Burton on the Bay:

In Politics,Truth Is in The Eye of The Beholder

In politics, perception is reality.

I recall first aring that aphorisn from my politically astute grandmother Clara Burton when I became a fledgling radio news editor. The campaign was heating up between New York's Tom Dewey and the man he was trying to unseat, Harry S Truman.

One renegade was southerner J. Strom Thurmond of a short-lived party flying the banner of States Rights; another prominent candidate was former Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace, who advertised himself America's progressive candidate.

What a quagmire - though an exciting one. I had returned home to the farm anxious to impress Grandma that I was getting up in the world, not only meeting big people but broadcasting about them.

I was 21, that age when one is vulnerable to the foolish practice of impressing one's self, and trying to do likewise with the family, friends or anyone else available.

After all, I had lunched with the man who would turn out to be the perennial presidential candidate, Minnesota's former boy wonder Harold Stassen. Just before I dropped college studies early to take the news-hound job, I had enjoyed a dinner interview in Montpelier with Wallace, who gave a major campaign speech that I covered for the Goddard College newspaper, of which I was editor.

What a way to let Grandma know that she'd never see me back at the farm - at least to hoe a row of corn or to chop wood for the big black stove she worked over to turn out some of the best dishes imaginable. Boy, would she be impressed. She wasn't.

I was always "Doodle" to Grandma. I was her first grandchild, thus deserving of a special moniker, you know how that is. Doodle, a comic strip character of the mid-'20s, gave me the name I went by with her until she passed away at 96, a few months before I reached my 40th birthday.

I've never been able to figure out how she knew about the Doodle of the comic pages. What with work on the farm, Grandma had little time for reading - though she did scour the main section of the daily newspaper, when it was available at the farm, for world and national news. After all, she had been quite involved in the League of Women Voters from the time when most men figured 'voting women, why that's an oxymoron.'

When I began to extol my glory, tell her how the big time pols talked politics to me, she cut me short. "Doodle," Grandma started out, "if you stay in the newswriting business, you will soon learn that in politics, perception is reality, and it won't matter what anyone tells you, or how smart you might think you are, because you think you've figured out who should be elected.

"You're not nearly old enough to perceive," she cautioned. She said something more about politicians saying a thing enough times that eventually the electorate would believe them, truth and facts to the contrary. It's the perception of the voters that decides how they vote.

"It's not how things really are, it's what the voters think they are."


Saturated by Sound Bites

That discussion took place 50 years ago, you might say before television because there were few sets available and most of them were in the cities - and, at that time, candidates had not yet appreciated the almighty power of the boob tube. Politics and political advertising were to some extent handled by radio, but they were the domain of newspapers.

Today, among the average voters, television is by far the most influential medium. The majority of the electorate bases much of its decision on 30- and 60-second blips on the screen. The candidate who stirs the most voters with short messages broadcast over and over again wins. In politics, perception is reality: reality in the voting booth though not reality in the true sense of the word.

Can it be that the tube is saturated with so many commercials that the average voting viewer has seen enough? Can that be why there's little interest in debates and legitimate reality? Hey, one can take only so much, even in politics.

How times have changed in debates, whether aired or in auditoriums. They're re-runs of commercials. Formats for the most part don't allow many of the questions you and I want answered; instead they're sanitized by a selection committee of one to several who decide which questions posed - either via phone, a panel of reporters or personally by a voter - will be put to the candidates.

We're in the age of political and social correctness; handle things with kid gloves is the byword. We're in an era in which criticism or not-so-desirable facts are considered negative campaigning. And everyone, we're led to believe, doesn't want negative campaigns. Balderdash.

The still-increasing popularity of talk-radio and TV show you how true that is. We're eager for negatives, in politics as well as most anything else. Sad, but true, especially with politics. Now that debate formats are sanitized and candidates send their messages in sound bites on TV, what other way is there for us to learn the negatives, of which there are a multitude?

By negatives I mean not just what comes from Washington, where the question is who's sleeping with whom. More to the point are the shortcomings of candidates.

Do you think Gov. Parris Glendening is going to tell us that he believes in building stadiums while firehouses and libraries close? Or that when money is made available for commerce, business and industry, his underlings arrive shortly later for political contributions?

Do you think that Ellen Sauerbrey is going to tell us when she's promoting economic growth that her environmental legislative record is one of the worst in more than 100 years in Maryland?

Do you think County Executive John Gary will tell us about the payments, salaries and benefits that go to his cronies in county government?

Do you think that his opponent, Janet Owens, will tell us that if her programs come about, the progress we've made in tax savings and fiscal responsibility in Anne Arundel County will do a turnaround?

Schools: that's all the candidates seem to want to talk about. Like motherhood and apple pie, they're all for schools. They race to outdo each other; not a single one dares suggest that it's not only the kids who need education. The way things are going, it's obvious that so do their teachers and parents.

Will we ever learn that we can't solve problems in education by just throwing money at them? What ever happened to fiscal responsibility? What about police, firemen, parks, libraries, the environment, Chesapeake Bay? There's only so much money to go around.

With all the political news and commercials we have on TV today, do you really think we're a better informed public than in Grandma's time? If you know the answer, it's not a question.

Tuesday we vote, still with so many questions unanswered. Grandma was right. Perception - based on ignorance - is reality. In the voting booth, that is.

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VolumeVI Number 43
October 29 - November 4, 1998
New Bay Times

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