Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Politicians and Sports

This will go from light News of the Day to something more serious.

Mayor Menino screwed up his speech for the dedication of the Bobby Orr statue. He used the word ionic instead of iconic, and he mistakenly attributed “splitting the uprights” to Varitek, a baseball player, rather than Vinatieri, a football player. Boston sports fans are more likely to hound him for the latter, but I give him half a pass on that. Word-storage is a funny thing, and V-ethnic substituting for V-ethnic could just be a slip of the mind. Jason Varitek has certainly been mentioned more often than Adam Vinatieri over the last few years. Yes, he should be more careful about his sports info when he is speaking at a sports function. Either he was speaking off-the-cuff, seldom a wise choice; or he read his cue-card wrongly, not an encouraging sign; or the speechwriter he hired screwed up, also not good. Yet it’s only dumb, not monumentally stupid.

I take that back. As I wrote out my reasons why he might have mistakenly said Varitek instead of Vinatieri, I concluded it’s worse than mere slippage.

Ionic may be closer to monumentally stupid. It is, I grant, at least a real word. But missing iconic shows that he doesn’t really know the word. It’s not a readily hearable mispronunciation, a regionalism, or even a frequent mistake, as irregardless would be. The mayor might be able to get the meaning of iconic right on a test, when he had time to think about it, but it is clearly not in his usual vocabulary. Don’t use it, Mayor Malaprop.

My usual sports talk show verged on important knowledge this morning, then veered away from it. They noted the mistakes and immediately related it to other sports bloopers by politicians: Teddy Kennedy saying “Mike Maguire and Sammy Sue-ser*” and Congressman Chris Shays saying “Rafael Palmeiri getting his 300th hit.” They wondered if these politicians, who don’t know that much about sports but hold hearings on steroids and otherwise regulate the industry, might also not know much about the other things they pass legislation on. They stayed on this for a few minutes, bringing up personal incidents of watching C-Span and suddenly realising that the speaker didn’t actually know much about the topic at hand, but was pontificating anyway.

They almost got it. In the end, they shrugged it off, saying that sports isn’t all that important at the end of the day. It doesn’t really matter if they don’t understand it. They saw it as an unfortunate oddity, not part of a trend.

Yet it is part of a trend. I recently noted how little state legislators know about mental health. The recent hearings with Goldman Sachs revealed that Senators don’t understand that industry. Few of them understand much science. Sometimes they can’t do simple arithmetic. They don’t understand much about war. Or health care.

Well, what do they know? They know lots of important information about getting elected: what emote-words voters want to hear, what the party breakdown is in various regions, what types of advertising are most effective, what issues are currently hot, whose hands need to be shaken, how to raise money. As many of them are lawyers, they also know legal terminology pretty well. Some don’t have much beyond that in knowledge of the law, but there are a fair number who actually do understand it. They know how their own legislative bodies work, who is responsible for what, and something of who the key people are.

That’s about it. You can’t count on elected officials at any level actually knowing more than that. Getting sports names and facts wrong is not an interesting oddity – it is a window into the rest of their knowledge. There’s nothing wrong with not knowing something about a subject. There is something very wrong about pretending to know a subject when you don’t, and then asserting legislative power over it.

Our recent presidents, notably, have all had sports knowledge (except for Jimmy Carter). Obama and Nixon have probably had the most extensive knowledge. Perhaps it is important to the general image of a presidential candidate, which we examine in more detail than we do senators or mayors.

Related: Bill James wrote in amazement about David Halberstam’s Summer of ’49 that the famed journalist, on whom we had relied for much of our political reporting, had gotten so many important facts wrong in the book. Worse, these were facts that would be relatively easy to have researched, and seemed in the service of a particular narrative about manager Joe McCarthy. Perhaps, James wondered, this was an unimportant complaint against an important writer who was having a bit of a lark with a sports book. But what if Halberstam had shown a similar sloppiness in his other books – about Vietnam, about the Kennedys – which had been so influential? It turns out, in fact, that this is exactly the criticism of Halberstam by serious historians – that he served up misleading and even false information in the service of a political agenda.

Update: Vince Masi of ESPN add the following: "So who puts the bug in candidates' ears about seeming what they are not? John Kerry last week professed to be a big fan of 'Manny Ortez,' then re-emphasized the phoofery by correcting it to 'David Ortez.' No, that was Dave (Baby) Cortez and 'The Happy Organ.' A few years back Kerry went on a Boston station with Eddie Andelman and said 'my favorite Red Sox player of all time is The Walking Man, Eddie Yost,' who never played for the Red Sox.

*Kennedy gets a pass on the second syllable because that’s just his accent. The first syllable, not so much.


Anna said...

Are you a Howie Carr listener? His show after that incident was hilarious. One caller called in and said "remember when Larry Bird let the ball go between his legs?"

Anonymous said...

I may have mentioned before, I have briefed Congressional Staffers. They, as you know, are the ones that actually are tasked to find out the germane details that a Congressman/woman or Senator will soon have to speak about and, more importantly, vote for or against. The "Cheese" is out gripping and grinning and - well, raising money and cementing deals. So, the staffs are the real ones. Here's the problem. They, just like their bosses, are mostly NOT experts in any field. Most are fairly bright, but about what? Great vocabularies and all. Good PR people, often lawyers also. Well, I've told them things about various weapons systems the Marines used and use. None had a clue what I was talking about. None had done any research. I could have told then most anything and they had NO frame of reference. This is scary.

Anonymous said...

Halberstam not Halberstram.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Fixed. Thanks. As a Swede, I keep wanting to make his name Swedish instead of German. I have made that same mistake repeatedly over the years and just can't get it.

Erin said...

It's not going to get any better.

One of my students wrote in an essay: 1984 shows the opposite of an ethiopia--a government full of oppression and inequality.

Sam L. said...

Just like newspapers. Read about something you know--and you find errors. Read about something you don't know--you won't know what the errors are, but you should be sure they're there, too.