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Political Animal

Looking Uncertain

By Brian Morton | Posted 6/15/2005

Albert Einstein goes into a diner and orders soup. The waiter returns after the soup is delivered, and Einstein exclaims, “Waiter, dere ist a giant subatomic particle in my borsht! Look at it—it’s huge!”

The waiter calmly replies, “I’m sorry, sir, but you know what Heisenberg says about the limitation of measuring two properties of a quantum object with infinite precision.”

“But Werner Heisenberg was a big fat Nazi,” Einstein says.

The waiter says, “I’ll get the manager.”

The preceding joke was brought to you courtesy of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which goes something like, “The very act of observing an action changes an action.” There is a corollary in the media—the media is just as involved in the process as any other observer, if not more so. I point this out to bring your attention to the case of former congressman Kweisi Mfume, currently running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Paul Sarbanes.

In the interest of full disclosure, a little more than a decade ago, this writer was employed by Mfume as his press secretary during his first year as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. This was the same year that Mfume catapulted to national prominence, due to the caucus bringing Bill Clinton’s agenda to a halt until the concerns of the group’s 40 members were addressed.

It was quite the surprise to me that Mfume had adopted a sixth son, not to mention the recent charges of favoritism inside the NAACP. It was an even greater surprise to hear that Mfume admitted to having a relationship with a subordinate employee of the organization, as this kind of action never occurred during my time with the congressman. You could say my jaw was hanging slightly open.

This having been said, it must be noted that Mfume could be in worse shape—if these allegations (and apparently that’s all they are) had come out, say, next March, Mfume would be electoral toast. End of story.

As it stands, Mfume has a number of things in his favor: Maryland’s sizable African-American population is raring for a champion to install in a statewide office (especially after the backhanding they got from Kathleen Kennedy Townsend); Montgomery County Congressman Chris Van Hollen could split the white vote with Baltimore-area Congressman Ben Cardin in the Democratic primary, the same way Martin O’Malley engineered a reverse version in his 1999 mayoral primary against Carl Stokes and Lawrence Bell; the NAACP ruckus could be forgotten come next year.

But of all of these scenarios, the last is, sadly, the least likely, and that is due to the way the modern media operates and the aforementioned corollary to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Until some other “scandal” arises regarding one of the candidates in Maryland’s U.S. Senate race, every time Mfume’s name is mentioned, there will be appended at least one paragraph about the NAACP accusations. It’s the nature of the beast.

Most of the time, this is not intentional, nor is it done with malice. It’s simply the fact that most newspaper stories, especially deep into them, feature a lot of boilerplate “old news” as background. As the English author G.K. Chesterton said, “Journalism consists of telling people ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive”—political stories make a point of filling in the background you may have missed. By running the paragraph every time Mfume’s name is mentioned, the news media will be keeping alive allegations that by next year, will be the oldest of old news.

Simply by telling you this, I have already reminded you of the story, and this—and every story done by The Sun, The Washington Post, the Gazette newspapers in Montgomery County, the Annapolis Capitol, and every other paper in the state—will affect Mfume’s fundraising, the life blood of a political campaign. In addition, clearly partisan papers like The Washington Times will note the NAACP story every chance they get, because they have a clear mandate to weaken any Democrat who may wind up running against Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who, if he enters the race, will have the advantages of a clear field and lots of out-of-state money looking to capture a blue-state Senate seat usually considered safe.

If you didn’t get the joke at the start of the column, don’t feel bad, as quantum physics is hard to understand. But politics is also hard to understand, no matter from which angle you’re looking at it. And sometimes looking at it over and over again changes what you’re seeing. Which, unfortunately, won’t help Kweisi Mfume one little bit.

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Political Animal archives

More from Brian Morton

The Fix (8/4/2010)

Police State (7/7/2010)

Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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