Sunday, Oct. 2 column

Issues, and people, are too
complex to describe with labels

By Brad Warthen
Editorial Page Editor
    IF YOU GO to my blog — the address is at the bottom of this column — and click on the “comments” link for any given posting, you’ll find a whole lot of opining going on, but the quality of dialogue often leaves something to be desired. Not always (in fact, many of my electronic correspondents are thoughtful enough to make me regret my own superficiality), but often.
    The Internet has done much to facilitate the creation of “communities” of narrow interest, from Monty Python fanatics to shoe fetishists. But it has militated against community in the broader sense. Because you can spend all day talking with people just like you, you tend to be less motivated to understand those who view the world differently. And the more that happens, the more facile our world views become.
    It’s not just the Internet. You don’t even want to get me started (again) on the 24-hour cable news channels, with their shouting matches between opposing partisans substituting for meaningful commentary.
    Nor are newspapers blameless. We have tended to cover politics as spectacle, as a sport with only two sides to each game — winner and loser, left and right, black and white. That makes issues easy to write about on deadline. But it doesn’t help citizens solve problems.
    When issues, and people, are presented as caricatures — that dumb Bush, that flip-flopping Kerry, that skirt-chasing Clinton, that crook Nixon (this is not an entirely new phenomenon) — we can’t truly understand them.
    I try to avoid this by interacting personally with newsmakers as much as possible, whether I need something for publication from them at a given moment or not.
    But “as much as possible” isn’t always enough. Consequently, I still sometimes make facile assumptions.
    Case in point — Perry Bumgarner. Before last week, here’s what I knew about Mr. Bumgarner: He was a founder of We the People of Lexington County, the antitax group. He was running for County Council as a Democrat, after having failed to get elected as a Republican. It seemed highly unlikely that we would be interested in endorsing a person whose only previous interaction with local government was to complain about taxes — especially when he was up against Republican Jim Kinard, a man with practical experience dealing with the day-to-day realities of governing on the Lexington 4 school board.
    We had interviewed Mr. Kinard at length back during the Republican primary process (which had led to not one, but two runoffs), so when he came in to see us last week, we had few questions. Besides, he was up against a two-time loser who apparently was only running as a Democrat to avoid having primary competition. This one was going to be easy.
    But then Mr. Bumgarner came in, and I had to learn for the thousandth time that you can’t assume such things. There was, as always, more to him than the two-dimensional picture in my mind.
    At first, he seemed to fit the caricature. A retired homebuilder, he was dodgy on the subject of impact fees. Asked why he had switched parties, he was startlingly frank: “Because they had three Republicans running, and I didn’t want to get mixed up in that thing.” Yep, a political opportunist who knows nothing about government beyond the fact that he doesn’t like paying for it.
    But then we kept talking, and the caricature took on three-dimensional human form. His U.S. Navy tie tack led to questions, and I found he had served with the Marines as a medical corpsman in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, earning a Silver Star and a Purple Heart. (“It was cold,” he said, at the “Frozen Chosin” Reservoir. No kidding.)
    He may not have had much to say about impact fees, but he had spent so much time observing county government in recent years that he had something knowledgeable to say about almost everything else. Some of his positions were surprising, coming from an antitax activist. He said he would advocate a half-cent sales tax to support the regional bus system if it would expand into Lexington County beyond its three current routes. Rare is the local politician willing to go out on that limb while seeking office. In fact, rare is the candidate who has thought much about the buses at all. (One GOP primary candidate we spoke to last month didn’t even know there was such a thing as a regional transit authority.)
    He even favors letting the school districts retain the authority to tax — which is certainly more than I would allow. (So who’s the anti-tax activist?) But we found agreement on the need to consolidate school districts, and on the lack of accountability of the special purpose districts that run the county’s recreation facilities.
    When Mr. Bumgarner left, my colleague Warren Bolton and I looked at each other, and each knew what the other was thinking: There’s more to this guy than we thought.
    So we endorsed him, right? No. But we seriously considered it. In the end, we went with Mr. Kinard, for several reasons: his experience as a school trustee, his more specific ideas about what his district and the county needed, his broad community involvement and his relative youth and energy. I gave him points for being willing to face a crowded primary field, rather than taking the easy route. And he knows where he stands on impact fees: He’s for them, as a sensible alternative to higher p
roperty taxes.
    But it was no slam-dunk. Politics, and life, get complicated when you take the time to see past initial assumptions.
    Maybe I need to get some of those partisans who shoot at each other on my blog together in a room, face-to-face. That could be dangerous, but who knows? We all might learn something.

