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Presidents can walk, chew gum

by Greg Harton | September 12, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

With more than 400 federal agencies, how many issues do you think the federal government is dealing with at any given moment?

The answer is a lot.

In other words, there’s a whole lot of walking and chewing gum at the same time.

To hear some people, though, the insertion of a piece of Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum into one’s mouth necessitates that all other activities, whether it’s walking or managing the federal government, must stop.

Last week, President Biden sent notices to 18 people appointed by President Trump to boards that advise the military service academies for the Air Force, Navy and Army. Biden told these appointees, some of whom were given the honor in the waning days of Trump’s presidency, that they needed to resign or they would be otherwise terminated.

Some of the positions were held by people with serious military backgrounds, such as H.R. McMaster, former national security adviser and a retired Army lieutenant general. Others were filled by the likes of former Trump aides Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway.

Biden’s decision rankled plenty of folks, not the least of which was U.S. Rep. Steve Womack of Rogers. Womack is chairman of the West Point Board of Visitors who himself has a long history of military service.

Womack issued a statement comparing Biden to a dictator. He also suggested Biden’s focus should be on a “botched withdrawal” from Afghanistan, “an overrun border and skyrocketing inflation.”

Spicer, who has become a talking head for the conservative news channel Newsmax, himself suggested Biden should instead be “focusing on the stranded Americans left in #Afghanistan.”

Diverting attention to something else is a longstanding political tactic. Democrats do it. Republicans do it. Pretty much anyone who doesn’t like the subject matter of the moment is prone to

.

It’s closely related to “whataboutism,” the practices of responding to an accusation or challenging question by raising an entirely different issue, often one thought to put the person asking the initial question on the defensive. It’s the kind of response that helps a person avoid one subject in favor of a new one he or she would prefer to talk about.

But what about editorial and column writers? Shouldn’t they be focused on Hillary Clinton’s emails or Donald Trump’s history with women? (See what I did there?)

Of course, editorial and column writers are as guilty as politicians sometimes in using these rhetorical practices. It’s weak when we use them, too.

The truth of the matter is we’re all complex individuals with complex opinions. It’s possible for people to care about one thing just as much as he cares about another, even if in the moment he’s only talking about one of those subjects.

And it’s ridiculous to think a president or his administration can only handle one issue at a time. If the president fires someone sitting on a military service academy board, it’s not a sign that he has forgotten about covid-19, paying federal employees or lobbying Congress for infrastructure funding.

I’m not arguing for or against Biden’s decision. I just think it’s goofy to assert that because he made that decision, he’s mired in contemplation about it to the point that work on every other issue facing him stops.

People get to decide for themselves what issues are important to them.

I’ve had people I’ve interviewed try the ol’ “what about” tactic. My response was simply to write down the three or four other issues they felt were more important, show them the list and promise to get back to those later, but insisting first that they provide some response to the original question.

That kind of response is why too many politicians refuse these days to even engage in interviews, choosing instead to issue carefully managed statements not subject to direct questioning, challenge or clarification.

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Greg Harton is editorial page editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Contact him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @ NWAGreg.

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