Issues, and people, are too
complex to describe with labels
By Brad Warthen
Editorial Page Editor
IF YOU GO to my blog — the address is at the bottom of this column — and click on the “comments” link for any given posting, you’ll find a whole lot of opining going on, but the quality of dialogue often leaves something to be desired. Not always (in fact, many of my electronic correspondents are thoughtful enough to make me regret my own superficiality), but often.
The Internet has done much to facilitate the creation of “communities” of narrow interest, from Monty Python fanatics to shoe fetishists. But it has militated against community in the broader sense. Because you can spend all day talking with people just like you, you tend to be less motivated to understand those who view the world differently. And the more that happens, the more facile our world views become.
It’s not just the Internet. You don’t even want to get me started (again) on the 24-hour cable news channels, with their shouting matches between opposing partisans substituting for meaningful commentary.
Nor are newspapers blameless. We have tended to cover politics as spectacle, as a sport with only two sides to each game — winner and loser, left and right, black and white. That makes issues easy to write about on deadline. But it doesn’t help citizens solve problems.
When issues, and people, are presented as caricatures — that dumb Bush, that flip-flopping Kerry, that skirt-chasing Clinton, that crook Nixon (this is not an entirely new phenomenon) — we can’t truly understand them.
I try to avoid this by interacting personally with newsmakers as much as possible, whether I need something for publication from them at a given moment or not.
But “as much as possible” isn’t always enough. Consequently, I still sometimes make facile assumptions.
Case in point — Perry Bumgarner. Before last week, here’s what I knew about Mr. Bumgarner: He was a founder of We the People of Lexington County, the antitax group. He was running for County Council as a Democrat, after having failed to get elected as a Republican. It seemed highly unlikely that we would be interested in endorsing a person whose only previous interaction with local government was to complain about taxes — especially when he was up against Republican Jim Kinard, a man with practical experience dealing with the day-to-day realities of governing on the Lexington 4 school board.
We had interviewed Mr. Kinard at length back during the Republican primary process (which had led to not one, but two runoffs), so when he came in to see us last week, we had few questions. Besides, he was up against a two-time loser who apparently was only running as a Democrat to avoid having primary competition. This one was going to be easy.
But then Mr. Bumgarner came in, and I had to learn for the thousandth time that you can’t assume such things. There was, as always, more to him than the two-dimensional picture in my mind.
At first, he seemed to fit the caricature. A retired homebuilder, he was dodgy on the subject of impact fees. Asked why he had switched parties, he was startlingly frank: “Because they had three Republicans running, and I didn’t want to get mixed up in that thing.” Yep, a political opportunist who knows nothing about government beyond the fact that he doesn’t like paying for it.
But then we kept talking, and the caricature took on three-dimensional human form. His U.S. Navy tie tack led to questions, and I found he had served with the Marines as a medical corpsman in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, earning a Silver Star and a Purple Heart. (“It was cold,” he said, at the “Frozen Chosin” Reservoir. No kidding.)
He may not have had much to say about impact fees, but he had spent so much time observing county government in recent years that he had something knowledgeable to say about almost everything else. Some of his positions were surprising, coming from an antitax activist. He said he would advocate a half-cent sales tax to support the regional bus system if it would expand into Lexington County beyond its three current routes. Rare is the local politician willing to go out on that limb while seeking office. In fact, rare is the candidate who has thought much about the buses at all. (One GOP primary candidate we spoke to last month didn’t even know there was such a thing as a regional transit authority.)
He even favors letting the school districts retain the authority to tax — which is certainly more than I would allow. (So who’s the anti-tax activist?) But we found agreement on the need to consolidate school districts, and on the lack of accountability of the special purpose districts that run the county’s recreation facilities.
When Mr. Bumgarner left, my colleague Warren Bolton and I looked at each other, and each knew what the other was thinking: There’s more to this guy than we thought.
So we endorsed him, right? No. But we seriously considered it. In the end, we went with Mr. Kinard, for several reasons: his experience as a school trustee, his more specific ideas about what his district and the county needed, his broad community involvement and his relative youth and energy. I gave him points for being willing to face a crowded primary field, rather than taking the easy route. And he knows where he stands on impact fees: He’s for them, as a sensible alternative to higher p
But it was no slam-dunk. Politics, and life, get complicated when you take the time to see past initial assumptions.
Maybe I need to get some of those partisans who shoot at each other on my blog together in a room, face-to-face. That could be dangerous, but who knows? We all might learn something.
Issues, and people, are too