Dole Takes Political Play Of The Week (4/18/97)
Lott's Humanity Wins Play Of The Week
By Bill Schneider/CNN
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, May 23) -- Illicit sex, recriminations, love triangles, criminal charges. You'd think high-level politicians would stay a million miles from those kinds of issues. Usually, they do. But sometimes they figure out how to turn sordid personal dramas into clever political plays.
Case in point: Lt. Kelly Flinn, the nation's first female B-52 pilot vs. the U.S. Air Force. The military threw the book at her, threatening her with a court martial, even prejudging her guilty.
At a Senate hearing this week, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald Fogelman said, "This is not an issue of adultery. This is an issue about an officer that is entrusted to fly nuclear weapons who disobeyed an order, who lied. That is what this is about."
The military insisted the case was all about principle.
Secretary of the Air Force Sheila Widnall said during a news conference Thursday, "I focused on the fundamental, underlying values in this case, the values of officership and the importance of integrity to the Air Force and our absolute need to maintain order and discipline. And those were the criteria that I used in reaching my decision."
But something else was involved, too: people. Human beings, with all their foibles and their messy relationships. One politician was quick to figure that out.
"I'll tell you, the Pentagon is not in touch with reality on this so-called question of fraternization, I mean, get real," said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) "You're still dealing with human beings."
What was the majority leader of the United States Senate doing getting himself involved in this mess? He was expressing a little human sympathy.
"I think it's unfair. I don't understand why she's being singled out and punished the way she is," Lott said.
It turned out it was a sympathy widely shared by the American people.
By a two-to-one margin, the public sympathizes with Lt. Flinn, in a new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll. Even after it was all over, most Americans disapproved of the way the Air Force handled her situation.
Conservative commissars of political correctness were outraged over Lott's statement. Where was the high principle?
The Chicago Sun-Times' conservative political analyst, Bob Novak, said of Lott's comments, "The spin that some of his people are putting out is this is intended to show how gender integration isn't working in the armed services. But the senator hasn't said that himself, and he's in increasing trouble with his right wing."
The right wing doesn't get it. This isn't just about principle. It's also about people.
The editors of The New York Times got it, in an editorial praising Lott's intervention. "Lt. Flinn was guilty of lovesick blundering rather than rank insubordination," the May 21 piece read.
Some women in Congress got it.
Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said, "The case has been bungled from the beginning. The Air Force should have offered Kelly Flinn counseling, warnings and a transfer. Instead, it has thrown the book at her, treating her like a criminal."
And Sen. Lott got it. He defied the ideologues and proved he understands something they don't: politics is about people. The voters saw this case in human terms. And so did the Senate majority leader.
"We've just got to account for the fact that men and women are going to have relationships that lead to marriage, and perfectly wholesome relationships, and we should not wind up punishing them by dragging them through courts martial in every instance," Lott said.
Bravo, Senator Lott. You get the Political Play of the Week.
Television coverage emphasizes the personal over ideology or principle. Think of how TV coverage personalizes criminal trials. People see personalities, not just the law.
Think of hostage negotiations. Government officials talk about upholding the principle of refusing to negotiate with terrorists. But viewers see the human beings involved and what's at stake for them.
Lt. Flinn's attorneys made her case on television, where she won.
In the age of television, all politics is personal.
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