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McCurry Mike McCurry is a CNN analyst and a former Clinton White House press secretary. He has provided with Web-exclusive analysis.

Mike McCurry: Elian Gonzalez media frenzy reflects lost opportunity for real discourse

By CNN Analyst Mike McCurry

April 17, 2000
Web posted at: 2:27 p.m. EDT (1827 GMT)

The purpose of political discourse is to identify issues, lift them up so they can be debated, and then resolve some future course of action. The sad story of young Elian Gonzalez is a reminder to America's political community that we've allowed our institutions of decision making to wander far from their noble purpose.

Before the big bang that turned this custody case for a Cuban refugee into the latest super nova in the media, there may have been some opportunity to debate the issue, resolve it, and do something that, in fact, would have been "in the best interests of the little boy" as many a politician put it.

But once the story of Elian went from interesting to entertaining -- once it became another one of those Great National Soap Operas that now seem to pass for public affairs -- then all sides in the controversy had an interest in keeping the saga slugging along with no real conclusion. Politicians, even presidential candidates, could figure out how to play off the latest turn of events. The press could figure out how to book more guests and fill more hours. And America would have something else to discuss at the breakfast table every morning.

There is a pattern here. It happens on issues large and small. The poor governor of South Carolina and his legislature are still trying to figure out where to put their Confederate flag: a topic that mesmerized the rest of us for awhile but now is a distant memory of a presidential primary campaign that is fading fast, too. Some fellow who inherited Ken Starr's job is considering whether or not there will be life in the case after Bill Clinton leaves the White House. Surely not, if based on the attention span of America's political culture.

Before too long, young Elian will probably return to Cuba but only after enormous quantities of digits and electrons are sacrificed on the airwaves in his name. A year from now, or two, or three will we remember to ask ourselves why we intruded on his life in the first place? It seems to me we have some obligation to care since we made Elian's business part of our common business in the pundit-politician-press conspiracy that now defines America's town hall.

How about asking Al Gore and George W. Bush to debate policy toward Cuba this fall as a tribute to the memory of Elian Gonzalez? How about asking candidates for office to explain why we have separate immigration rules for those from Cuba that are not like those that face other human beings fleeing their own version of tyranny? How about checking in on Elian again in 2012 when he is an adult and asking him what he thinks about the adults who used him as their political football? How about looking ourselves in the face and asking whether we were serious about resolving the fate of this kid or just wanted "the issue" to kick around?

So much of punditry in politics today is about people shouting at each other and having an argument for the sake of an argument. It reminds me often of pro-wrestling. No one ever seems to win, it's all about how you carry on the fight. We now watch citizens in Miami take to the streets, shout slogans, and give interviews in which they sound like, well, the pundits and politicians who built the stage in the first place.

We can see these media-fed extravaganzas developing on the horizon, just like they were some distant storm. It makes sense to stop, early in one of these episodes, and ask whether we really want the storm to envelop us or whether we would just like those who are in positions of responsibility to do their jobs quietly and correctly and let the storm pass us by.

Maybe the miracle of dolphins did save Elian Gonzalez at sea. But no one protected him from the sharks that he'd face on land.


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Monday, April 17, 2000


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