Potpourri: How Can You Know the Truth When You Vote?:
Now that the election is over, I am as confused as ever about how to vote intelligently: as baffled as I was 20 years ago.
In 1984 I was a journalist covering the then-titanic political battle between Sen. Jesse Helms and Gov. Jim Hunt to win Helms’ U.S. Senate seat. Because of its philosophical, political, and public consequence, I attended almost every appearance of theirs in the Triad region. I knew their stands on issues and their attack strategies. Yet, when the campaign ended with Helms’ reelection, I didn’t have a clue as to where the truth lay on each side. I tried. I would take Helms’ accusations to the Hunt folks to examine the accuracy of the claims, and vice versa. Inevitably, each candidate’s accusations against the other were rarely of whole cloth. A piece was almost always missing. So much time has passed that I can’t give you specific examples; I just remember that campaign claims were 1/3 to 2/3 accurate. Demagoguery is such a nasty term, but I don’t know how else to describe it. Sure it’s common in virtually all campaigns, but here is what has nagged at me all these years. If I, a journalist spending countless hours with both candidates, could not determine the truth of either candidate’s record, how in the world could a voter? About the only opportunity is to read extensive backgrounders in newspapers, but those admirable stories are eclipsed by the bombardment of campaign ads, whistle stop appearances, debates, and news conferences most people see.
So what does a two decade old campaign have to do with the present? As in 1984, I feel like I just voted in a presidential election without important facts.
Here’s what happened. I voted for John Kerry mostly because I decided the Iraq attack was ill-considered, the wrong way to fight terrorism, and the right way to increase anti-American hatred. Simple as that. So, my vote for Kerry was more a one-person referendum on Iraq than a huge endorsement of him. In fact some of Kerry’s projected tax policies concerned me as a small businessman. Nevertheless, Kerry got my vote because of the war.
Then I read Newsweek, the expansive post-election Nov. 14 issue that raised the curtain on what happened behind the scenes in the Bush and Kerry campaigns. Imbedded journalists had incredible access in exchange for not reporting until after the election. After reading this issue, there is no other conclusion, in my opinion, than that the Kerry campaign was a non-stop train wreck. I knew Kerry was highly deliberative on issues and often painfully indistinct in communicating. I accepted that. No one’s perfect. But if I had any idea that he could not manage a campaign staff, its goals and decisions any better than Newsweek reported, why would I want someone that conflicted manning the White House? Read the magazine and judge for yourself.
What is frustrating to me is that I did not know the extent of the Kerry campaign circus. Had I known, I would have voted differently, if at all. In hindsight, you can see signs of disorganization, but at the time how could you be sure they were authentic? What was real and what was illusion? What was fact and what was demagoguery?
I believe most of us internalize all the information we can get about candidates and their positions and then ultimately make a gut decision about whom to support. Voting embodies that old saying that most decisions are based on incomplete information. What disturbs me is just how inaccurate and misleading that incomplete information might be. How DO we discern where the truth begins and ends? What significant information are we missing? How do we know what we do not know when we make that gut call in the voting booth?
All I do know is that I believe I backed a lame horse, didn’t know it at the time, and don’t know how to prevent it from happening in the future.