Thursday, October 07, 2010

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In 1835, Benjamin Disraeli, then a young man on the cusp of a promising political career, achieved anonymity. Under cover of a pseudonym, Disraeli began to belabor his political opponents in a series of columns written for The Morning Post, a political journal of the day.

Something of a dandy – Disraeli’s manner of dressing easily might have brought a blush to the cheek of Lady Gaga – the future prime minister of Britain and accomplished novelist had a way with words. He was, without question, one of the most captivating rhetoricians of his time.

John Campbell, later to become the first Baron Campbell, was, Disraeli wrote, “a base-born Scotchman, a son of the manse, that course Pict,” a “booing, fawning, jobbing progeny of haggis and cockaleekie.” Daniel O’Connell, a Member of Parliament for Dublin, one of Disraeli’s most persistent critics, was “an incendiary and a traitor.” Not to be bested, O’Connell replied in kind that Disraeli was “a living liar,” a “miscreant” who possessed “all the necessary requisites of perfidy, selfishness, depravity, want of principle etc. which would qualify him for the change from Radical to Conservative. His name shows that he is of Jewish origin. I do not use it as a term of reproach; there are many most respectable Jews. But here are, as in every other people, some of the lowest and most disgusting grade of moral turpitude; and of those I look upon Mr. Disraeli as the worst.”

Having once killed a man in a duel, Campbell had taken a vow not to fight again on the field of honor. Unable to challenge to a duel a man who had foresworn dueling, Disraeli sought satisfaction from Campbell’s son: “I beg that you, or someone of his [father’s] blood, may attempt to avenge the inextinguishable hatred with which I shall pursue his existence.”

Young Campbell politely declined the offer.

The 19th century was a rough and tumble time for ambitious politicians on their way up the greasy pole.

Put the mask of anonymity on a politician, give him a hiding place in the underground, and he will be puffed up with a superfluity of courage and vitriol. Abraham Lincoln narrowly avoided a duel challenge that arose as a result of a pseudonymous piece attributed to him by an aggrieved politician.

Few of the quarrelsome politicians of the 19th century would be surprised by some of the 21st century’s highly misleading and suggestive political ads. Most modern ads are endorsed by the politicians who benefit by them. Some are produced by groups that support this or that political saint of the moment. As always in these matters, haste goeth before what Mark Twain might have called “a stretcher.” Fortunately, there are among us some conscientious journalists not yet poisoned by partisanship, who track the stretchers, half truths, glittering generalities and outright fabrications.

The latest Blumenthal anti-McMahon ad is a piece of fiction that five minutes careful attention by a conscientious journalist would have exploded. The centerpiece of the ad rests on the false notion that McMahon said she would favor a reduction in the minimum wage.

That was never said. McMahon simply noted that the minimum wage set by congress, like any wage, may be pegged too high. When it is pegged too high, the cost of labor is driven up and low wage jobs begin to disappear. The price of labor, like the price of any product, will remain unpurchased if it is too expensive. In fact, that is precisely what is happening with increasing frequency in many cities. Those who suffer from an inflated minimum wage are primarily young people acquiring their first jobs, many of them young African Americans in search of a little extra cash and a job fetching line in their resumes.

McMahon’s remark that the level at which the minimum wage is set should concern congress was quickly “translated” by her political opponents and quick as a wink a revised version appeared in newspaper headlines and political ads in which McMahon was said to have favored a reduction in the minimum wage. Blumenthal hastily put out an ad pumping the false claim at the end of which the attorney general, who appears not to know how jobs are created, pointedly did not assert that he approved the false message.

An anti-Blumenthal ad put out by the U.S. Chamber Of Commerce is rather bracing, but it falls far short of being false.

This one begins with a distressed lady sitting at a table, possibly filing out a job application for a position that may not be available. Written on the floor in red letters are the words “Rising Unemployment,” followed by a voice over, “Rising unemployment means families are suffering. And after 40 years in politics, can Richard Blumenthal handle the truth about his record… He’s been crushing small businesses for years with thousands of frivolous lawsuits, forcing some to close. His sue first and ask questions later stampede has earned him the worst attorney general in the nation in 2007”

A little chastening, but nothing to fight a duel over.
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