For gubernatorial candiate Doug Gansler, name recognition is no longer a problem. Last week his name and photo got widespread national attention including NBC’s “Today Show,” ABC’s “World News With Diane Sawyer,” MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” CNN, FOX, Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show,” every Maryland and D.C. television news broadcast, every Maryland and D.C. newspaper, multiple editorials and op-ed columns, endless radio talk shows and all the political blogs.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the widespread photo is of Gansler standing in the middle of a teenage beach party that looks like a Roman orgy. What followed was a public free-for-all over Gansler’s duty to stop the underage drinking made worse by Gansler’s lame attempt to talk his way out of it.
“Beachpartygate” followed on the heels of “Ticketgate” (Gansler’s failure to pay a D.C. speed camera ticket) which followed on the heels of “Troopergate” (allegations that Gansler pressured his state trooper drivers to bypass traffic jams by going off-road with emergency lights), which followed on the heels of “Videogate” (a spy secretly recorded Gansler telling campaign supporters that his opponent, Anthony Brown, was counting on his race to get elected).
The media is having a field day with Gansler’s misdeeds but you don’t need to be a Doug Gansler fan to wonder if there isn’t something just a little bit fishy about all this.
First, there’s the timing. The “Troopergate” allegations date back to December 2011 but only become “newsworthy” on Oct. 13, this year. Why the 23-month delay? And how come it appeared on The Washington Post’s front page the day before Gansler’s big news conference announcing his running mate? Clearly “Troopergate” was held back and rolled out to overshadow and ruin Gansler’s campaign event.
Likewise, “Ticketgate” stems from a June 12, 2012, traffic ticket that didn’t get media attention until Oct. 23 of this year. Why the 16-month delay? Even “Beachpartygate” dates back to June, a four-month pause until the infamous Instagram made its way onto the front pages.
My grandfather once told me that “politicians shouldn’t do anything they don’t want to read about in tomorrow’s newspapers.” He was right about the conduct part, but he was wrong about the “tomorrow’s newspaper” part. What he should have said was “politicians shouldn’t do anything they don’t want their political enemies saving up and feeding to the media during the next election.”
Look, the news reporters aren’t digging up those damaging Gansler revelations. They’re being fed to the reporters by people who don’t want Gansler elected. You have to be criminally naive to believe otherwise.
Second, there’s the overkill. As a result of “Beachpartygate,” The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza gave Gansler his “Worst Week in Washington” award. Wow, even worse than the Obamacare roll-out or NSA’s latest spy scandals? Chancellor Angela Merkel might disagree.
A Frederick News-Post editorial demanded that Gansler quit the governor’s race and The Baltimore Sun ran a front page, over-the-top story comparing Gansler to criminally convicted Marvin Mandel, Marion Barry and Dale Anderson. Then there were the letters-to-the-editor blaming Gansler for everything short of the Kennedy assassination (“it was a Landon School student who murdered [Yeardley Love] and allegedly spent many days in a drunken state”). Welcome to the Doug Gansler beat down, anyone can play.
I don’t blame the media for running with the juicy “tips” being dropped on them. But I blame them for not asking, who is dropping these dimes? Why? And are we complicit in a “dirty tricks” effort at voter manipulation?
Ironically, Gansler, a Democrat, is getting the politics of personal destruction usually reserved for Republicans and the tea party. Remember how the media dredged up Mitt Romney’s high school haircut hazing caper? Or George Bush’s ancient DUI? Or Virginia candidate Bob McDonnell’s 35-year-old college thesis? Or the great fun the media had speculating whether Sarah Palin’s grandchild was really her own child? It’s always open season on Republicans, and no blow is too low.
Teenage drinking? That tragedy struck the O’Malley household, but I don’t recall any front-page stories or media smear campaigns. Likewise, Anthony Brown has had some personal problems that the media properly chose to ignore.
Poor Doug Gansler isn’t used to brass knuckles politics because he’s a product of Montgomery County’s pillow-fight politics, where a “dirty trick” is putting-up your lawn signs a week early or starting a whisper campaign that your opponent is a global warming denier.
Over the years, no one has been more critical of Doug Gansler than me. When he was state’s attorney, I went after him for grandstanding and improper conduct. I even wrote that he was a “hot dog” (that’s when he stopped talking to me). And I’ve criticized his attorney general’s opinions on free speech and gay marriage because I thought he was demagoguing.
But just because I was born at night doesn’t mean I was born last night. I know a political smear campaign when I see one. In politics, “when you’re explaining, you’re losing,” and Gansler’s enemies want this election to become a referendum on Gansler’s conduct instead of a referendum on the real issues facing Maryland.
That’s a huge diservice which the media should resist even if the beat down sells newspapers. Meanwhile, Gansler’s enemies have accomplished the impossible: they’ve actually made me feel sorry for Doug Gansler.
Blair Lee is chairman of the board of Lee Development Group in Silver Spring and a regular commentator for WBAL radio.
His column appears Fridays in the Business Gazette. His past columns are available at www.gazette.net/blairlee. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.