Commentary

Preparing for the primaries

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Res ipsa loquitur.

That’s a useful Latin phrase meaning, “The thing speaks for itself.”

It’s a legal tactic commonly used in negligence cases. It claims that the guilt of the defendant is so patently obvious that little evidence need accompany the charge. In a case of medical malpractice, for example, who else but the surgeon could have taken out the wrong body part or left behind a sponge that caused an infection?

So, res ipsa loquitur, and the burden of proof suddenly shifts from the plaintiff to the defendant.

I think as voters we should deploy a version of that principle when it comes to claims of political malpractice.

We tend to be mostly trusting in our relationships — how could we live day to day and stay sane otherwise? It’s usually a rare exception when we allow a scoundrel to stay in our inner circle. “Oh, Luther’s OK. Just take everything he says with a grain of salt.”

So we have the same amount of faith in our public servants when they are accused of miscreant behavior. You’ve heard the charges:

Governor so-and-so and his entourage took an extravagant trip at taxpayer expense. Mayor what’s-his-name awarded a lucrative bid to the contractor who just happened to be a huge campaign donor. Candidate I’m-your-pal moves from a million-dollar home to an efficiency apartment just in time to seek office in the district the apartment is located in.

We hear the claims and give the defendants the benefit of the doubt, waiting for the accusers to provide proof of their claims.

And that is backward. Surely if we have learned anything in our 246-year experiment, it is that putting the burden of proof on the politician is the only way to keep the scoundrels a rare breed.

Governor, show us the economic development your trip was supposedly in search of. Mayor, demonstrate the usefulness of that contract to taxpayers. Candidate, convince us you are not just an opportunistic jerk.

I don’t mean to suggest our officials are a lesser breed. I hope I never become quite that cynical, and I have, in fact, known more than a few sincere, dedicated public servants.

But they live in a different world.

They won office by being better than the other candidates at telling the voters what they wanted to hear. Now, they are members of a club whose members thrive best when making the best deals with competing brokers of influence. A promise to them is not a sacred vow but something between a card to be played and commodity to be traded.

We have to judge them on their terms, not ours, and to do that requires looking beyond what they say and even what they do, and trying to figure out who they are at the core.

It’s the “primary season” now, and I’ve become almost numb to the onslaught of TV commercials for candidates. “Oh, I used to be disgusted, and now I try to be amused,” to quote Elvis Costello.

The most amusing commercial so far this year is for the candidate who had himself filmed smoking a joint – in Illinois, you know, so he was not breaking the law, unless you count federal law, which most people apparently don’t. Poor William F. Buckley – he had to sail outside the U.S.  territorial waters to stay legal.

If the candidate were being honest with us, he would have filmed himself after he smoked marijuana, so we could see the kind of thought processes he might employ in the legislature. But that would have knocked him off my list, assuming he moved into an efficiency apartment in my district.

I no longer listen to what the candidates vow to do or not do. I ignore the so-called philosophies they fervently espouse. I pay no attention to the “ordinary people” in their ads who look as if they’d rather be anywhere else.

I just try to determine two things about every candidate. Would they, 1) stumble across the right thing occasionally and otherwise do minimal damage, and, 2) be able to step up and be responsible if a crisis hits?

And I am guided in this by another useful Latin phrase:

Caveat emptor.

 

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at leoedits@yahoo.com.

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