Civil, Not War

When someone stops shouting in your ear, it can take a minute to notice.

It had been a typical work-from-home day at Chez Rochat. Which is to say, something like Fred Astaire dancing on ball bearings, each step careening into the next and none of them quite on balance. Wake up, write, get Missy out the door, write, check on Heather, write, let the dogs out, write … a lifestyle tango with an unrelenting orchestra.

And then, a beat skipped.

I missed it at first. It was only later that I added up the evidence – the ballots on the counter, the calendar on the wall, the thin pile of mail on the table – and asked the question that had been hiding in my mind.

“What happened to all my election chaos?”

You know the sort of thing I mean. Over the last few years, even a non-presidential race has become an Event, sort of like being invaded by locusts, but less productive. The junk mail that could heat a home for the winter. The robo-calls that make telemarketers a nostalgic memory by comparison. The relentless barrage of ads by the oh-so-concerned, or at least the oh-so-concerned-that-you’ll-vote-the-right-way.

This year? Sure, there’s been some calls, a few letters in the mailbox. There’s been the usual back-and-forths in the usual places, some of them pretty edged.

But it’s been … bearable. Normal, even. Like an election instead of a war.

Is this even allowed anymore?

OK, I know part of it’s that we don’t have the big money here this time around. No massive spending for national politics, or fiber-optic campaigns, or oil and gas issues. When it’s down to just a few local folks spending a few thousand dollars each – at most – it’s hard to stir the waters too badly, even if the occasional outside group parachutes in.

But I think it’s a little more. Left to ourselves, I think we’ve regained a little perspective.

Last year, at the height of the Colorado wildfires, I used this space to ask that President Obama and Mr. Romney suspend their campaigns here and give the ad money to relief efforts. I saw that column re-circulated in a lot of places, but no sign that anyone in authority ever gave the matter a moment’s thought.

This year, we followed fire with flood. And with disaster on their doorsteps, our local folks showed how to do it. Everyone called off campaigning for the next three weeks or so, even those who most needed the exposure. Digging out the home became more important than getting out the vote, and more than one candidate found a way to lend a hand.

I don’t want to sound like Pollyanna. There’s a little cynic in me still that will point out how hard it is to campaign in a flood-ravaged town, and how no candidate wants to be the one that gets labeled “the insensitive jerk.” I’d be surprised if there wasn’t some calculation, frankly.

But that’s part of my point. Even the most tactically-minded politician could look at this situation, say “campaigning is stupid” and then not do it anyway. They recognized what people wanted and did it.

Isn’t that how the system’s supposed to work?

In this case, an abundance of sense (and a shortage of cents) seems to be giving us a sane election. Not a perfect one or even a perfectly polite one – by its nature, democracy tends to be pugnacious – but one where the vote can be just one more fact of life, instead of an all-consuming monster.

I’ll take it.

So thank you, ladies and gentlemen of public life. Thank you from the bottom of my over-stressed nervous system.

And if you do feel the urge to send me some mass mail, let me know.

I can restock the fireplace any time.

Faster, Higher, Sillier

Stop the presses. The International Olympic Committee may have learned what the words “common sense” mean.

Well, to a degree, anyway. This is the IOC we’re talking about.

For those who missed it, master gold-grabber Michael Phelps nearly had his medals stripped from him this week by the Olympic powers-that-be. Painful for any athlete, this would have been horrific for the all-time record holder, the most decorated Olympian in history.

So what did he do? Was he caught sneaking a joint? Did he fix a race, dope his blood, make a lewd proposition to Prince William’s wife?

No, no, no and no.

Instead Mr. Phelps, to the horror of red-blooded Olympic bureaucrats everywhere, appeared in an ad that … that … (gasp) did not involve an official sponsor of the 2012 London Games.

I’ll give you a moment to recover from the fainting spell.

That’s right. In photos leaked before the end of the Games, Phelps was seen advertising for fashion house Louis Vitton. In an act of magnanimity, Olympic officials decided that Phelps had no control over when those pictures would be released, and thus would not have to give his medals back under IOC Rule 40.

How generous. How kind.

And how come his medals were at stake at all?

Make no mistake, I understand that the Olympic Games have become big business. It’s been reported that the Games cleared over 1 billion pounds (that’s over $1.5 billion) in sponsorship revenue. Ads are no less vital for the athletes, many of whom depend on endorsements to see any kind of income at all from their sport.

Without some sort of exclusive guarantee, the money stays away. I get that. But let’s not forget what this is.

This is an athletic competition.

Medals aren’t based on your looks, your income or even how nice a guy you are. (And let’s face it, all of us can remember some real stinkers who brought home gold.) They’re based on what you did on the field, on the court, in the pool.

And they should only be taken away for the same reason.

If you cheated, if you doped, if you somehow compromised the competition, then by all means strip the medal. I’ll cheer the IOC on as they do it.

But this is just stupid.

I’m guessing the IOC wanted a threat that would get people’s attention. Well, they got it. Now it’s time to get a clue, too.

Levy fines. Big ones if it seems necessary. This was a monetary offense, so it should get a monetary payback.

But if you start invalidating on-the-field performances to feed the cash cow, people will start questioning the purpose of the Games in the first place. Is this for the glory of sport? Or simply the glory of McDonald’s?

Please don’t answer that. I’m not sure I want to know.

The IOC finally reached the right decision. Now it needs to reach the right reasoning as well. Review Rule 40. Please. And make the changes common sense requires.

Otherwise, we’ll be forced to conclude that Phelps wasn’t the only one going off the deep end.

Ad, and Subtract

There are worse things than pulling the muscles in your lower back.

