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A Long Educational Journey to Nowhere

It’s Time to Stop Playing "Cops and Robbers"

by Ralph Heller

very man who remembers his boyhood knows that playing "Cops and Robbers" was great fun. Together with "Cowboys and Indians" and other such games, it enabled little boys to divide the world neatly and conveniently into just two camps—"good guys" and "bad guys."

With maturity, however, came the knowledge that very few men qualify to be called "all good" or "all bad," which is what makes so much of today’s media commentary literally childlike. Everyone knows the frames of reference. Almost all well known 18th and 19th century Americans were good, perhaps even noble, while certain politicians in our own century were all bad, absolutely evil—Richard Nixon, for example.

A new biography of Daniel Webster out just in time for Christmas reminds us of how simplistic such thinking really is. In addition to being a great thinker and orator, it seems Webster was a compulsive womanizer, frequently betrayed friends, and was a boozer. So serious did his drinking problem become during his unhappy second marriage that he ended up with cirrhosis of the liver which would have killed him if he hadn’t died as a result of a carriage accident. In certain circles he was known to familiars as "Black Dan."

Yet is there anything about this information that diminishes the quality of his intellectual thought or dilutes his forcefulness as an orator? For one of this issue’s "Quotes of the Month" (on the opposite page) we picked one of Daniel Webster’s especially interesting observations, one that serves to remind us of how unusually well read Webster was. His thought about inconsistencies of opinion had actually been suggested more than a decade earlier by the Frenchman Auguste Marseille Barthelemy.

Just as we are accustomed to reading about Daniel Webster with no references to his personal misconduct, we are used to finding Richard Nixon referred to as "Tricky Dick," with no reference to his accomplishments. At the time he secretly sent Henry Kissinger to China Nixon understood that so large and powerful was the Russian-Chinese military alliance that America would have to drive a wedge between the two before the defeat of communism became even thinkable, and his plot to begin to undermine the communist monolith worked.

This, then, is the problem with the childish game of "Cops and Robbers" that persists in the American press. "Black Dan the womanizer" was also a great thinker and orator, and "Tricky Dick" (in the words of National Review) "may have done more to open up the shrouded nations of the East than anyone since Marco Polo." It seems that all "cowboys" aren’t good, and all "Indians" aren’t bad. Most are probably a mixture.

In Nevada we find this game of "Cops and Robbers" played with the selective use of labels. Jim Gibbons and John Ensign are "arch-conservatives," but did you ever see Frankie Sue Del Papa referred to in the press as an "ultra-liberal?" On September 13 of this year Las Vegas Sun columnist Jeff German referred to NPRI as "a who’s who of right wingers." Fearful that he hadn’t gotten his point across—or, perhaps, simply obsessed—German was back a week later to describe us as a "right-wing organization," and yet a week after that he described this monthly journal as a "right-wing magazine."

Although the Sun calls German a "senior investigative reporter," he obviously had asked no questions about NPRI and proceeded to identify former Las Vegas Councilman Steve Miller as one of this magazine’s editors. NPRI does indeed have an able contributing editor named Steve Miller—whose article about northern Nevada’s water wars in this issue is especially well researched—but he is not the Steve Miller who was a Las Vegas councilman.

The Sun is not alone in substituting labels for investigative reporting, of course. Reno Gazette-Journal columnist Cory Farley customarily dismisses virtually everything not emanating from Democratic Party headquarters as ideas and programs coming from "Repubs," not to be taken seriously, as though one could lump together without distinction the ideas of liberal Republican New Jersey Gov. Christine Whitman and conservative Senator Strom Thurmond. Farley also once labeled religious followers he despises as "ChristiaNazis," an exercise in malice that would have gotten him sacked if Reno’s newspaper were not owned by amoral Gannett.

Yet there have always been men overly anxious to pre-judge others about whom they know nothing, which explains one of St. Paul’s admonitions in his Letter to the Hebrews: "Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."

When former New Republic reporter and Time magazine editor T.S. Matthews was searching for a title for his volume of biographical sketches of Winston Churchill, James Thurber, Whittaker Chambers, Gertrude Stein, Albert Einstein and others, he realized the importance of St. Paul’s advice not to pre-judge others and entitled his book "Angels Unawares."

Matthews understood that there comes a time in a journalist’s life when he should stop playing childish games like "Cops and Robbers." There are few men who are "all good" or "all bad," and today’s journalists would do well to take off their judicial robes and open their eyes. u

Ralph Heller is Senior Consulting Editor for Nevada Journal.


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