Political tone-deafness

You would think that experienced career politicians would have some sense of how to avoid saying things that gratuitously insult people. And then you read things like this:

Former Wisconsin governor and Republican presidential hopeful Tommy Thompson told Jewish activists Monday that making money is “part of the Jewish tradition,” and something that he applauded. 

Speaking to an audience at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington D.C., Thompson said that, “I’m in the private sector and for the first time in my life I’m earning money. You know that’s sort of part of the Jewish tradition and I do not find anything wrong with that.” 

Thompson later apologized for the comments that had caused a stir in the audience, saying that he had meant it as a compliment, and had only wanted to highlight the “accomplishments” of the Jewish religion.

Much attention has been focused on Thompson’s casual invocation of the stereotype of Jews as being focused on money and being surprised that his audience did not receive it as a compliment.

But there is another offensive idea in this passage that I hear repeatedly and which has not been remarked upon, and that is his assumption that people who occupy high government office don’t make any money worth speaking of, and only begin to do so when they leave government service and enter the private sector. Surely most people would find this offensive? After all, this person was the governor of a big state and also the US Secretary of Health and Human Services. In both those jobs he would have been paid a salary and obtained perks that almost everyone else in this country can only dream of. But for Thompson and others like him, that is nothing. And what is worse, they act like they have sacrificed on our behalf when they take on these high paying jobs.

Yes, it is true that they probably make much more money when they move to the private sector and exploit the contacts they developed while working in government. But what they get paid as high government officials is still not peanuts and it is a slap in the face to those who earn much less to act as if it were nothing.

Very, very few people will make as much money as Tommy Thompson in either of the two jobs whose salary he disdains. Surely he cannot be oblivious that he earns more than the vast majority of Americans, and when compared to the rest of the world, where poverty is rampant, must rank in the very top tier of income earners. So how is it that a career politician like Thompson can be oblivious to the effect of his words?

Former Speaker of the House of Representatives and potential presidential candidate Newt Gingrich provides another example of obliviousness. He recently caused a fuss when he seemed to imply that Spanish was the language of the ghetto. He then tried to make amends by saying (in Spanish) that what he was really trying to say was that you really needed to learn English if you want to succeed in America.

Really? He thinks that this is news to people? Gingrich painfully spelling this out indicates that he thinks that Hispanics are too stupid to have figured this out by themselves. Of course everyone in America knows that knowledge of English is necessary to advance in almost any aspect of life. The real issue is why this knowledge and awareness does not always get translated into concrete action.

I similarly cringe when politicians preach to children that success in school will lead to better lives. Do they think that these students don’t realize this? Have they never talked to these children? Have they never read any of the research on what students’ views on education are? Children know that high levels of education usually results in a better standard of living. They just don’t act on this knowledge. Again, the real question is why their awareness does not manifest itself in appropriate actions.

And then there is John Edwards. Here he is, from a very poor family background, running for president on a platform that is about the two Americas, the rich and the poor, and the need to be sensitive to the needs of those less fortunate. And then he goes and gets a $400 haircut, for which he has been roundly criticized.

How is it that experienced politicians do not realize how such words and actions might rub people the wrong way? Perhaps it is because they have no real conception about how most people live. Thompson’s world, the people he hangs out with, is probably that of corporate CEOs and other wealthy people and that is the kind of money that he thinks he too deserves to earn. Gingrich’s world is that of successful English speakers who cannot conceive of why other people might not aspire to be like them. John Edwards probably moves among people for whom such expensive haircuts are standard. Laura Bush apparently spends $700 to get her hair done, so I am guessing that these people don’t go to Best Cuts.

None of these things necessarily reflect on how well they might perform in office and should not be overanalyzed. But they do indicate a curious obliviousness to how they might be perceived.

If they really moved around with the people they claim to represent, they might not speak or act so objectionably.

POST SCRIPT: Must-see TV for media watchers

Bill Moyers has a special that examines the media’s complicity in selling the Iraq war under false pretenses. It airs on PBS stations on Wednesday, April 25 at 9:00 pm (check your local listings).

Editor & Publisher says of the program:

The most powerful indictment of the news media for falling down in its duties in the run-up to the war in Iraq will appear next Wednesday, a 90-minute PBS broadcast called “Buying the War,” which marks the return of “Bill Moyers Journal.” E&P was sent a preview DVD and a draft transcript for the program this week. While much of the evidence of the media’s role as cheerleaders for the war presented here is not new, it is skillfully assembled, with many fresh quotes from interviews (with the likes of Tim Russert and Walter Pincus) along with numerous embarrassing examples of past statements by journalists and pundits that proved grossly misleading or wrong. Several prominent media figures, prodded by Moyers, admit the media failed miserably, though few take personal responsibility.
. . .
Phil Donahue recalls that he was told he could not feature war dissenters alone on his MSNBC talk show and always had to have “two conservatives for every liberal.” Moyers resurrects a leaked NBC memo about Donahue’s firing that claimed he “presents a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. At the same time our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”
. . .
At the close, Moyers mentions some of the chief proponents of the war who refused to speak to him for this program, including Thomas Friedman, Bill Kristol, Roger Ailes, Charles Krauthammer, Judith Miller, and William Safire.
. . .
The program closes on a sad note, with Moyers pointing out that “so many of the advocates and apologists for the war are still flourishing in the media.” He then runs a pre-war clip of President Bush declaring, “We cannot wait for the final proof: the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” Then he explains: “The man who came up with it was Michael Gerson, President Bush’s top speechwriter.

“He has left the White House and has been hired by the Washington Post as a columnist.”

You can see Bill Moyers being interviewed by Bill Maher and a preview of the program here.


  1. says

    Thompson’s world, the people he hangs out with, is probably that of corporate CEOs and other wealthy people and that is the kind of money that he thinks he too deserves to earn.

    Whether or not Thompson deserves the money he’s making, he’s clearly correct in that it’s an amount of money he’s capable of making (the market will pay for it). If money is all he’s concerned about, then why go into the public sphere? If he can make more money doing the same job elsewhere? I’d imagine that a large number of people can’t imagine taking the lower paying job. Thompson (and other public servants) can afford to do so, and choose to.

    Here he is, from a very poor family background, running for president on a platform that is about the two Americas, the rich and the poor, and the need to be sensitive to the needs of those less fortunate. And then he goes and gets a $400 haircut, for which he has been roundly criticized.

    Forbes has an article talking about the why the haircut is so expensive (one of the reasons is that the stylist goes to him, pretty much wherever he is). But, besides that point, I don’t even think this is hypocritical: Is the only way for John Edwards to be sensitive to the plight of the poor really for him to not get an expensive haircut? Does that haircut really impugn the policies he’s outlined? Would he really do better to pretend that he can’t afford expensive haircuts?

    I think the measure of a candidate is how well their policies and ideas serve the public; not how much money they’re making or how much they spend on amenities.

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