Robert Ehlert: Try saying nothing

rehlert@idahostatesman.comApril 29, 2014 

The theme of the lesson for today is a good one for election season and life: never miss an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.

We know this a difficult task for TV/talk radio hosts, and the politicians who love them and sometimes parrot them.

This sage advice was first dispensed to me in 1992 by retired Gen. John Vessey, who had served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs from 1982 to 1985 under President Ronald Reagan.

After retirement in 1985, Vessey continued to serve the Reagan, George W. Bush and, briefly, the Bill Clinton administrations as special presidential emissary to Hanoi for POW-MIA affairs.

I had been visiting with Vessey in northern Minnesota where he retired, because I was working on a POW-MIA story. During a far-reaching conversation, the general offered that maxim at no extra charge: Never miss an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.

No doubt this wisdom comes from a combination of lessons learned during his career. At age 18, he joined the Minnesota National Guard. Not long after, in 1940, his unit was called to active duty in World War II. He fought in North Africa and later during a campaign in Anzio, Italy, just south of Rome, he received a battlefield commission. He later served in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. You know very little about him because of his mastery over the maxim. Vessey is a head-down, mouth-shut hero in my book.

Those who jumped on board the Cliven Bundy "hero" bandwagon saw a different opportunity: Little old Nevada rancher fights big bad government. Here was a chance to show the world that the BLM is bullying the Bundys of the West. This guy seemed made for an object lesson to preach about the overbearing overreaction of the government that Reagan said so sarcastically "is here to help you."

The talk show hosts and politicians saw their opportunity: There was passion out there in Clark County, Nevada. There were uniformed BLM agents. Guns. It is amazing, and fortunate, no one got hurt - physically.

Fox News host Sean Hannity, and to a lesser extent presidential hopeful Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky, missed their opportunity to keep their mouths shut about Bundy when they temporarily celebrated him.

As the legend of Bundy and others who said they were wronged by the federal government grew, so did their followers. But Idaho's Rep. Raul Labrador did not take the Bundy bait. Labrador knew the Nevada rancher didn't have a legal leg to stand on because he hadn't paid his grazing fees. Labrador kept his distance.

Ooops. That's when Cliven Bundy opened his mouth and made toxic, stupid racist comments about blacks to the New York Times, even repeating them later.

Hannity's reaction, after condemning Bundy's remarks about slavery: "I am pissed off."

When talk show hosts and politicians open their mouths and legitimize the likes of Bundy, they deserve the collateral damage sludge that comes their way.

In an age of talk radio and instantaneous Internet stupidity, too many substitute storyline for fact. Turns out, emoting and thinking are mutually exclusive.

Never miss an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.

Robert Ehlert is the Statesman's editorial page editor. Contact him at 377-6437, or on Twitter @IDS_HelloIdaho.

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