Even paranoids have enemies, we used to say in Psych 101. As a class, politicians rank at the very top of those who suffer from some form of paranoia -- or at least it seems a quick way of explaining away problems of their own making.
In the current gotcha culture of electronic wizardry, no one gets away with anything, even among friends, or those he or she thinks are allies. Mitt Romney found that out during the presidential campaign, when he said at a fundraiser that "47 percent" of Americans "are dependent upon government" and believe they should be taken care of. The bartender at the expensive affair taped him.
Now it's Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's turn to cry foul. The same people who gave you Romney's faux pas, at the magazine Mother Jones, got hold of a re-election strategy tape in which the senator from Kentucky took a huge swipe at actress Ashley Judd while she was considering running against him (she's since decided not to). McConnell and his aides questioned her emotional stability and pretty much trashed her as a legitimate challenger.
It clearly wasn't a conversation any politician would want published anywhere -- especially when it was about a graduate of the senator's state university, where basketball is nigh on to being a religion and Judd is revered as among its most ardent fans.
So McConnell has done what any self-respecting politician would do. He has called in the FBI to find the rascally liberals he claims have bugged his campaign headquarters, turning himself into the victim of a Nixonian "dirty tricks" plot and refusing to account for his nasty words about Judd or other potential opponents he apparently wants to put down like in the game "Whac-A-Mole." How interesting it is to hear a staunch conservative compare the left wing's behavior to that of a fellow conservative, Richard Nixon.
Mother Jones' editors, meanwhile, said it was their understanding that the tape they received was not brought about by a "Watergate-style bugging."
It is not terribly unusual for politicians who have stepped on their tongues privately or in public to desperately try to turn the attention away. A House majority leader, the late Hale Boggs, once ranted on the House floor about being bugged and watched -- by the FBI, no less. His claims were never verified.
After some politically embarrassing information was leaked, a former Midwestern senator called in his aides. They banged on his office floor with a poker and dismantled a number of things, like the telephone, in belief that he was the victim of a bugging. Nothing was found, of course.
I say "of course" because I was the "leakee," so to speak, and the "leaker" was a source close to the senator, who casually related the details of a meeting as a means of turning him away from a course he thought would be detrimental to the senator's future. The leaker laughingly regarded his lawmaking friend's overreaction as hilarious. "Perhaps it will teach him a lesson," he chuckled.
In those days, there was no shortage of information floating through the chambers of Congress -- and there weren't the ubiquitous recording devices now in the hands of everyone from 6 to 60. One needed only to wander out in the House and Senate halls and wonder aloud about this or that, and 10 people would be at your elbow willing to oblige. Is that an exaggeration? Probably, but not by much.
Think of Marge Schott, the late and former owner of the Cincinnati Reds, whose racist and ethnic remarks got her suspended from baseball in 1993 and led to her being forced to sell the club in 1999. She never got over the furor. Slurs always have a way of finding their way into the sunlight. The thought police are everywhere and the atmosphere is truly Orwellian. Does that sound paranoid?
The sound advice that one should never write anything that couldn't be printed without repercussions on the front page of your daily newspaper now extends to the spoken word. If I were McConnell, I would apologize to Ms. Judd and get on with the serious business of the day. She might accept the apology, but if not, he'd have learned a valuable lesson, as my friend said. Temper your paranoia with judgment.
(Dan Thomasson is former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.)