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HOW SHE SEES IT Foot-in-mouth disease infects politics

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

WASHINGTON -- Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans, is the latest elected official to talk himself into hot water -- or, in his case, hot chocolate. And we've heard it over and over.
Nagin has apologized for saying New Orleans should be rebuilt as the "chocolate city" -- predominately African American -- it was before Katrina. When reporters asked if he was being divisive, he said no. He explained:
"How do you make chocolate? You take dark chocolate, you mix it with white milk and it becomes a delicious drink. That's the chocolate I'm talking about."
Good catch.
Nagin has some experience in untangling his remarks. He apologized for saying God sent the hurricanes because he was mad at America for being in Iraq "under false pretenses" and at black America "for not taking care of ourselves."
The mayor said he'd have to be more sensitive.
Last fall, Nagin worried aloud that his city would be overrun by Mexican workers. He apologized then and said he welcomed the help rebuilding New Orleans.
Maybe he needs more rest. Or maybe Nagin, a corporate exec who had no previous political experience, is finding out why more businessmen don't run for office. Voters say they want people with real world experience in politics, but "real" people speak their minds. When politicians do that, they get in trouble.
Maybe Nagin longs for his cushy job running Cox Communications' cable operation in New Orleans. He went from making about $275,000 a year at Cox, according to industry estimates, to $107,232 as mayor.
When he become mayor in 2002, Nagin couldn't have known his city would be so devastated or that his every word would be scrutinized and then amplified in the media loop.
Nobody says something once anymore. Even offhand remarks are replayed until it seems that the speaker has a verbal tic. If you're in public life and say something provocative, the phrase gets caught in the loop and repeated over and over. The phrase takes on a life of its own.
Some politicians know and use this phenomenon as a strategy.
Plantation mentality?
You've probably heard Hillary Clinton's oft-repeated remark to a Harlem audience on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. She said Republicans have been running the House of Representatives "like a plantation -- and you know what I'm talking about." Wink, wink.
Republicans cried foul and said they weren't racist. Democrats, including Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, defended Clinton. Well, what was she talking about?
Clinton's press secretary told The Washington Post that the House is "a top-down system that is fundamentally at odds with how the people's House should operate." Oh, it was a management critique.
Not really. She was appealing -- the impolite word is pandering -- to her base.
Some saw the plantation remark as a sign the senator from New York was moving left to run for president. First lady Laura Bush, half way around the world, declared Clinton's remark "ridiculous."
We live in a society in which ridiculous, outrageous talk commands top dollar in what passes for entertainment. But people still want their elected officials to exercise restraint.
Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., had to give up his post as majority leader after he was caught on videotape saying something ridiculous and it was replayed endlessly.
Lott said at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party that the country would have been better off had Thurmond been elected president in 1948. Thurmond ran as a segregationist Dixiecrat.
You might think such a remark would doom a politician. But the flip side of our constantly moving news cycle is that the collective memory is short.
Lott announced last week he will run for his fourth Senate term, and he suggested he might try to return to the Senate leadership.
He also had some harsh words for the reformers who want to crack down on lobbyists and lavish free meals for members of Congress.
"Some of it is outrageous," Lott said of the proposals. "I mean, now we're going to say you can't have a meal for more than $20? Where you going, to McDonald's?"
Clearly, the idea was ridiculous.
X Marsha Mercer is Washington Bureau chief for Media General News Service. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.