In Michigan, a gubernatorial campaign of coarse proportions

August 30, 1998|By George F. Will

SOUTHFIELD, Mich. -- "Geoff Fieger never called Jesus a 'goofball.' What Geoff Fieger said was "

Mr. Fieger does not always talk about himself, as some celebrities like to do, in the third person. Here is Mr. Fieger, first person singular: "There was a certain point that Muhammad Ali realized he was the greatest fighter on earth. I'm positive Wayne Gretzky realized he was the greatest hockey player. And there was a point at which I realized I was as good as they make them."

But the Democratic nominee for governor in Michigan is feeling ill -- used by the media. He says they continue to yank his colorful comments out of context.

"I was talking about man's creation of religion," and wondering whether 2,000 years hence a religion might worship Elvis as a god, because 2,000 years ago most people thought Jesus was "just some goofball that got nailed to the cross." And Mr. Fieger says he compared Detroit's Council of Orthodox Rabbis to "Nazis" only in this sense: They compare assisted suicide to murder, so they are, like Nazis, "implicitly inciting violence" against him because he is Jack Kevorkian's lawyer and acolyte.

And he called Cardinal Maida, Catholic Archbishop of Detroit, a "nut" only in this sense: Mr. Kevorkian sought a gun permit to protect himself against nuts who say, as Maida does, that Mr. Kevorkian must be stopped.

And Mr. Fieger explains that when he said of Michigan's incumbent governor, John Engler, that "I don't believe [Engler's triplets are] his unless they have corkscrew tails," he was doing a "comedic" riff on radio, in the context of his assertion that Mr. Engler is "at a minimum, the result of miscegenation between human beings and barnyard animals."

In another Fieger clarification, he told a newspaper he had never called Mr. Engler "a bag of pus. I might have said a bag of s---."

Now, Mr. Fieger says, "I've resolved not to make personal, ad hominem attacks." No more calling an opponent a "sniveling weasel," no more calling Mr. Engler a "racist," "religious bigot," "coward," "cheater," "liar," "tyrant," "nincompoop," "simpleton," "less than mediocre," "brain-dead" and a "shill" who "appears in many respects not to have human qualities" and sounds "like he's semiretarded."

So, now that the reformed Mr. Fieger is tooling down the high road, how does he plan to campaign against Mr. Engler, a tax-cutting welfare reformer seeking a third term while Michigan enjoys its lowest unemployment in 25 years?

Asked how may debates he wants, Mr. Fieger says perhaps only two. That is odd. The underdog usually wants as many as possible. Mr. Fieger explains: "[Engler is] much uglier than Dan Quayle and just as dumb if not dumber" and in debates "I risk making him seem so inadequate it would generate sympathy for him."

He also might risk running into questions about public policy. He has said that if he is elected, "All lottery moneys collected will go directly to education and not to the general fund." But that has been the law since 1981.

He wants to "uncouple funding for schools from property taxes." Voters did that by a 1994 referendum, when they voted to increase the sales tax, which Fieger may have forgotten when he said, "No working men and women in this state would ever vote for an increase in the sales tax."

Mr. Fieger, whose bulk (6 feet 2, 230 pounds) and shaggy hair can make him seem menacing, is mistakenly called "angry." Actually, he is 47 going on 13, with an adolescent's notion that vulgarity demonstrates authenticity. As a trial lawyer he has acquired a lot of money and bad habits. He spent a lot of the former in the Democratic primary, getting into a position to put the latter on display for a national audience.

That audience includes many national Democrats who frequently get the vapors about what they call Republican "extremism." They have yet to be heard from on the subject of Mr. Fieger's thoughts noted above, or his assessment of the human race: "We're just the [expletive] bubonic plague with legs, man. We're just a pestilence with appendages." And:

"We wear crosses around our necks -- you know, it's like Lenny Bruce said, 'Why don't we wear the [expletive] electric chair around our neck?'

Because the cross was just the worst torture that the Romans could think of and we wear it around as a symbol of divinity. What the hell is that about?"

Mr. Fieger's candidacy -- Lenny Bruce goes to Lansing -- is about, among other things, the coarsening of public life. As a vulgarian, he cannot fairly be said to represent the Democratic Party, aside from its leader.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/30/98

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