Sunday, July 11, 1999

A politician's basic skill: taking cover

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Ask any combat veteran who he'd like to share a foxhole with when the shells start raining down, and, chances are, the answer would not be a politician.

        If you are on an airliner and you see a politician sitting next to the emergency door handle, try to trade seats.

        Because when push comes to shove and it comes down to you or the politician, you lose.

        A lovely example of this behavior took place last week over the issue of Cincinnati's lawsuit against gun manufacturers, one of several dozen filed recently by municipalities around the country.

        Council voted to pursue the lawsuit after weeks of deliberation. It was a close vote — five Democrats in favor and the three Republicans and council's lone Charterite opposed.

        Republican Charlie Winburn, a member in good standing of the National Rifle Association, was opposed. No surprise there.

        Democrat Paul Booth, an appointed councilman who will face a difficult time getting elected this year, voted to sue, saying the city should collect from the gun-makers for the public costs of gun violence.

        Simple, so far. Now for the complicated part:

        Mr. Winburn has a long history of stirring things up; he is the political equivalent of the 12-year-old who tosses a stink bomb in the church parlor in the middle of the ladies' circle meeting and bolts down the hall.

        Mr. Winburn decided last week that the city's lawsuit doesn't do anything for the victims of gun crimes, so he proposes a city program that would compensate victims up to $5,000; He insisted that Stanley Chesley, the lawyer the city hired in the suit against manufacturers, return the $100,000 the city appropriated for the case.

        Never mind that the state already has a crime victims compensation fund.

        Never mind that the $100,000 didn't go into Mr. Chesley's pockets; it was meant to pay for building a case against the gun-makers.

        Never mind that anyone who heard even five minutes of the public hearings and interminable council discussions on the lawsuit knew perfectly well going in that this suit was not aimed at recovering money for victims of gun-related crimes.

        Never mind the facts.

        Then suddenly, with the waters hopelessly muddied by Mr. Winburn's proposal — which he could have just as well made back when council was debating whether to sue — Mr. Booth began exhibiting a mysterious ailment that seems to strike politicians in election cycles — cold feet.

        Mr. Booth's tootsies might be a bit more chilled than most because as a recent appointee, he is by no means a lock for election this fall and can ill afford to alienate any reasonable large bloc of voters, including those who fancy guns.

        Mr. Booth announced that, given all the “issues” raised by Mr. Winburn, the purpose of the city's lawsuit against the gun manufacturers is unclear. He called for a special meeting of council to reconsider the situation. That may or may not happen this week.

        The Democrat wants the police chief and city lawyers to explain how the lawsuit will help them fight crime, ground that was covered in the original debate. We were at those meetings, and we seem to recall Mr. Booth being there as well.

        Nonetheless, he insists he is not looking for a way out and that he will not necessarily call for a new vote on the lawsuit or change sides. All he wants, Mr. Booth said, is more information.

        But somehow we hear the old familiar sound of a parachute popping open as the plane sputters overhead.

        And soon, we would not be surprised to hear the cry of all good politicians everywhere:


        Howard Wilkisnon's column runs Sundays. Call him at 768-8388 or e-mail at


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