For example, pulling the muscles in your lower back in the middle of a presidential campaign season.

No way to run. Nowhere to hide. No chance of straightening up long enough to see where the remote has gotten to. Just constant exposure to the drumbeat of political ads, to the point where you could create your own campaign Mad Lib.

“In (year), (presidential candidate) said that he would (incredibly mendacious/naive political claim). But what no one realized is that he would really (severe political crime), the first step in selling the nation to alien beings from the planet (name of celestial body). Don’t give (candidate) the chance to (even more severe political crime). Vote (opposing candidate). It’s for humanity.”

After a while, I wasn’t sure if my back or my brain was hurting worse.

Don’t get me wrong. I actually enjoy politics. Throughout my career, people have constantly asked how I can cover a city council week after week; I always reply that it’s the best soap opera in town. Once you know the characters and the ongoing stories, it gets pretty compelling.

More seriously, there’s something kind of fascinating in watching people try to pick their way toward a solution, whether it’s improving housing standards or figuring out how to replace an ancient, leaky swimming pool. Agree or disagree, whisper or yell, it’s being resolved with words, not fist fights, and that always gives me a little hope.

But the kind of dreck we get on our TV screens every four years doesn’t resolve anything. It rarely even tries.

Both major parties have done it. Both will continue to do it. Wildfires can’t stop it. Mass shootings barely slow it down. It’s like the psycho killer in a bad horror movie, lurching on relentlessly no matter what may stand in the way.

I know, it’s nothing new. Jefferson’s opponents accused him of wanting to confiscate all the Bibles in the country. Lincoln’s charged him with crimes up to and including murder. Mud and money have been part of the game since the earliest days and deploring it is a bit like deploring the common cold; you get a lot of sympathy but few solutions.

But does there have to be so much of it these days?

I keep three or four fact-checking websites close to hand these days, just to shovel through the worst of it. I know a lot of friends who do the same – and who argue about which fact-checkers can be trusted.

And a lot of it’s not even all that effective. I’ve heard political consultants before who estimate that 80 percent or more of campaign spending is wasted. The trouble is, no one knows in advance which dollars will be the waste, so the monetary shotgun gets loaded again, to spray where it will in hope of hitting something.

But what do you do about it?

I’ve had a fantasy for a while now. I know it violates all kinds of constitutional principles, that it’d never happen in the real world. But it has an appealing simplicity to it.

Set a spending limit per state, per presidential candidate. Every $5 over that limit takes a vote off your total. Go $1 million over, lose 200,000 votes in that state … and maybe, in a close race, lose the state itself.

I know, yeah, right. But it gets at the heart of the problem. The campaigns and their PACs have to want to rein themselves in. They have to see a situation where holding back gives more benefits than carrying on does.

Until that happens, we’re likely to see more of the same. And more, and more, and more.

Just thinking about it makes my vertebrae hurt.

Call it a spine of the times.

Burning Thoughts

At some point, you’d think there would be nothing left to burn.

If only.

Every week, every day, a new fire seems to start, an old one seems to grow stronger. Names that were places to visit are now battlegrounds. Or staging areas. Or victims.

Who dreamed we would see flame stalk the Air Force Academy? Who imagined fire would draw near to NCAR? Whose worst nightmares assumed this much destruction, this much displacement, this heaven on Earth turned hell?

All right. There were warnings. The dry winter, the rapidly vanishing snowpack, the tinder lying ready and waiting. The TV talking heads bubbling on about how beautiful the weather had been, how nice it was not to be cooped up inside by snow and ice.

They’re on my list.

So yeah, I think some of us at least knew we were in for a bad fire season. But never this.

And it’s only started.

Sometimes I think the worst part, unless you’re actually in the path of the destruction, is the helplessness. Oh, we try. We put up friends, we give to the Red Cross, we volunteer to help the firefighters in every way imaginable.

But it’s not what we really want.

What we want is to turn off the fire. Only a few brave men and women out on the line have that chance.

What we want is to turn off the fire season. And not even those few can make that guarantee.

The rest, however welcome, feels so small sometimes.

And then there’s the bits that aren’t welcome at all.

Every day, it seems we get a choice of two images on television: a shot of Colorado burning, or an ad for people campaigning. It’s even odds which one is less wanted right now.

I know, one of the great things about our country is that we keep going on. Even a civil war couldn’t make us suspend national elections and nothing less is about to do it. That’s all very admirable and fine.

At the same time, to continue a pair of high-dollar ad campaigns declaring “I’m the greatest and he’s a jerk” in a state that’s burning to the ground seems … well, petty.

A friend had an idea. I liked it enough to steal it and share it. And I hope someone, somewhere is listening.

Mr. Romney. President Obama. Suspend your Colorado campaigns for now.

Then take what you would have spent on ads in this state, and donate it to the fire relief.

I know you guys. You don’t spend small, especially in a battleground state. A single week can see a million dollars worth of TV ads here, just from one campaign.

The High Park Fire alone has cost around $33 million to fight so far. That’s not small spending either. And it’s doing a lot more than any finger-pointing ever will.

You can help that.

Think about it. And if the sheer humanity of the act isn’t enough, consider it tactically. If even one of you makes this move, the other will have to follow or else look more heartless than Lord Voldemort and Darth Vader combined. Once both of you do it, there’s no fear of losing an advantage.

And the first one to do it comes off looking really, really good.

OK, there’ll be some cynicism. There always is in an election year. But it’s an action that will do some genuine good. Between that and having some peace on their TV screens, I think most voters will respond warmly.

National office is important. But some priorities rank even higher than that. Please, gentlemen. Show us you understand that.

Battleground state?

You have no idea.