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Theater of democracy

| Sunday, April 9, 2006

With political campaigning comes mud, lots of mud. Enough mud to fill a sports stadium for a monster-truck pull.

Below-the-belt politicking is not just a present-day phenomenon. Neither is it limited to big-boy presidential elections such as, say, Grover Cleveland's scandal-laced presidential campaign.

Even lowly local special elections are not immune to spectacular Shakespearean moments.

One such campaign is brewing in Pittsburgh's suburbs -- a special election to be held Tuesday to replace the poster child of theatrical political scandal, Jeff Habay. Habay's lists of infractions are the butt of many jokes in his district, making most voters resolute in distancing themselves from further political shenanigans.

Or so they hoped.

In the race for the 30th Legislative District, booze and sex are at the forefront. In the back seat are real issues.

Mike Dolan of Shaler and Shawn Flaherty of Fox Chapel are the gladiators in this duel -- Dolan on the right, Flaherty on the left. Had Flaherty not drawn first blood, their race might have been apropos of brand-name politics and nothing else.

But this is a Republican-rich suburb and Flaherty knew he could not win by name recognition alone. So he did his best re-creation of the Bill-Clinton-on-Barbara-Walters moment. Five seconds after admitting to an affair and subsequent out-of-wedlock child, he blamed his opponent for bringing the matter to the public's attention and then called a news conference to demand a "clean" campaign.

Give the guy an A-plus for tactics. In a borderline-brilliant move, he spread a negative about himself, blamed it on his opponent, then put up an empty no-mudslinging pledge.

Now everyone is paying attention.

Tack on the dug-up college underage drinking citations on Dolan and Flaherty's leading in mudslinging one-upmanship.

At first blush, it makes a spectator wonder why politics always has to come down to this.

But at second blush, you start to wonder: Would voters pay attention otherwise?

Office water-cooler conversations typically aren't about property taxes, health care and tort reform. Instead, we opine about "24" and "American Idol," or if Brad and Angelina are still "just" friends.

As a society, we expect to be stimulated all of the time. Public issues make our eyes glaze over. But bring up some out-of-wedlock frolicking or some underage drinking at Penn State and we suddenly refocus.

Do we, in fact, need our political campaigns to be sexed-up?

Think about it: Many of us are of a generation that was weaned on MTV. We want entertainment and we want it to be served up in 30-second intervals. Hence, the half-minute campaign commercials that spew bile faster than Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney pulling out her race card.

Is this what our Founding Fathers had in mind• Maybe -- they loved theater and politics, risked their lives for the latter and, yes, slung some pretty slimy mud of their own on occasion.

But politics gives birth to theater, which breathes life into politics.

The Dolan-Flaherty race is a microcosm of elections as a whole. Almost every race in this country, from dogcatcher to president, has drama -- real or make-believe -- tacked on for good measure. The wise voter remembers that man's motives are always secondary to his accomplishments.

Casting our vote is an honor and a privilege. If we need a little foreplay to get us to do it, well, so be it. Political campaigns are nothing more than democracy's theater.

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