Politics#8217; unfortunate side

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 3, 2008

When the last vote has been counted, when the victors’ jubilation has given way to the reality of governing and when the losers’ disappointment has subsided, may the photograph beside this column be the defining image of Franklin’s 2008 city elections.

Frank Davis snapped it after Wednesday night’s mayoral candidate forum. After going at it pretty good for 90 minutes, candidates Jim Councill, Ellis Crum and Greg McLemore shook hands and shared a hearty laugh. They even posed for a group photo, each candidate grinning broadly.

It was a welcome respite from a campaign that has gotten snippy in its final days.

We tend to take our politics personally in small towns, and that’s unfortunate.

Perhaps my skin has gotten so thick over the years that I expect too much of others. Newspaper publishers and hospital administrators have the thickest skins in small communities, I’m convinced, because our institutions tend to be the only ones of their kind in town. We catch a lot of heat, much of it deserved. Our mistakes are magnified.

Not a day goes by that I don’t field a complaint or criticism about our newspaper. Most criticism, to the credit of our readers and advertisers, is constructive. I welcome the input, seek it out, and use it to make our newspaper stronger. I take the same approach to perfection that my 74-year-old dad takes to longevity: “I’ll live to be 100,” he likes to say, “or die in the attempt.”

But political candidates — even those who’ve been around the block a time or two — tend to have thin skins. I’m sure it has something to do with the social structure in small towns. Elections force voters to choose one friend over another — and, if they’re passionate about their community’s governance, to declare their allegiance and publicly help their candidate of choice. It might be putting up a yard sign. Or writing a letter to the editor. Or knocking on doors on a Saturday afternoon.

The other candidate feels slighted — perhaps betrayed. Hard feelings result — and linger, sometimes for years.

On balance, I find local politics much more interesting and enjoyable than state or national politics because of the former’s simplicity and rawness. The latter have become too scripted and too impersonal. Local candidates don’t have handlers and speechwriters. What you see is what you get.

But the national politicians have it right in one respect. Most of them don’t let partisanship interfere with their relationships. A Republican and a Democrat will have a vigorous debate on the House or Senate floor in the afternoon, then share a drink at a Capitol Hill pub a few hours later.

I was fascinated by a “60 Minutes” piece last Sunday on Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Arguably the most conservative justice, Scalia revealed to the interviewer that his best friend on the court is its most liberal justice: Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Some people find that distasteful — perhaps evidence that officials’ disagreements are all for show. I disagree. I think it’s entirely possible to disagree vehemently on matters of policy and political philosophy, cling stubbornly to our core convictions, but still be friends at the end of the day.

May that spirit prevail Wednesday morning in Franklin when we put the election behind us and move forward, together.

Steve Stewart is publisher of The Tidewater News. His e-mail address is steve.stewart@tidewaternews.com.