The absurdity of election time

Kathryn Lopez

10/30/2006 5:01:00 PM - Kathryn Lopez

It's silly season -- election time. It gets that way, of course, but it's still worth pointing out some of the more ridiculous examples.

One of the most important, but completely confusing, issues of the day involves embryonic stem cell research and cloning. This topic gets to the heart of who we are as a people and a culture. Do Missourians want to not only green-light, but write into their state constitution, a right to human cloning? And do they want to do that without even knowing they are doing it?

Missouri's voters face Amendment 2, "The Missouri Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative," which asks them whether they want to "ban human cloning or attempted cloning." Hell yes, most might answer. But voting for the amendment, in truth, would create a constitutional right to human cloning. Folks differentiate between "reproductive cloning" and "therapeutic cloning" -- the latter means you create embryos and destroy them before someone takes them home and names them. But make no mistake: It's cloning.

Very few people in the country were paying attention to Amendment 2 until about two weeks before the election. It was Michael J. Fox who got things rolling with some campaign commercials for Democrats. Fox, who heartbreakingly suffers from Parkinson's Disease, has long been an ardent supporter of embryonic stem cell research and cloning (though he won't use the c-word).

Shortly after the first of the Fox ads appeared during the World Series, in St. Louis, conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh attacked the ad for being misleading, which it was. In the ads Fox has made, he claims that President Bush and GOP Senate candidates Jim Talent and Michael Steele are against lifesaving research. That's not quite the case: What they oppose is federal funding of research that destroys embryos (and Bush has even compromised that principle just a bit to help on the middle-ground front). They do, in fact, support stem-cell research that does not destroy embryos.

These are important issues. But the media rushed to reduce them to a Rush vs. Fox smackdown. "What is going on here? Attacking Michael J. Fox?" ABC's Diane Sawyer indignantly asked Rush's fellow conservative talk-show host Sean Hannity. Looking to cause further trouble, a item announced that "Not Everyone Loves Michael J. Fox," (is this headline about Fox a quote from I couldn't find it) and explored the issue of whether actress Patricia Heaton's career would be jeopardized by her participation in an anti-cloning ad.

This particular media circus has been just one of a number of them this election cycle. For days on end, Republicans were blasted for being racist because of a silly ad they ran criticizing Tennessee Democrat Harold Ford for attending a Playboy party. In it, a white blonde woman with a come-hither look addresses Ford, "Call me." That, we were supposed to believe, is racist, because Ford is black and Republicans are counting on Tennesseans to feel racist horror at the idea of a white woman's interest in him.

To anyone living in the year 2006, this is a ridiculous claim. But Chris Matthews of MSNBC's "Hardball" made it all clear, shortly after a segment on the Tennessee ads. Matthews praised some ads of Maryland Republican Michael Steele, who is black. "I love the ads, my wife loves the ads, they're really funny, some of them. And very unthreatening. An African-American guy, it seems, has to run an ad that's so unthreatening that he's almost child-like in his presentation, but it seems to be working."

Uh, of the two -- the anti-Ford ad and the weird Matthews comments -- which sounds more racially condescending? Don't get me wrong, Matthews is no racist. But it just goes to illustrate that in a 24/7 election-season news cycle, with passions running high, it's often hard to stay focused on what's most important and to be as judicious in one's use of language as one ought to be.

But the good news is that silly season doesn't last forever. Whoever wins on Nov. 7, despite the Missouri decision we'll wake up the next morning still at war in Iraq, still at war against global terrorists -- with hefty issues here and abroad to face. I'm still going to disagree with, say, Michael J. Fox, but all of us -- mean-spirited "Fox-haters," nutty TV hosts, candidates from every party (including those, like Democrat Joe Lieberman who were forced to leave theirs) -- will find we have a lot of work left to do, work we must do together.