"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 8 December 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Caveat Emptor


[snowboarding in tahoe, snowboarding in tahoe]

For years, James Ware drew a

cloak of gravitas around his

rising legal career with the

story of a dead child; the

child, to complete the picture,

had shared the storyteller's own

blood. The often-repeated tale

of civil-rights-era violence

soared to the heights of

archetype: 1963, Birmingham, a

boy on a bicycle, his

12-year-old brother on the

handlebars. A shot rings out; a

child falls. Washed in the blood

of an innocent, the survivor of

the shooting - the brother

peddling the bike - grows into

more than a man: He becomes a

brave survivor of history, a

symbol of the life that emerged

from a period of death, an

individual beam of light rising

from our collective darkness. He

becomes a federal judge,

stopping by the trial court on

his inevitable journey to at

least the appellate bench -

maybe higher. In shorthand, he

is, being blessed with a great

bio, a player.


But then, pretty much

inevitably, he gets caught. A

man named James Ware lost his

brother to gunfire once upon a

time, but - whoops - wrong James

Ware. The James Ware who wears a

black robe to work turns out to

have borrowed the story.


Which, in general terms, is not

such an uncommon story. Call it

lying if you really need to, but

the disingenuous discourse

taking place in the heights of

power is better understood as

something else entirely,

something that people go to

college to study. Something as

American as apple pie and black

ops. The reality is often noted

in other arenas, but not so

often applied in our

understanding of this one: We've

gone through meaning and have

come out the other side.

Politics, in the marketing era,

becomes not so much a matter of

ideology as of gullibility - not

so much a matter of what we

believe in as of what we are

willing to believe.


[first time up for this season]

One nicely illustrative story is

set in suburban Los Angeles, in

late February and early March.

The Pasadena City Council placed

a measure on the local ballot,

Proposition 2, that would extend

a temporary tax meant to sustain

the city's library system

through a purported budget

crunch. The March election

approached; campaign literature

began to flow into mailboxes.


"Some things are too important

to leave to the politicians!"

warned one mail piece. "Voting

YES on 2 on Tuesday protects the

library from politics!" The

piece didn't mention that "the

politicians" had actually placed

the measure on the ballot, a

reality that would have tended

to make the argument a bit,

well, circular.


[i hope my bruises are big and black and blue]

Two days later, another mailer

landed in the same mailboxes,

addressing the same issue, sent

by the same campaign. This later

piece was a classic, a

four-pager that opened out to

show pictures of dozens of

little children who wanted Prop

2 to pass. The message - You

don't hate babies, do you? - was

accompanied by a more

interesting argument. Along with

the ideological kiddie-porn

shots of all those absolutely

adorable little rug rats were

the pictures of two members of

the Pasadena City Council, who

strenuously urged voters to pass

the tax measure.


The measure passed with close to

90 percent of the vote.


Follow the thread, and the

outcome of the election is

anything but surprising. The

advertising hit all the target

demographics. The tax measure

was a perfect choice for voters

who didn't trust politicians and

wanted to stand opposed to them,

and the tax measure was a

perfect choice for voters who

respected politicians and took

them at their word. Spread

broadly, the message was just

meaningless enough to work:

Fight the politicians. Follow

your political leaders. Did

somebody say McDonald's?


More recently, voters in

Colorado's most crowded counties

were faced with a stark question

of something very near to

life-versus-death - a chance to

save a city or to lose it. Once

again, the sales pitch

accelerated; in the days before

the election, supporters marched

downtown with signs meant to

clarify the stakes: "4A or L.A."

That is, approve ballot measure

4A - a tax increase that would

fund a new, multibillion-dollar

light-rail system - or see

pretty little Denver turn,

pretty much overnight, into the

metastasizing hell of sprawling,

dirty old Los Angeles. If the

choice was generally fair -

decent public transportation

versus eventual gridlock - the

pitch itself sounded a bit more

Book of Revelations than Public

Policy 101.


The voters said no to 4A.


[snowboarding, i love you!]

Two weeks later, those same

voters got a surprise: Roy

Romer, the governor of Colorado,

announced a plan to use state

and federal money to build one

of the very same light-rail

lines that 4A had been created

to fund. Another week, and the

chairman of the regional

transportation agency that had

put 4A on the ballot offered his

own plan for building a second

line that was to have been

funded by the defeated measure.

Both men had apparently

forgotten to mention to voters,

before the election, that the

tax increase 4A would have

created wasn't the only way to

fund new light-rail lines; as it

turns out, the choice wasn't

quite so simple as "4A or L.A."


As always, a few complainers

talked to reporters in the old

language of truth versus lies.

But they were missing the point.

Of course the people elected to

run government didn't mention

that alternatives to the tax

increase they'd brought to

market existed: Does Netscape

take out ads to tell you that

Microsoft makes an excellent Web

browser? Do Ford salesmen

whisper into your ear, as you

wander the lot, that Chevy makes

a hell of a solid truck?


Consumers have money in their

pockets; the trick of marketing

is to transfer as much of that

money as possible into the hands

of the corporation. The

difference between a cigarette

that makes life more fun and a

government that makes your

morning commute more fulfilling

is, played by current standards,

the difference between Camels

and Kools. It's morning in

America; Alive with Pleasure; I

feel your pain; You've Come a

Long Way, Baby.


[remember to keep warm, by whatever means possible]

The truth usually manages to

slither to the surface sooner or

later: Cigarettes don't really

soothe your T-zone and aren't

really recommended by doctors;

Patricia Moore was just running

for office, Lyndon Johnson

was caught on tape, and Erwin

Griswold acknowledged, a couple

of decades later, that the

national security had never

really been at risk. And US arms

manufacturers helped to build an

army for old Mr.

Worse-Than-Hitler himself. But

so what? A pitch that falls

apart after the customer has

written the check is a pitch

that worked. History can't be

returned, even with


courtesy of Ambrose Beers