They pander on health care. They pander on
entitlements. They pander on jobs. They pander foreign policy. But
there’s one type of pander that consistently confuses me. How
do politicians think they can get away with pandering on one of the
most pressing matters to Joe and Jane Voter – athletic
loyalties?

Zac Peskowitz

While the pander is typically derided as the most craven of all
political maneuvers, there is actually genuine risk when executing
the pander. The doubts must flash through every politician’s
cerebellum the moment before they execute: What if I get caught?
How would this look splashed across the front pages? Would I really
want every voter to think that I believe this dreck?

Advances in communications technology have made the pander a
much riskier tool. Even though we think we live in a pander
renaissance, we are actually far removed from the high point of the
pander. Traveling hordes of political correspondents can beam a
politician’s words across the breadth of the globe in
moments. Equally important, more and more Americans get their
political news from national sources in lieu of local publications
that are more likely to let the pander go unchallenged. As a result
of these changes, the pander has probably migrated in proportion to
the growth in the power of the national media. Fewer panders pop up
at campaign events in the open air and more show up behind the
safety of securely closed doors.

Nonetheless, politicians are content to broadcast their
unremitting love for sports teams that they clearly have no
interest in. Disastrous candidate for the Democratic presidential
nomination and retired Gen. Wesley Clark was the most shameless
when he filmed a campaign spot for the New Hampshire primary
wearing a New England Patriots sweater. This was after the
candidate had already told the Associated Press that he
“loves (the Green Bay Packer). And I hope his thumb gets
better.” During the campaign for the Democratic presidential
nomination, Howard Dean proclaimed his devotion to the Boston Red
Sox as well as the 1961 New York Yankees, and was photographed
wearing a Philadelphia Phillies jersey. But the Kerry campaign has
distinguished itself for its sports-related blunders. Teresa Heinz
Kerry told a booing crowd in Cleveland that she was from nearby
Pittsburgh, home of the hated Steelers. Candidate Kerry has stated
that the Green Bay Packers play their home games at Lambert Field
and — horror of horrors — told a Michigan audience that
“I just go for Buckeye football.” President Bush and
Dick Cheney seem to have formulated a slightly better routine.
Instead of slavishly pronouncing their support for the local team,
they merely appear with the local athletic hero and have the
generic superstar announce their support for the president and his
team. This trick has been done to great effect with Hall of Fame
football players John Elway, Bart Starr and Lynn Swann.

So why do national candidates for office continue this behavior
despite all of the drawbacks and opportunities for embarrassment?
This type of a pander is a great way to alienate supporters of
rival teams and make a politician look disingenuous. In situations
of utter desperation where a candidate’s political survival
depends on one election this brand of pandering might be
justifiable, but even then the gains are likely to be miniscule. I
think I have an understanding of why politicians and their image
gurus play up the sports connection: to transform egomaniacs into
everyman and to morph middle-aged men into gladiators. The maudlin
video presentation that introduced President Bush at the Republican
National Convention was the archetypal example. “Why should
we re-elect you, President Bush?” “Because I threw the
ball right down the middle of the plate before the opening game of
the 2001 World Series and I was wearing a flak jacket to
boot.”

John Kerry had his own, albeit slightly less successful
appearance, on the pitcher’s mound. The Sunday before the
Democratic National Convention in Boston, Kerry made a surprise
showing at Fenway Park for a Red Sox-Yankees game. Kerry’s
pitch flopped in the grass a good distance short of home plate, but
he said something that almost qualified as refreshing. He pulled no
punches and professed his unequivocal support of his hometown Red
Sox against the hated Yankees. But then I realized the Yankees
aren’t from Ohio, Pennsylvania or Florida.

 

Peskowitz can be at
“mailto:zpeskowi@umich.edu”>zpeskowi@umich.edu.

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