When I was a little kid, I loved spinning around until I got dizzy. I enjoyed the perception that the floor bucked beneath me and swaying back and forth. Of course, that point often wasn’t enough and I spun more and let my arms extend out as I twirled faster and faster. I’d get so dizzy I couldn’t stand and kept falling. Still even then I wanted to spin more.
When I reached the point when I really couldn’t stay standing, my mom usually showed up (drawn, no doubt, by the loud thuds that accompanied each fall).
“If you keep it up, you’ll spin ’til you’re sick,” she said.
I never believed her, even after I got sick. Each time.
I (mostly) grew out of intentionally making myself dizzy. I still did it in middle school, but only if absolutely no one was around, and I never kept it up until I got sick. By high school, I stopped completely. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before I learned of a different type of spin.
I had a political awakening my sophomore year. It was 1988 and the campaign between George H. W. Bush (it was much simpler before we needed to add the two George’s initials) and Michael Dukakis was in full swing. I happened to take Speech that year.
We watched part of one of the Presidential debates in class and discussed it. I found it enlightening not because of what the two actual candidates said, but by how everyone, my teacher included, reacted. It was clear that your opinions could influence how much attention you paid to arguments from either side. I wished we had watched the entire debate, because I thought that might change the way we talked about it. I’m old enough now to realize it probably wouldn’t have changed anything, but as a fifteen year old I mistakenly believed that people could and would listen to reason. Idiot.
As an extra credit assignment, we could watch the Vice-Presidential debate between Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen. We had to take detailed notes and watch the entire debate. Some in the class groaned, but I was excited and looked forward to the assignment.
The night of the debate came and I settled in to do something I had never done before. I laid out paper and made sure I had plenty of lead for my pencil. After the debate started, I carefully listened and painstakingly made notes. There were entire sections from both candidates which I bracketed and noted “Slung a lot of mud.” in the margins.
Then, of course, came the moment everyone talked about. Dan Quayle fielded a question about his experience that also contained a subtle reference to his relative youth. Part of his response included the argument that he had as much experience in the senate as John F. Kennedy. Lloyd Bentsen’s response included the now famous line, “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
After the debate, I actually watched the talking heads for the first time. I couldn’t believe that they seemed to feel the need to explain to me what I just watched (years later in a journalism ethics class I finally understood – media can’t tell you what to think, but they can tell you what to think about).
Before I go on, I should explain my political beliefs. At that time, I essentially didn’t have any. I was fortunate that I had parents that were unconcerned with indoctrinating me toward either party, and I was so far removed from even thinking about it that I hadn’t formed any type of opinion. Now? If you really want to know, I’ll explain it like this: you know how a one-lane road has lines near each edge that let you know you’re getting close to running off track and possibly wrecking? I may meander a bit, but I keep as far away from both those lines as possible. We now return you to the rest of the story.
When we discussed the debate the next day, I was amazed at how my classmates and teacher perceived that moment. Stripped of all political beliefs and punditry, Quayle made a statement about how much experience he had. Nothing more, nothing less. Bentsen took the opportunity to pounce and change the discussion (in fact, many believe this was the moment he began to be taken seriously as a vice-presidential candidate).
I raised this very point in class. My teacher disagreed with my assessment, but allowed that it could be taken as “spin.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“It’s where someone takes a situation and twists it to best reflect on them. It’s a way of changing what is being discussed to help the person out.”
“So they try to not actually argue their point and just try to basically change the subject?”
“Why would they do that instead of just really debating?” Ah, sweet naiveté.
I saw many more examples over the years. Congressman railing against a President’s extramarital indiscretions only to have an inconvenient mistress discovered. Senators who decry behavior it turns out the secretly practice. Governors who attempt to sell open senate seats. Mayors who point to ethics problems in others while accepting cushy positions from people they originally appointed. Obviously, these are all completely hypothetical.
It’s just like when I was a kid. The spin continues until I’m sick of it. The only thing is, I’m not the one spinning anymore. I wonder if we all forced the spin to stop if we could regain our balance. I wonder if the dizziness could pass and we could clearly pay attention to actual merit rather than catchy sound bites. Maybe we would find ourselves supporting people based on their actions and character.
Maybe, just maybe, we would finally get the leaders we desire instead of the ones we deserve. Maybe we would finally have a majority of women and men that place the good of those they represent before their own ambition, wealth, or political party and inspire all of us to be better.
Ah, sweet naiveté.