Everybody remembers the fateful 1980 debate between incumbent President Jimmy Carter and gung-ho challenger Ronald Reagan. You know the one: "Are you better off today," etc., etc. etc. But do you recall that Reagan was coached on his performance by conservative commentator George F. Will using study materials stolen from the Carter campaign? And how about the fact that, when it came time to judge the debate's outcome, Will went on TV to praise the Gipper's masterful performance, all the while making no mention of his own role in the fix?
My thanks to the intrepid bloggers who resurrected the story last week. Having that decades-old imbroglio returned to the forefront of my cerebellum is going to make it a lot easier for me to sit through Will's next appearance on This Week With George Stephanopoulos without hurling half-digested Triscuits all over the screen. But as the Magdalene Sisters might say, with every blessing comes a penalty. And being reminded of Will's little disgrace made me worry that, on some hidden level, I myself might be guilty of malfeasance in my own journalistic career. So I resolved that I wouldn't write a word of my next column without acknowledging up-front any conflict of interest or ethical gray area that might imperil my credibility as a working professional.
First of all, I should reveal that I, too, had a hand in Carter's political fortunes. It was the summer of 1976, and at the age of 12, I signed up to deliver some of the then-challenger's campaign materials door to door. I think I put in about two or three days of work, sticking pro-peanut-farmer fliers in mailboxes within four blocks of my boyhood home in North Plainfield, N.J. A small-scale operation, perhaps, but let's not forget who ended up winning that November. The minute I accepted delivery of those fliers, I was a political partisan; from inauguration day onward, I qualified as a Friend of Jimmy, with all due rights and benefits inferred.
Think of that the next time I go off on some printed jeremiad against a Republican administration. You're not reading the words of an impartial observer, but somebody who's been a Democratic power player since before he could shave.
My moral quagmire deepened about four years later, when I got on a bus bound for an antinuclear protest rally in Washington, D.C. What happened there is largely a blur: My strongest memories are of drinking my first-ever beer (a Rolling Rock, if I'm not mistaken) and trying to figure out how so many people could be excited by the prospect of seeing Blood, Sweat & Tears reunited live on stage. But now that I think about it, I'm sure I must have taken advantage of the long ride to D.C. to affix my John Hancock to any number of petitions dedicated to saving the seals, compensating the victims of Agent Orange and maybe even getting Liz Taylor a new liver. Like the quarter-million other "concerned citizens" who made it to the Capitol that day, I'm a lobbyist, pure and simple, and I shouldn't be trusted when it comes to shaping public opinion.
This blithe commingling of personal and professional interests has dogged me into adulthood. Last year, I published at least one column that referenced the ongoing battle between the City of Winter Park and Progress Energy. What I failed to disclose is that, since June of last year, I have been paying the latter electric company a sizable portion of my monthly income in exchange for in-home service and related considerations. Tell me that's not an ethical boondoggle. Likewise, in perusing other sections of this newspaper, you may have noticed an occasional restaurant or theater review that carried my byline. Know this, and know it well: In almost every such instance, I was only able to complete my research by depositing cold, hard cash in the hands of the relevant restaurateur or artistic impresario. In other words, my subjects and I are business partners in a very real and troubling sense. Want to know exactly where I'll be sticking my big nose next? Just follow the money.
The dilemma doesn't stop with cash-and-carry coverage. There's also the prospect of philosophical identity theft to mull. Much as I'd like Orlando Weekly's readership to believe that my editorial outlook sprang full-blown from my inner being like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, the full truth is that most of my core beliefs and even my conversance with the basics of the English language were instilled in me by my parents when I was between the ages of zero and 5. Everything else I needed to know, I learned in kindergarten. Except for a few pointers I picked up from the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. If it's earth-shattering originality you crave, I'm clearly not your man.
While I'm at it, I guess I should come right out and confess that not even the idea for the piece you're reading right now originated with me. It came from my friend and colleague, Orlando Sentinel movie critic Jay Boyar. Oh, I could muddy the issue by saying that the concept "came up in conversation," and that "once the ball starts rolling on these things, it's almost impossible to remember who first suggested it." The first statement is technically true; the second, a common-enough dodge on the part of writers facing deadlines. But there are certain phrases we encounter from time to time that make such a copout wickedly hard to float. Phrases like, "You know what would be a good idea for your column?" To be completely honest, Jay even suggested the title. There's only one intellectual mantle left for me to claim, and it's of a guy who knows a good joke when he hears one.
Last, there's a basic subterfuge involved in everything I do. While I willfully perpetuate the image of an autonomous gadfly who shoots from the hip and answers to no one, there's a fundamental process going on within me that renders those fantasies of independence laughable. Every second that I'm writing and even when I'm not my body is taking whatever food I've recently ingested and breaking it down into its component parts for energy. If it didn't, not only would my creative fountain instantly dry up, but I'd barely have enough energy to get me through the day. "Autonomous gadfly"? Hardly. I'm a slave to my own gastric system.
Hoo, boy, I had no idea how good it would feel to get all that off my chest. Now that I've bared my soul to you, exposing every skeleton that's been left to rot in my closet, I really feel that we can start with a clean slate. No more concealed debts, no more submerged guilt, no more uncredited middlemen. It's the real thing you're going to be getting from here on in, friends. And it all starts today.
So. Whaddaya wanna talk about?