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Tuesday, October 11, 2005
What Mitt Romney Has Learned and Bill Bennett Hasn't

As far as I can tell, no objective observer is suggesting that the frenzy surrounding Bill Bennett's recent, allegedly inflammatory comments is characterized by fairness, balance, or accuracy. Actually, the furor is despicable. But it is also predictable.

Of course Bennett was not advocating aborting all African-American babies in order to lower the crime rate. He actually said that would be a reprehensible policy, which, of course, it would. The statement was part of a larger, more subtle argument about the use and abuse of statistics, in connection with abortion. Of course the jackals are taking him out of context, pretending he advocated something he and every other decent human being abhor.

I've been a big fan of Bill Bennett for almost two decades, since his work in the Reagan administration. But my admiration is waning now. It's not because he's the racist the media is trying to portray. He's not any kind of a racist. It's not because he's stupid. (He's actually brilliant. Is that part of the problem?) It's not even because of the high-stakes gambling that had the jackals smugly calling him "the bookie of virtues" a while back. (As I understand it, gambling isn't necessarily a sin for a Catholic.)

Being a prominent conservative makes him a target for every kind of attack. Having been an influential part of the Reagan administration makes him a favorite target. Being the editor of best-selling books which not only assert that virtues exist, but also name and promote and presume to teach them, makes him a sort of secular antichrist, as far as the Big Media Acronyms and the nation's other liberals are concerned. He has to know this.

Bennett is a national political figure and the host of a nationally syndicated talk show. He has to know that if certain words come out of his mouth in a certain order, no matter how appropriate or innocent they are in context, someone will use those words out of context to attack and embarrass him on a national or international scale, or, if possible, to destroy him. This is known as the "gotcha." It is low, it is dirty, and it is the way the game is played. In this instance, I don't know whether Bennett was being clever or careless. Maybe the philosophy professor just had a flashback to the ivory tower. But he really doesn't have the luxury of making such mistakes any more, if he wants to continue to play on the national stage. It's not fair, perhaps, but that's the way it is.

So how does Mitt Romney fit into all this?

In idle moments this week I've been reading a copy of Mitt Romney's 2004 book, Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership, and the Olympic Games. Naturally, I have to run what he says through several filters, since it is (a) a book about himself, (b) a book by and about a prominent political figure, and (c) a book by a man who apparently sees himself as a presidential candidate. But it's an interesting read nonetheless. It's economical, too, since I got the hardback in like-new condition for $2.00 at Deseret Industries.

Yesterday I read a section of the book about media relations and some of the lessons he learned (usually the hard way). Romney had to learn not to feed the media "gotchas," too. (It's not a new concept.)

One part of journalism that I am not terribly fond of is what I can the gotcha reflex. A writer wants a big story, a surprise, a shocking development. Sometimes if they can get you to say a certain word or acknowledge a certain fact, it can be turned into a blockbuster story and headline, even if it is not at all what was intended. Even the most reputable reporters can't resist a gotcha if you give it to them.

[Note: In Bennett's situation, we're not talking about the most reputable reporters. They have a clear agenda. Romney continues:]

Let's say a reporter asks whether the [Olympic] Games could possibly go bankrupt. Now we all know that any organization can go bankrupt. . . . Let's say I answered directly: "It is very unlikely. In fact, I would give it less than a 1 percent chance. But it is conceivable that the Games could go bankrupt. Not at all likely, but conceivable." The evening news and headline the next day will read, "Romney Says Games May Go Bankrupt!" . . . My quote on TV would show only the words ". . . it is conceivable that the Games could go bankrupt . . ." That's a gotcha. I would have been accurately quoted, the story would be correct. But it would be terribly misleading. (pp. 185-86)

If Bill Bennett is going to play the game, he should get his head back in the game. Everything he says is a potential "gotcha." He at least needs to make the jackals work a little harder for their raw meat.

Philip Nelson comments (2/9/2006):

Regarding the Bill Bennett "gotcha," I agree that the media's response is not surprising. But that is different from being predictable. The difficult thing for any public figure is that they are always speaking, always creating a string of potential gotchas for an enterprising jackal to dig up. This effect obviously gives us entire stand-up routines, based on the various gaffes of President Bush, Al Gore, John Kerry, etc. (Admittedly, some mis-read their lines more than others . . .) Perhaps if Bill is planning to run for president, he should play the PC game a little better. But otherwise, he should continue to defy the PC police and simply speak his brilliant mind.

As you suggest, Bill Bennett's radio show is a little like academia, in that he uses the Socratic method, posits, hypothesizes, etc. But if he were to scrub all his public statements the way a Mitt Romney does, that would mean that the gotcha terrorists had won. I may be showing a preference for the ivory tower here, but I think Bill should continue to use his keen wit to make harsh, non-PC points, as well as soft, feel-good points. After all, a modest proposal put out by a pundit every once in a while can be far more valuable than the repeated platitudes of a thousand politicians.

Philip Nelson comments (2/20/2006):

I should elaborate on the first two sentences. Bill Bennett (and every conservative) has said thousands of things that, when distorted enough, can be made to seem mean, non-PC, even downright offensive. Similarly, if enough deceptive imams got ahold of every sketch of an animal or person I had ever drawn, they could make a case that I was defying their interpretation of the Koran. In hindsight, neither of these things would be surprising. To borrow Ann Coulter's analogy, this would be a "dog bites man" story for page 10, not a cover story with a big headline. But no one can predict which statement will be attacked next.

Terrorist attacks are not surprising, but very difficult to specifically predict and prevent because a terrorist has a target-rich environment; every innocent person, every building is on the radar screen. For the rabid left, it is not a question of whether to attack, but simply which statement to target.

Only a politician should be saddled with the responsibility of pondering what a PC terrorist may try to do with a sound-bite from a long, serious discussion. To waste energy fretting about what a lying leftist could do with half a statement is to give in to their intellectual bullying.

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