are human and don't float 3 feet off the ground at all times.]

In the end, this doesn't mean we can't criticize Biden and even choose to withhold support from someone we feel does not represent the best of our values. But if we want to see the candidates as they really are, then we should be prepared for real, live humans to emerge from behind the veil of our media culture.


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