The prevailing assessment of the U.S. Senate race is that it will be agonizingly close unless one of the campaigns makes a major error.
For these purposes an error means a gaffe. And a gaffe means a statement of truth best left unuttered.
So the race amounts to one drearily static element and one frightfully fluid element.
The drearily static one is spending large amounts of money to produce a disciplined message on television, mostly to slander the other guy or at least overstate or exploit his weaknesses.
The frightfully fluid one is trying to avoid any statement of truth best left unuttered. Conversely, it means pouncing to capitalize if you think the other guy might have slipped and told an imprudent truth.
Occasionally those factors can be combined in the raging cynical dishonesty of our political era, as Tom Cotton’s campaign has recently shown.
It has aired a television commercial fraudulently accusing Mark Pryor of a gaffe he didn’t commit—of believing the Mexican border is secure or at least not a great problem. But Pryor said in a television interview that the border was more secure than it was 10 years ago but isn’t perfect and that there was much work yet to do.
The incident serves to advance the argument that actual media interviews, by invoking spontaneity and risking distortion via the editing clip, should be avoided anymore at the highest political levels.
Here’s how it works less cynically and less dishonestly: Months ago Pryor gave a national cable television interview. He said that Cotton almost acts as if he has a “sense of entitlement” to the Senate for having served in the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It’s true. Cotton can’t go on a jog with a local television reporter for a brazen puff piece without explaining that he got into running when he was engrossed in the stresses of service to country and freedom.
Military service doesn’t mean Cotton warrants placement in the Senate any more than it meant that war heroes John McCain and Robert Dole should have been president—an office voters denied them in favor of decidedly civilian personnel in Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
But Pryor reeled for a while, ever emphasizing that he appreciated his opponent’s service.
Then one day Cotton told a Northwest Arkansas television interviewer that Pryor and Barack Obama—by professing Christianity and yet supporting forms of contraception that some religious extremists consider abortion—behave as Sunday-morning Christians but not everyday Christians.
Pryor professed great offense that his devotion to God and Christ had been presumptuously judged. He went on television to come out in favor of the Bible, which he had already endorsed once.
That one still haunts Cotton a bit. He was guilty of a truthful statement about the arrogance many Christian fundamentalists and extremists harbor, meaning a belief that one can’t be a Democrat and a Christian. But it’s a belief best left unexpressed.
It is itself afoul of a biblical advisory not to judge.
Then there was the thing that arose Friday.
The Guardian, the British newspaper, dispatched a reporter to Arkansas to do a piece on the epic Pryor-Cotton race. The reporter wound up with the candidates at a church bazaar in Hattieville.
The article reported that a member of Cotton’s entourage, while stressing that he was not authorized to speak for the campaign, told the reporter at this function that Cotton was getting a bum rap about being personally clumsy or aloof. If anything, this unidentified entourage member was quoted as saying, Cotton might face a challenge in personal relations on account of being on a different (presumably higher) intellectual level.
Pryor partisans pounced to say Cotton thought he was smarter than the Arkansas people.
They even theorized that the Cotton campaign is so rigidly disciplined that there was no way the unidentified entourage member was not a high-level campaign official who was cleared to talk to the Guardian reporter, if not for attribution.
Four things come to mind.
One is that no one is accusing Cotton himself of having made this statement. So he is personally in the clear. And he, after all, is the candidate.
The second is that, even if the anonymous speaker had been cleared to talk, it is unlikely that Cotton told that anonymous speaker to walk over to that international newspaper reporter and explain that Cotton was too smart to relate to voters.
The third is that Bill Clinton was smarter than the general Arkansas population—and that David Pryor and Dale Bumpers and Mike Huckabee were, too. But all of them had a natural ability to relate to all kinds of people. So Cotton’s problem is not superior intellect. It’s inferior interpersonal skill.
The fourth is that the Arkansas Senate race is unlikely to come down to something an unidentified person is quoted in a British newspaper as supposedly saying.
So the gaffe patrol’s work is never done. It must remain vigilantly on the lookout for candor or distortable variations thereof.
John Brummett’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at brummett.arkansasonline.com, or his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.