Sunday, April 20, 2008

Do-it-yourself stupidity is new trend in campaigns

When the history of political news and the 2008 campaign is written, U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry of Cherryville may deserve a footnote.

The 10th District Republican has been much in the news lately for his reference to a “two-bit security guard” who denied him access to a gym inside Baghdad’s Green Zone. McHenry was there on a photo opportunity so he would look concerned enough about our troops to get re-elected.

Contrary to that mission, however, McHenry may have hurt his prospects for renomination with his own reporting about the trip.

In a campaign where press coverage is down, McHenry may be helping to establish a new trend: candidates who commit political suicide using their own medium of communication without newspapers or network television news playing any part.

The founding father of the Keystone politicians’ camp is, of course, Virginia’s former Republican Sen. George Allen. (For young people, the Keystone Cops were a hilariously incompetent police force from the silent-movies era.) Allen destroyed his 2006 candidacy for re-election and a good chance to be the 2008 Republican presidential nominee with a disparaging remark about an Indian American that was captured on video.

McHenry’s denigration of the security guard appeared in the same kind of venue — a Republican Lincoln County dinner. Apparently, he felt comfortable among friends, as Allen did, in making his arrogant and caustic remark. The problem with this kind of event, however, is that people who aren’t friends often attend and videotape them. McHenry’s opponent, Lance Sigmon, had someone there who video-recorded the speech. It went up on

As if that weren’t bad enough, McHenry added to his woes by then uploading, onto his own congressional Web site, a video from the Green Zone of himself trying to look brave and patriotic. In his best Christiane Amanpour war-correspondent impersonation, he notes how rocket fire one day hit here and there.

I have a personal interest to reveal. My nephew is in the Green Zone. He’s in the National Guard, and it is he whom the bad guys are trying to get. I take personal offense that this chickenhawk congressman is putting information on his Web site that helps these bad guys calibrate and direct their fire onto my nephew — or any other American’s nephew or niece.

Politicians have been stepping on their own toes since the first one took office somewhere, probably in Iraq many millennia ago. In our history, it has fallen to the press to pick up the news of those missteps and to carry it to the public. But this year, political reporting is way down — not in volume, because the presidential race dominates the cable news. It is down in real coverage. On campaign trips, fewer reporters are accompanying both the presidential and lesser-office candidates. There is less coverage in local newspapers of local races, and TV has not come close to picking up that slack. Races for Congress have never gotten the kind of thorough coverage they deserve. Now we know less about our incumbents because the financially troubled newspaper industry is closing and shrinking Washington bureaus.

For incumbents like McHenry and Allen, therefore, there should be less concern that the so-called “fourth estate” will bring about their demise. But that doesn’t stop them from screwing up all on their own.

When a candidate like McHenry says something as stupid as he did and gets taped, the subterranean medium that has become so influential in the past several years — the blogosphere — eats him alive. Then, when he adds to his trouble by so naively posting, on his own Web site, a video that threatens operational security for our soldiers, he just gives his opponents more to work with. That second offense — along with the Pentagon’s telling McHenry that he violated the rules — just plays into Sigmon’s efforts to draw a distinction between his military service and McHenry’s lack of it.

And we here in the big, bad liberal press conspiracy had nothing to do with it. If Patrick McHenry loses his job, the only voice he can blame is his own.

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