Topic: Government & Politics

Open Mikes and The Golden Rule
(3/11/2004)

Ethics 101: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It is simple, it is clear, and too many in the media and politics seem to think it is also quaint and irrelevant.

Latest example: John Kerry's open mike mishap, in which he was over-heard saying that his adversaries were "the most crooked ... lying group I've ever seen." Republicans are "outraged." "Senator Kerry's statement today in Illinois was unbecoming of a candidate for the presidency of the United States of America, and tonight we call on Senator Kerry to apologize to the American people for this negative attack," said Mark Racicot, Bush's campaign chairman. Talk show hosts were abuzz. "John Kerry attacks George Bush for creating a harsh tone in Washington and then makes a vicious attack like this," raged Laura Ingraham on her morning radio show. "What a hypocrite!"

Let's clear up the confusion. Kerry was talking to a supporter, and didn't know he was miked. Everybody…politicians, radio hosts, even ethicists, use hyperbolic, impolitic, offensive and even nasty terms in private conversations from time to time. We might even tell tasteless jokes that would make us look despicable if they landed on the front page of USA Today; and all of us would be mortified if our private comments were broadcast coast to coast. If Mark Racicot made an intemperate and derogatory comment about a Democrat that was picked up on a live mike, he'd want the indiscretion to be ignored, and he'd be right. After all, what is the news here? Does anyone not think that John Kerry and his supporters have a low opinion of the Republicans, and vice-versa?

Candidate Kerry's duty is to present his differences with the Bush administration to the public in a dignified, respectful and professional way. Kerry's comment was none of these, but it also wasn't public, until an open mike made it so. Yes…he should apologize. An apology is the polite and civilized and ethical course under such circumstances. It is a pity that the Senator has chosen instead to use the incident as an excuse to launch a new barrage of criticism of "the Republican attack squad," when it is fairly obvious that his over-heard comments were not really aimed at this group ("crooked" is not an adjective that one would normally attach to this group.) Thus does unethical conduct spawn more unethical conduct. But before Kerry took the path of thowing gasoline on the fire, the Republicans had an obligation to be understanding and empathetic.They have also been embarrassed by open microphones, notably Vice-President Kerry last campaign.

Now, because the GOP decided to pounce on a meaningless mistake and because someone has advised John Kerry to treat every Republican over-reaction as a declaration of war, we're in a full-fledged bout of name-calling. This does not bode well for the prospects of a civil, respectful campaign.And the whole mess could have been avoided if the Republicans had taken a deep breath and applied Ethics 101.

This might be a good time to remind everyone of a related incident, when Senator Clinton botched an attempted joke about Gandhi running a filling station in St. Louis. Heaven knows conservatives have had their share of getting unfairly attacked for attempted humor, but the Golden Rule never entered their minds when presented with a chance to get Hillary. Clinton apologized appropriately quickly to mollify the political correctness goon squad, which acted as if any sane person on the planet thought for one millisecond that the former First Lady intended to denigrate Indians or the great Indian statesman by trotting out a formula joke from burlesque. This wasn't good enough for the pundits on the right, however, who protested that a "fair" press and liberal advocates should have been screaming for her head on a pike, as they contrasted the media reaction with the feeding frenzy that followed Trent Lott's moronic comments about the late Senator (and Father of the Year) Strom Thurmond.

Of course, the two incidents were not truly comparable: a nationally broadcast gaffe as opposed to a misunderstood mini-joke at an inconsequential local campaign event. But beyond that, the whining from the Right violates a corollary of "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

The corollary: "Don't complain when third parties don't do unto others what you felt was unfair when they did it unto you."

Let's call it Ethics 101 A.

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