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posted: 7/26/2012 5:00 AM

Amid campaign heat, be vigilant to keep your cool

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Today I want to pick up on a theme the Daily Herald raised a little more than two weeks ago with an editorial titled "Duckworth, Walsh and the politics of gotcha."

In that editorial, we spoke mostly about Duckworth -- 8th District congressional candidate Tammy Duckworth -- and Walsh -- incumbent 8th District Congressman Joe Walsh. They were at the center of a national mini-storm following insensitive comments Walsh had made regarding Duckworth's references to her military record.

I want now -- about a month before the Republicans and Democrats hold their national conventions -- to concentrate on the "politics of gotcha," which goes way beyond one congressional race. I'm sure you're well aware of this, and I suspect it has a lot to do with the miserable voter turnout at the polls, not to mention the pitifully low esteem in which Americans tend to hold their elected officials. And, yet, they, the politicians, continue to do it. It might almost be considered willful malfeasance but for one sad truth: it works.

Here's a statement on the process that seems relevant. See if you can name the famous politician who said it:

"One of the expedients of party to acquire influence, within particular districts, is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heart-burnings, which spring from these misrepresentations."

Yes, it was George Washington, decrying in his famous Farewell Address the rise of party affiliations in American politics. Washington went on to complain that the "spirit of party" can distract a citizen's loyalty from his country to his political associates, leading to a broad array of dangers to the strength and unity of the nation.

"A fire not to be quenched," Washington said, "it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume."

I've no desire here to decry the evil of political parties, but as a newspaperman, I'm drawn to Washington's thoughts by email that arrives unbidden to my computer nearly every day from both political parties. It comes in the guise of "news releases" bearing headlines like this one from the Democrats: "Congressman Dold to Protect Own Government Health Care For Life" -- followed immediately by successive releases with the same headlines and "stories" but only the names of the targeted GOP congressman changed, to Walsh then Judy Biggert then Randy Hultgren. Or this one from Republicans: "Duckworth's Party's Legacy: Disappointing Job Numbers, Failed Leadership, and Broken Promises / Illinoisans Struggle to Find Work in Dismal Economic Conditions and a Dwindling Manufacturing Sector."

In every case, the releases go on to greatly distort the position of the targeted politician and deliberately ignore any nuance in the candidate's point of view. One hardly expects objective thoroughness, of course, but the degree to which these communications go to stain an opponent with statements that are true in only the most technical sense is an outright abomination. So, with only a brief interruption from the Olympics standing between this overheated summer and the race to select leaders from county seats to president of the United States, I'm drawn to remind you of these critical sentences in our July 8 editorial: "Both (the media and politicians) should be bigger and better than they are. But perhaps most importantly, the onus is on us as voters to be discerning."

As a news source, we'll do our best to ensure that candidates are not defined by their opponents, but don't let the unquenchable fire of any group's passionate phrases or the transitory thrill of "gotcha" headlines diminish your own uniform vigilance in selecting your favored candidates.

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