Postman on Politics
Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.
October 19, 2007 11:27 AM
Posted by David Postman
Yesterday in my UW political reporting class (teaching, not taking) we were talking about when bloggers become public figures. Stefan Sharkansky and Eli Sanders were our guests. A student was grilling Sharkansky, who said he didn't think his non-blog life should be considered open to public purview. Sanders disagreed, saying that as someone who makes a habit of calling out politicians about all sorts of things, including their personal lives, that Sharkansky should expect at times the same in return.
I said that if I was spotted downtown stumbling drunk, I wouldn't be surprised to find mention of that on the Slog. And I didn't say, but thought when I was reading about Venus Velazquez, that if I were ever arrested for DUI, or anything else, that would make the local blogs and maybe even a newspaper or two.
I write about this now because I was reading Joel Connelly's column in the P-I today. He's uncomfortable with the attention given the arrests of three local politicians. I tend to agree with Joel that
our campaigns have become sidetracked into a) what candidates did when they were young, b) business and legal clients, c) the stretching of guilt by association and d) squabbles over contribution reports.
The press can get bogged down in guilt by association and petty complaints about contribution reports. In fact, I've been thinking I spend too much time on some of those things myself. But I'm not sure I agree about "business and legal clients." That can be pretty important. I want to know what a candidate did and how he or she operated before entering the public arena. To mash up some clichés, throwing your hat in the ring doesn't give you a blank slate. That's not how the world works. We are a whole of our parts, the good and the bad, and in writing about politicians we should look for that full picture. And that can include youthful indiscretions.
Joel's column was prompted by City Council candidate Velazquez's arrest for driving drunk. He had declined an invitation to go along with the candidate for an after-debate round of drinks that eventually led to her arrest. Velazquez's troubles follow County Councilwoman Jane Hague's DUI bust and City Councilman Richard McIver's arrest on domestic violence charges.
It's not a pretty picture for squeaky-clean Seattle. But I think Joel wants to pretty up politics too much. He writes about the good old days, when a reporter watched the late Sen. Warren Magnuson gulp down glasses of vodka. The unnamed scribe apparently didn't share that with readers. Joel says the good Magnuson did in office out-weighed the need to report on "how the senator spent his non-business hours."
The same argument was made about former Sen. Brock Adams, who in his non-business hours was harassing and molesting women and in one case allegedly even drugged and raped a woman. Prominent people apparently knew of his "problem" but even after the allegations were made public, some party stalwarts said the good senator should stay in office. As one put it
"In 40 years, Brock Adams has not taken a single bum vote. ... Why in the world would we lose this precious resource?"
This isn't about wanting only bland candidates, or those clean of human frailty and failings. As John McCain told a small group of reporters on the Straight Talk Express in 2000, "I believe in redemption. I have to — I'm a deeply flawed person." I think the mainstream press coverage of McIver, Hague and Velazquez has been fair and mostly restrained. (Withstanding, of course, the P-I's banner play of Velazquez today.) Some blogs may have gone too far with the news. But I don't want us to show restraint only because we fear what partisan blogs might do with the news we uncover.
We should never — ever — make light of drunken driving or spousal abuse. But I'm still disposed to ask: Have we become so preoccupied with purifying the pond that we're killing all the water lilies?
In my book, a single arrest doesn't automatically disqualify someone from public office. (And there have yet to be trials on any of these charges.) But if a politician is found to have driven drunk or hit his wife, who are we to tell voters they shouldn't use that as the sole deciding factor in who to vote for? Who wants to tell a victim of domestic violence that? Or the family of someone killed by a drunk driver?
Is the suggestion that we don't report these events and let them become colorful pieces of history like Maggie's heavy drinking? Do we report it at the second DUI, or only when there is a fatality involved? Do we wait until we, the media, decide that a politician's public good no longer outweighs what happens in the "non-business hours"?
If you're in office, or running for office, and you're arrested, you should assume that will make news. It should be news. Not a disqualifier necessarily, but part of the picture that we in the media should bring to the public. It's up to them, not us, to read the scales and decide how much weight it deserves.
MORE: Seattlest Seth has a personal take on the Velazquez arrest.
Possibly the only good thing to come out of this is that, because she refused to take a breathalyzer test, Velazquez' license is suspended for a year.
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