Mr. Smith is a myth. Despite what candidates for political office might tell you.
Every candidate tries to portray himself as the fictional Sen. Jefferson Smith played by Jimmy Stewart in the 1939 film classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Mr. Smith was an honest, decent but idealistic man appointed to complete the term of a senator who falls ill. Only Jimmy Stewart could have pulled off a role like that, as the altruistic common man who refused to back down to the powerful and corrupt in Washington.
But Jimmy Stewart was not really Mr. Smith. And neither is any of the grinning glad-handers with too much hairspray who will be pestering you for your vote ad nauseam on the radio, on television, in your mailbox and at every public event you attend this year.
Forgive us if we sound cynical.
Mr. Candidate is suffering from an inflated view of his own popularity and an underdeveloped sense of humility. Ms. Candidate imagines she is a well of wisdom because she talks so much no one else can get a word in edgewise, and she imagines they're enraptured by what she has to say.
We haven't figured out whether politics brings out the worst kind of people or whether it merely brings out the worst in people. We like to think it's the latter, which is more hopeful; it would mean the Somebodies can become people again. At least if they get out of politics in time.
Alas, another election is upon us. It seems like we just survived the last one. We have a whole year ahead of us to see the worst in people and the worst kind of people.
Somehow candidates for office got the idea it is the newspaper's job to publish whatever they want, whenever they want. They don't expect radio stations to broadcast their announcements for free. They don't expect television stations to promote their candidacies for free. But they expect it from us. Campaign consultants even refer to newspapers as the "free medium."
Maybe that's why they get so offended when we we edit their announcements, taking out the long strings of adjectives describing their character and accomplishments. Or why they throw tantrums when we refuse to give them additional free space to "set the record straight" after they find out their opponents are DISTORTING THEIR RECORD.
We've grown to expect candidates to accuse us of siding with their opponents because we don't prostrate ourselves before them when they come into the newspaper office to give their spiels. (What, you think education must be first priority because children are our future? Brilliant! Why did no one ever think of that before? Of course we'll give you a front-page endorsement, not to mention a generous contribution to your campaign!)
Inevitably, the candidates who demand the most are also the ones who complain the most that we show favoritism to their opponents. Paranoia is the defining characteristic of political candidates. It is never cured, but it is abated, at least temporarily, by elections.
The last campaign season was one of the worst. Even though we laid out the groundrules in January, the candidates who weren't paying attention were up in arms in October, convinced we were plotting against them. We bent the rules to accommodate their demands -- publishing their announcements months after they filed for office because they hadn't noticed the other candidates published announcements when they filed. But still they complained.
We thank the candidates who have already turned in their announcements. The proper timing, which should be obvious, somehow escapes a few too many candidates. So this year, we're tightening the rules a bit. Pay attention, all you candidates who have yet to submit your announcements:
* We will run an announcement of your candidacy one time.
* We run the announcement as a service to our readers, not as a service to you.
* Your announcement may include biographical information such as education, military service, community service and professional experience. You may state briefly why you are running and what you hope to accomplish in office. Put the most important stuff first because your article may get cut for space.
* Leave out: "I appreciate your past support and ask for your vote." Voters are smart enough to figure that if you're running for office you want their vote. If you don't leave it out, we will cut it out.
* You may include a picture. If you don't have one we'll even take one for you if you come to one of our offices in Salem, Highland or Thayer.
* You must submit your announcement. We will not call you to ask for it. We will not write it for you.
* An announcement is not an advertisement and should not read like one. If it does we will edit it.
* If you want to get your message out in the weeks or months leading up to the election, please contact our advertising department. It's not free, but it is a bargain, and there's no better way to reach the people most likely to vote.
* Finally, a new rule (courtesy of the cranky last-minute candidates of 2002): If you do not submit your announcement of candidacy by the filing deadline we make no promise about publishing it. The filing deadline for party candidates running in the preferential primary and for nonpartisan judicial candidates this year is March 30. That gives you almost two months.
* We will publish announcements as space allows, giving preference to the order in which we receive them.
* If you miss the deadline, don't worry -- there's always 2006.
Some office holders keep their announcements the same from one election to the next, changing only the number of years in office. One candidate even called the office to ask us to just run the same announcement he used last time around. While it might seem a bit presumptuous to expect us to look it up, we also admire the economy of it all, with its lack of fanfare and hype.
OK, so maybe we overstated the cynicism. Our form of government, a democracy within a republic, has worked pretty well for two centuries. That couldn't have happened if every elected official had been a self-serving ego-maniac beholden to special interests. We remain optimistic, if a little idealistic, that the elections will produce a few officials who will make intelligent decisions, spend our tax money wisely and will work in our best interests.
Maybe Mr. Smith really is out there and ready to serve.