Taking a swing at political demagoguery


WASHINGTON -- Despite the fact that age has officially carved another notch on my pistol grip, I love this time of year. It gets hot. Congress goes home. The kids are full of anticipation for the long break. It's time to sit on that old porch swing with the arms worn smooth with age, drink iced tea, listen to the rhythmic creak of the chains and watch the cars go by.

When I was a boy visiting my grandparents' farm in the North Carolina mountains, I'd sit on their swing counting the headlights with my grandmother, Vera, who we called Nanny, as she and my granddad E.A. Westbrook talked politics and reminisced about the moonshiners running their '40 Fords through the back pasture.

As I sit in my own swing with my kids, it dawns on me that I must've gotten pretty good at listening to political arguments. In nearly (that's nearly!) five decades, I've pretty much heard them all. From the old ones about race and the spread of Communism to new ones about global warming and health care.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin comes from that same part of the world. Not as far up in the hills, but he grew up on a dirt road near Charlotte. He's probably heard the siren call made by chains of a porch swing, and he may have heard the old folks talk politics on the porch. It's North Carolina, so he may have heard of the prowess of the bootleggers and the legendary '40 Fords, too. After all, that's what built NASCAR -- and made Charlotte famous.

I'm always surprised when we disagree over just how free speech should be. To me, we are both steeped in the tradition of public discourse. I was born in North Carolina, but when my dad moved us to Alabama, that tradition came with me.

I covered Gov. George Wallace down there a bit. He was a hard guy to escape. He was rehabilitated when I became a professional politics watcher. He had been shot, apologized for his stand in the school-house door and made amends with African-Americans. Still, I can't help but hear echoes of the old Wallace when I read Martin's statements as he pushes the censorship lobby's agenda.

Last week, the federal courts tossed out Martin's attempt to tighten government's stranglehold on broadcast speech. The New York court told the FCC that their new rules making a slip of the tongue on TV and radio a crime are wrong.

Martin slipped into demagoguery as easily as my butt slides onto a porch swing. He attacked the court as "divorced from reality." Branding the decision as something outside the American mainstream, he made sure that he got the cities of New York and Hollywood into his statement. Are the millions of people who live in New York and Los Angeles really less American than those who live in Charlotte or Washington? Or is it some subset of those people?

Wallace never did better when he railed against the pointy-headed intellectuals and the federal courts. It's a good strategy to play to if you have eyes on politics in a conservative state, or if you are a true believer.

I'm not immune to demagoguery. I'm told that my conviction that we are in a war for free speech is over the top. I don't think so. The government always wants to control speech. That's how it controls us.

American politics swings on a pendulum. It goes too far, then it comes back. It looks like maybe we're reaching the end of one swing. Now we're going back. It just needs a push. Just like my swing.