If issues don't attract media, try something silly

Mike Royko

November 16, 1990|By Mike Royko | Mike Royko,Tribune Media Services

TOM DAVIDSON didn't win election to Congress. But his campaign revealed a great and goofy truth about politics and the media.

Davidson, 49, lives in Memphis, Tenn. He's not a professional politician, but it bothered him that his congressman, Harold Ford, seldom has any serious competition. So Davidson decided to run as an independent.

"I wanted to focus on the drug problems and the savings and loan fiasco. I also think we should have stronger law enforcement and better education in our schools to deter kids from getting involved with drugs.

"And there's the federal budget. My view is that higher taxes aren't necessarily the answer. There's too much wasteful spending, and I have thoughts on how we can spend a lot less."

These aren't radical ideas. Not even particularly original. But how many candidates are original? So Davidson filed the necessary petitions and became a candidate. He then set out to get his name and message before the voters.

Because he had little money, he couldn't make TV commercials or even radio spots. Or slap his name on billboards.

That meant he had to try to get free media time and space -- interviews in newspapers, on radio and TV.

But he found that the newspapers and broadcast newsrooms weren't interested in him. They figured that he didn't have a chance of winning anyway, so why bother talking to him.

This is the big chicken-and-egg problem that all unknown, underfinanced candidates face. The news outlets don't take them seriously because they are unknown. But the only way they can become known is through the news outlets. But because they are unknown, the news outlets don't take them seriously. So, etc., etc., etc.

He became discouraged. Then he decided that if he couldn't be taken seriously, he would just have some fun.

He spent $22 of his $27 war chest to print 200 little pamphlets. The pamphlets said: "Top Ten Reasons To Elect Tom Davidson to the U.S. Congress." His 10 reasons:

"1. Will use influence as congressman to try and persuade David Letterman to move 'Late Night' home office to Memphis, Tenn.

"2. Will propose a bill to sell Texas to Japan to cover huge savings and loan losses.

"3. Has received no bulging envelopes from Charles Keating.

"4. Has no cavities or visible tattoos.

"5. Will support legislation to make bingo the national pastime.

"6. Will organize congressional junkets to government-owned 'Mustang Ranch' (A Nevada bordello).

"7. He looks like Woody Allen.

"8. Has seen 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' 17 times.

"9. He'll keep a close eye on Newt Gingrich.

"10. It's good karma."

He sent his pamphlets to the news shops and broadcast outlets that hadn't been interested in his views on drugs, taxes, law enforcement and wasteful spending.

And what happened? You know what. Suddenly the unknown Tom Davidson was news.

"I had a write-up in the local paper, the Commercial Appeal, and they printed the whole list."

"Then USA Today had a story about me. I was interviewed by radio stations around here, and one in Nashville. And I even did an interview with a station in Boston that phoned me."

Then a popular radio talk show host not only read Davidson's list on the air, but the host also said he was so impressed by it that he endorsed Davidson. "There were four candidates, including me. And until I put out my list, I was doing so badly that I figured I'd come in fifth in a four-man field." But he did better than that. He received 7,247 votes, almost 9 percent of the total, and finished third, which shows that Memphis has a sizable madcap voting bloc.

And it shows that elements of the media, while piously complaining about the unfair advantage of incumbency, contribute to this unfair advantage by ignoring anyone who doesn't have $1 million to buy name recognition.

Now that Davidson has proved that he can get 9 percent of the vote by spending only $22, he's thinking about running again, although he's not sure he could come up with another list that would have the voter appeal that the last one did.

But if he should decide to run again, he might consider a sex change operation.

I'm not sure if that would get him elected, but he'd be a cinch to be invited to appear with Oprah and Geraldo.

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