The exchange of comments between former President Jimmy Carter and Gov. Tony Knowles was another example of the dark side of politics and society as usual. Politicians talking about one another and past one another is a long-standing substitute for talking to one another. The rest of us are so accustomed to such behavior that we seldom take notice. We do notice when a pol touches one of our hot buttons. For example, we may not stir to life when President Clinton asks the president of Nigeria to increase that country's oil exports -- as happened this weekend. But Alaskans hone in when the subject is oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- as happened when Carter visited the state last week.
Comments made by politicians about drilling ANWR or protecting ANWR may provoke self-righteous indignation. "We're right, they're wrong and here's why" is OK, but too often it devolves to "we're right and, as any reasonable, true Alaskan and friend of (pick one) progress/the environment can plainly see, the other side is a bunch of selfish, ignorant fools."
Carter put Knowles, a fellow Democrat, on the spot by coming to Anchorage and appealing to President Clinton to designate ANWR a national monument as well as a national refuge. If you remember what candidate Carter said 24 years ago about lying, Lyndon Johnson or lusting in his heart, you know he speaks his mind and lives with the consequences. As an ex-president, he's still outspoken. And it's fine for him to have protective feelings about the national refuge he signed into law for Alaska. As always, though, there were consequences.
The next day, Knowles scolded Carter for using Alaska "as a media prop and a platform to project your message to Clinton." Knowles probably was correct in his assessment. But how did he deliver his comments? He used a conference call in which the assembled listeners were proponents of oil exploration in ANWR to read to them the letter in which he chastised Carter. That's using similar media props and platforms to preach to the choir.
What was accomplished in this exchange?
In their determination to prevail, Carter and Knowles employed one-upmanship rather than statesmanship. Neither prevailed. Instead, each contributed to polarization. As a result, don't be surprised if the ANWR debate becomes more contentious.