Politicians dodge slings and arrows everyday

Published 7:49 am Wednesday, August 15, 2007

By By Steve Flowers
I have been on a speaking tour throughout Alabama this summer talking Alabama politics with many of you. As I traveled the state a question was posed to me several times about politics in general. The query being whether politics has always been as mean and dirty as it is today. That question is hard to answer because politics has always been a tough business.
As a youngster I pretty much knew I was going into politics and the wise old men in my hometown, who were my mentors, would warn me of the slings and arrows that would be thrown at you in the political arena. This advice came to view when I saw the dastardly fabricated photos and falsehoods hurled at Albert Brewer and his family in the 1970 Governor's Race.
Politicians are subjected to many malicious unfounded rumors and slanderous accusations. These ruthless attacks are exacerbated by the libel laws of our country. The Supreme Court in a landmark decision in Sullivan v. New York Times ruled that anybody or any publication can say what they want to about a public official and the politico has little recourse regardless of how slanderous the accusation. In addition, it does not matter whether the accusation is true or false. This standard applies to all public figures. That is why most movie stars do not sue the tabloids for outrageous stories they write about them.
It is really a wonder anybody chooses to go into politics. You can understand movie stars seeking the spotlight because they make a lot of money for their notoriety. Inherently most voters shrug off political attacks as just that, politics. So a lot of the garbage rolls off the candidate's back like water. Some politicians seem not to be affected by any attacks. They appear to have a Teflon shield, everything just bounces off them. The prime examples of Teflon personalities in our lifetime are Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
The most resilient Alabama political figure in my lifetime would have to be Big Jim Folsom. Big Jim would field any accusations with this illustration. If someone slung mud at Big Jim he would say, as a boy my mama told me that if you're wearing your best white shirt and someone throws mud at you don't try to wipe if off immediately. Just ignore it and let it dry because if you try to wipe if away at first it will just smear and make a mess but if you let it dry a few days it will be just like dust. You can just thump it off.
This was a good strategy in Big Jim's day. The analogy was that if you ignored some mud thrown at you it would be forgotten in a few days but if you tried to answer it, it would just smear and get messy. This was true in those days and that was also the rule when I first entered politics. You were taught to ignore any accusations or mudslinging. Voters perceived mudslingers as losers who were desperate. If you had mud slung at you then you must be the frontrunner, so you took the high road and ignored the mudslingers. However, that has all changed in today's politics. You have to answer the mud immediately and then hit back with more mud. If you do not respond, people today will believe it is true no matter how ridiculous.
Today's media with instant communication via the internet has made politics more vicious and outrageous. Main street media will filter some of the trash but bloggers on the internet can say anything without any filtering.
I guess I would have to say that politics is probably meaner today because of the extreme partisanship. Congressional and legislative districts are drawn to be either extremely republican or extremely democratic. As a result, there are fewer moderate legislators in either party. The camaraderie and fraternal fellowship that were prevalent when I was there are gone. Instead we now have a republican senator punching a democratic senator in the face on the floor of the Senate. This picture of our Senate is flashed all over the nation as an illustration of partisan zeal, but it is also happening in Washington. They just haven't come to blows yet.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama's leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 70 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the State Legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.a

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