Wednesday, July 24, 2002

POLITICS: Candidates in Wonderland


Posted By on Wed, Jul 24, 2002 at 4:00 AM

CANDIDATES IN WONDERLAND “Poor Brent!” said Memphis lawyer David Kustoff on Monday, referring to fellow 7th District congressional hopeful Brent Taylor, one of his rivals in the August 1st Republican primary. The Memphis city councilman got lost in the shuffle this week (although this is decidedly not what Kustoff meant by his statement of pity) after Taylor unloosed the first blast at Kustoff for allegedly misrepresenting his score on a National Rifle Association questionnaire and for some other transgressions of equal moment.

No sooner had Taylor taken his shot at Kustoff Monday morning (through the medium of an email by campaign manager Layne Provine), than, lo and behold, so did state Senator Mark Norris, another local claimant to the 7th District nomination. Norris launched his relatively more pallid attack on Kustoff in a press-conference format, however; that, plus the fact that Kustoff decided to acknowledge Norris with his own press-conference later on Monday, got Norris all the attention and left Taylor out in the cold, publicity-wise.

But here is some of what Provine said, in Taylor’s name, in Monday morning’s emailed press release: “In a recent mailing, Kustoff claimed to have received an ÔA+ rating’ from the National Rifle Association. On Friday, Kustoff’s campaign claimed they made a ‘typographical error’ on the campaign mailing. However, an audio recording of a Nashville radio talk program reveals that this is not accurate. Five days before the claim of a ‘typographical error’ Kustoff was verbally trumpeting his ‘rating’ to voters and members of the media.”

This important bit of distinction-making (as a non-incumbent, Kustoff apparently was entitled to only an ‘A’ grade for his 100-percent NRA-friendly answers) was but one of the clarifications offered by Provine, however. The Memphis lawyer is taken to task for a “pattern of deception” that included suggesting that he got a similar perfect score from the National Right-to-Life Foundation and from that well-known political kingmaker, Savannah Mayor Bob Shutt. The piece de resistance of Kustoff’s “record of deceit,” however, was the state director of George W. Bush’s 2002 presidential campaign's shameless attempt “to link himself to President Bush.”

Hence Kustoff’s “Poor Brent” statement on Monday: Kustoff went on to comment: “I was asked at a critical time to campaign for George W. Bush in Tennessee. At that time, Lamar Alexander, a favorite son, was a candidate. I led the state organization and assisted greatly in fund-raising. Brent Taylor knows that he’s trailing. He’s a third--place candidate, and when you’re behind what you do is attack the leader. That’s what Brent is doing, and people see right through it."

From the point of view of public consciousness, the Taylor-Kustoff back-and-forth proved just a radar-screen blip, a preamble to the more widely disseminated later exchange between Kustoff and Norris, who --- wittingly or unwittingly -- was playing copycat to Taylor. Kustoff’s reference to Taylor’s third-place finish in a Mason-Dixon poll (behind state Senator Marsha Blackburn of Brentwood, the leader, and Kustoff) would be amended to fourth place in his response to Norris, which was a more extended version of his answer to Taylor.

There is a dizzying sense of déja vu in the Norris-Kustoff exchange, of course. The Collierville state senator expressed his sense of the dramatic in a more lawyer-like, but no less urgent, syntax than had Provine. "In thousands of color brochures mailed to thousands of unsuspecting voters,” Norris said, Kustoff had made the ignominious A+ claim. After a litigator-like recap of Kustoff’s “falsified” evidence and “coverup,” Norris sprung his trap. “I have the tape!“ he proclaimed (the bold is in the original) , i.e., a recording of that portion of the Teddy Bart Roundtable program, a Nashville radio show on which Kustoff, inadvertently or not, upped his deserved NRA grade all the way from A to A+. Question: Did Norris suppose that this matter to which he attached such high dudgeon was a replay of Watergate!?

Kustoff himself would succumb to a sense of the disproportionate. In his afternoon full-dress press-conference response to Norris (why to Norris and not Taylor? Who knows?), Kustoff included this paragraph: “To catch up, Norris is resorting to the well-worn ploy of all desperate candidates as election day nears -- tear down the leaders. Particularly in the case of Sen. Norris, it's about moving the public's attention away from the many tax increases he's supported. If anyone is guilty of dishonesty in this race, it's Sen. Norris, who in public has said he's 'never' voted to raise taxes. It's time for Mark Norris to come clean with the voters.”

What Kustoff was doing here was repeating an earlier charge made in a Taylor mailout which, it is generally acknowledged, exaggerated or misrepresented Norris’ very cautious voting record to suggest tht the Collierville senator, arguably the most conservative member of the legislature (Marsha Blackburn included), was a Mad Taxer run amuck.

(Sigh!) You see, folks, for weeks Taylor had been attacking Norris, and Norris had been responding equally immoderately (“Byron ‘Low Tax’ Looper,,” the name of the late state Sen. Tommy Burks' opponent/murderer, was one sobruiquet he laid on Taylor), both men going at it in the apparent delusion that each would discredit and inherit the Shelby County vote of the other. Instead, they ended up, well, third and fourth in the Mason-Dixon poll. Taylor, reading the results and seeing Kustoff’s name instead of Norris’ up there ahead of his own, seems to have altered the direction of his fire, that's all. Norris’ decision to join in the fusillade, and Kustoff’s resolve to complete the triad by turning Taylor’s earlier tactics back on Norris, took the whole affair in a direction that would have strained the imagination of a Lewis Carroll, whose Wonderland was never this bizarre!

The only beneficiary of all this nonsense, of course, is the aforementioned Senator Blackburn, who has campaigned with a relative moderation and sense of proportion that belie her reputation, in some quarters, as an extremist.

Early on in this campaign, Taylor, Norris, and Kustoff each separately took pen to paper and set down mathematical projections designed to convince a skeptic that their Shelby County rivalry would not, could not split up that vital 40-percent component of the Republican vote so as to make Blackburn the winner by default.

Mason-Dixon has since proved the numbers were skewed; the self-destructive antics of these Shelby County runners-up in the wake of the poll are enough to convince an observer that, in some fundamental way, they must be, also.

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