Off The Record: Debate over values is 'over-valued'

January 26, 2004|HERB BROCK

The current campaign for the U.S. 6th District congressional seat reminds me of the 1980 presidential campaign. They both featured candidates heavily into values. In both cases, the yapping about values has been vague, vacuous and vexing.

During this 2004 campaign for Central Kentucky's seat in Congress, we hear Republican Alice Forgy Kerr talk about "American values, "Kentucky values" and "Central Kentucky values" and Democrat Ben Chandler talk about "Bluegrass values." In the 1980 campaign for the White House between Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Jimmy Carter an organization supporting Reagan called the Moral Majority - the forerunner of today's Christian Coalition - trumpeted "traditional family values" and used Reagan as its poster boy.

"Family values" basically was code for holding an anti-abortion point of view but also included "putting God back in the public schools" through allowing public prayer in classrooms and "putting God back in government" through allowing the posting of the Ten Commandments.


The Moral Majority's selection of Reagan as its Moses to lead its members out of the Evil Egypt of an Overly Secular America to the Promised Land of Family Values was an interesting and ironic choice. Reagan arguably became a great president in terms of hastening the fall of the Soviet Union, but a family man, he wasn't. Hardly a model for "traditional family values," he was divorced, his family was totally dysfunctional, and he rarely went to church.

By contrast, Carter had only one wife, his family was functional - except for his beer-swilling brother, Billy - he was a devout Southern Baptist and Sunday school teacher, and he led an exemplary Christian life, albeit one which included an occasional lusting in his heart. Carter's sin, according to the Moral Majority, was that he was pro-choice and for strict separation of church and state.

Since that 1980 Reagan-Carter campaign, the Republicans and Democrats have argued over who had more values and whose values were more virtuous. Or, to put it another way: one man's value is another man's vice, and vice versa. Or, to put it yet another way, a la the judge's famous statement on obscenity: you know values when you see them. The GOPs have held up "traditional family values" while the Dems have worshipped "compassionate social values."

Republicans generally have promoted the "traditional" American home, church and Sunday schools and have said they were the country's most important institutions. Their enemy of all this tradition has been the unwashed (read Democrats) and their beloved public sector.

Democrats generally have promoted the "compassionate" federal government, judiciary and public schools and have said they were the country's most important institutions. The enemy of all this compassion has been the unenlightened (read Republicans) and their beloved private sector.

I thought this silly debate since 1980 over values was over. But the vying of values has reared its vacuous and vexing head in the Kerr-Chandler contest of 2004. The difference is, we have to figure out for ourselves exactly what Kerr's and Chandler's values are, which of their values we like and which candidate has more of them.

While neither candidate in the Feb. 17 special congressional election says what kind of values they possess, they do give us a clue. They don't say what their values are but they do say where they have gotten them. Thus, both candidates have what might be called geographic values. They talk about "American values" and "Kentucky values" and "Central Kentucky values" and "Bluegrass values." Then, Kerr, in one of her commercials, says she shares President Bush's values. Guess that means Kentucky values + Texas values = American values?

What about Danville values, Junction values, Hustonville values, Ottenheim values? Suppose we folks around here will have to come up with our own commercials.

It would take a book with 50 chapters for each and every state to try to figure out what is meant by "American values." It would be easier to try to discern what "Kentucky values," "Central Kentucky values" or "Bluegrass values" are. Let's give it a shot by giving two versions of the same sets of a half dozen values:

To the sentimental, "Kentucky values," "Central Kentucky values" or "Bluegrass values are:

* Close-knit families.

* Neighborliness.

* Strong religious faith and church attendance.

* Good schools.

* World-renowned excellence in tobacco, whiskey distilling and horse racing.

* Beautiful antebellum music.

To the cynical, "Kentucky values," "Central Kentucky values" or "Bluegrass values" are:

* More inbreeding than the royal family.

* The Hatfields and McCoys.

* The most segregated hour in Kentucky (and most other states, for that matter), is 11 a.m. Sundays.

* English is a second language to many high school graduates.

* World-renowned decadence in addictive pursuits of our world-renowned products as we smoke like chimneys, drink like sailors on leave and gamble our family's financial futures on the ponies.

* "My Old Kentucky Home" is a wonderful song, except for a couple of things: It unfortunately talks of African-Americans in a negative way and unwittingly refers to them as homosexuals.

Until Kerr and Chandler tell us what their values are, we'll just have to keep guessing. But there is one thing about which I am certain: Just as in 1980, this year's debate over values is over-valued.

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