7 thoughts on “Sunday, Oct. 2 column

  1. David

    Brad, Your point noted above – “Because you can spend all day talking with people just like you, you tend to be less motivated to understand those who view the world differently. And the more that happens, the more facile our world views become.” – is one of the reasons I like the internet world of free and open expression. I think it is fair to say that the major print media and network media had a monopoly on public opinionation to around the mid 1980’s or so. The proliferation of PCs and ultimately internet traffic, and the success of the cable TV media and also AM talk radio, effectively broke the monopoly to pieces. ABC, NBC, and CBS did have some differences but for the most part we had three peas in a pod. The same applied to the NY Times, Wash. Post, Boston Globe, LA Times, and I would add Time Mag., Newsweek among others. Does old media resent this intrusion or better yet invasion of their turf? No doubt about that. I don’t think I have said anything that hasn’t been expressed before by many others. The more telling question may be to wonder how much longer “old” media will sustain enough viewership and readership to stay in business. I, for one, would not buy a share of stock in the old media.

    I don’t think old media is capable of modernizing their thinking and approach and the examples continue to abound. The NY Times is eagerly awaiting the opportunity to focus on even more Abu Graib photos, to the direct correlation of increased attacks and deaths of our very own military. Then take the constant demonization and attacks on the American corporation Halliburton from the old media. Has anyone seen in old media that two of the first contracts for rebuilding in Louisiana have gone to Shaw Corporation? The head of Shaw is also the Louisiana state Democratic party chairman and was Gov. Blanco’s campaign leader. I learned of this on the net and still havent seen it noted in old media.

    One question I would have is how much diversity of opinion there is in the State journalist group? The seemingly, even if subtle, negative bent toward Governor Sanford and his programs and ideas indicate that the State does not have a bona fide conservative thinker on staff. From Warren, Cindy, Lee, and to a lesser extent you I see the liberal leaning expression in the writing. As a print subscriber I try to read nearly all of the editorials and even guest opinions but I will admit I miss them on occasion.

    My hope is the State Editorial journalist group is not a group of same minded thinkers and if they are hopefully that can be changed.

  2. Ray

    In your endorsement of Mr. Kinard, you keep refering to his school board experience to wit: “a man with practical experience dealing with the day-to-day realities of governing on the Lexington 4 school board.”
    Given that he was elected to that board last November, just how much experience does he really have? Did you or your editorial board even bother to ask him why after just being elected to the Lexington 4 school board he now wanted to run for yet another office? What about all the promises he made to get elected the last time? Can we now expect if he gets elected on Tuesday that he’ll jump ship again given the opportunity? Talk about political opportunism! Your blatant hypocrisy and is why the State paper’s endorsements are widely perceived as a joke.

  3. Eneils Bailey

    David, good comment, I gave up on The State long ago. Thomas Jefferson said, “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” People should expose themselves to all points of view, from the far left to the far right and everything in between. It would soon become apparent that the “old” media is selective and biased in their reporting and editoralizing.

  4. Lee

    Now that Mr. Bumbgardner has come to the mountain and caused Brad Warthen to realize he his prejudicial stereotype of one candidate, will it have the effect of making him go out into the world to rectify his shallow view of other critics of his narrow, pro-government world view?

  5. Steve Aiken

    One good thing I’ve noticed about this blog is that the bloggers seem to stay on target more than those who post at the Atlanta Journal Constitution. It doesn’t stop the speechmaking, but at least the profanity isn’t out of control.

  6. Sharon

    Mr. Warthen,
    I think you gave Mr. Kinard too many points, sir, in your endorsement of him for the Lexington County District One County Council seat. Too many points for his “practical experience” as a school trustee – he had a school board seat for six months when he announced as a candidate for county council.
    Too many points for his “specific ideas” about “what his district and the county need” – in the article reporting his win over Mr. Bumgarner, Mr. Kinard’s own remarks are not reassuring: “I really need to get educated on some things…” A political education is usually lengthy and sometimes painful, and not usually earned behind a desk.
    His “broad community involvement” and “youth and energy” as touted in your enorsement do not necessarily translate into political competence or personal effectiveness in manuvering through the complicated flowchart of state and local government.
    Too many points again, Mr. Warthen, for Mr. Kinard “being willing to face a crowded primary field” – Mr. Kinard waited until the very eleventh hour to file and even then surprised those friends to whom he had repeatedly denied any interest in running.
    The seat is Mr. Kinard’s now and those of us in communities other than his own are waiting to see how he uses those points you gave him.


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