One hopes there's a little something extra in the pay envelopes this week for whatever flacks represent Jimmy Carter and Clinton Portis. Surely, the spin doctors have earned it.
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Take Portis, for example. He's a 26-year-old member of Washington's professional football team. In an interview Saturday with a Virginia TV station, he defended Michael Vick, the Atlanta Falcons quarterback who is under investigation for supposedly holding dog fights at a home he owns. Portis told the interviewer he didn't see what the fuss was. "I don't know if he was fighting dogs or not. But it's his property; it's his dogs. If that's what he wants to do, do it."
Just hours later, Portis issued a statement saying in part he wished to make it clear he does not "condone dog fighting in any manner."
Former President Carter, meantime, was asked in an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to rate the administrations of Richard M. Nixon and George W. Bush. He said, "I think as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world, this administration has been the worst in history."
Carter would hardly be the only person to hold that view, but apparently he had second thoughts about violating the unwritten rule that says one president never speaks ill of another. Just days later, he claimed on the "Today" show that his remarks were "maybe careless or misinterpreted."
Of course, that begs the question, how do you misinterpret "worst in history"? For that matter, how do you get, in just hours, from, it's OK with me if he wants to fight dogs, to "I do not ... condone dog fighting in any manner"?
I guess there's a reason I didn't end up a publicist. See, if I represented Carter or Portis, my instinct would have been to issue a statement on their behalf that read, "In a recent interview, I accidentally said exactly what I meant and I'd like to take it back because I didn't anticipate the controversy and I don't need the headache."
Maybe we never were the straight-talking nation of myth and self image, but if that day ever did exist, it's long gone. Damage control in the modern era requires the ability to insult the public's intelligence with the dewy-eyed earnestness of a 6-year-old girl and the brazen shamelessness of a home remodeling contractor.
Think Michael Richards spewing the N-word all over a comedy club stage, then insisting, "I'm not a racist." Think Mel Gibson cursing the Jews, then swearing, "I'm not an anti-Semite." Think former Florida state Rep. Ralph Arza pleading guilty to witness tampering after leaving profane telephone messages for another legislator and then saying alcohol made him do it. Think Florida Rep. Mark Foley, ducking into rehab after being caught sending lewd messages to teenage boys. Think actor Isaiah Washington of "Grey's Anatomy" going into counseling after lying about using a slur against a gay castmate.
The one thing they all have in common with one another and with Carter and Portis is the inability to take responsibility for one's own mess, the preference for shifting it to something external (Carter saying he was "misinterpreted") or flat-out lying (Portis saying he doesn't condone dog fighting just hours after saying he does).
It amazes me that people can do that stuff with a straight face and get away with it. I suspect it's just that public figures spew so many lies, alibis and rationalizations that you become desensitized. When controversy rises, they pretend to apologize or explain and you and I pretend to believe. That's easier than acknowledging that we have become a passive, placid people for whom truth must be spun, finessed and massaged, but seldom simply told.
It's a spin doctor's world, folks. We're just living in it.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by calling toll-free at (888) 251-4407.