Thursday, October 1, 2009

Politicians put the hype in hyperbole -- Oct. 1, 2009 column


The tenor of today’s so-called political debate brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s observation, “Nothing succeeds like excess.”

Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., was an obscure freshman until he staged political theater on the House floor Tuesday night. By declaring that the Republican health-care plan is: “Die quickly,” Grayson won a dubious honor. Republican colleagues in the House threatened to bring a resolution of disapproval against him.

And so Grayson joined Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., the Diogenes of Dixie who shouted “You lie” during President Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress, in making himself an instant celebrity through an over-the-top remark. Depending on where you stand, the Grayson is either a jerk or a hero. Ditto Wilson.

Wilson apologized to Obama for his outburst and then raised more than a million dollars in campaign funds. Grayson planned his moment down to the printed posters that read, “The Republican Health Care Plan: Die Quickly.” We’ll see how much he rakes in.

Grayson, emboldened by publicity, returned to the House floor the next night to apologize not for his “die quickly” remark but to the 44,000 Americans he said die annually in a contemporary Holocaust because they lack health insurance. He cited a Harvard study on the 44,000; the Holocaust reference was his own.

It’s shameful to invoke the Holocaust in such a context, but hyperbole is the red meat of 24/7 news and opinion cycle. TV, Web sites and blogs are eager for spicy morsels to throw to information-sated audiences. With constant comment everybody’s right and hobby, we risk allowing emotion to triumph over facts and thoughtful argument. It’s easier to lure readers, viewers and clicks with increasingly “extravagant statements made for effect,” the dictionary definition of hyperbole.

This can lead to absurdities like the artificial outrage among some commentators about Obama’s 18-hour trip to Copenhagen to lobby for the 2016 Olympics. Some critics scolded Obama for shirking his duties and the important tasks at hand, such as passing health care reform and shoring up the economy. How could he take his valuable time to gallivant overseas? And yet, many of these critics had complained earlier that the president was overexposed on health care and the economy.

Some critics actually opined that the tragic beating death of a Chicago high school honor student, caught in horrifying detail on a cell phone video and then aired repeatedly in a cynical ploy to grab viewers, was proof the city didn’t deserve the Olympics.

Others went with the old-faithful, character assassination, asking whether White House aide Valerie Jarrett or other Obama “cronies” would benefit personally from having the Olympics in their hometown. No need to wait for a smidge of evidence of corruption before hurling mudballs.

Outrageousness does have its limits. Facebook took down the sickening presidential assassination poll: “Should Obama be killed? Yes. Maybe. If he cuts my health care. No.” The Secret Service reportedly paid a visit to the poll’s author.

But we don’t have to wait for the Secret Service. Each of us can switch TV channels, click away from ersatz indignation on the Web and refuse to buy books by entertainers who are angry, often wrong but never in doubt.

In the 1996 presidential campaign, Bob Dole went around the country listing the Clinton administration’s transgressions, which he said the news media were ignoring.

“Where’s the outrage? Where’s the outrage?” the Republican presidential candidate implored, unable to ignite the damp wood of the electorate. These days, people get fired up five times before breakfast. Is this healthy for democracy?

Everybody wants to point out that the emperor wears no clothes and win the love of a grateful people.
These days, though, we’re on outrage overload.

In the past, a politician who wanted to get people’s attention might write a book to indicate seriousness of purpose. Today, he vents his fury by lobbing verbal grenades.

Grayson has called Rush Limbaugh a “hypocrite loser” and a “sorry excuse for a human being.” Grayson’s berating Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke in congressional hearings are enshrined on YouTube.

Today, the more ingenious and the more preposterous the attack, the more likely the attacker is to be plucked from obscurity for his 15 seconds of fame. And that’s not hyperbole.

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