Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The pesky absolute

" . . . But before our old soldier fades away, it is worth acknowledging that McCain ran a valiant race against impossible odds. He will be -- he should be -- remembered as the most worthy presidential nominee ever to be denied the prize."
-- from "The Campaign Autopsy" by Charles Krauthammer, The Washington Post, 11/7/08.

In the good old days, young reporters were advised to be careful about words like "first," "best," "most, "never" and "ever." These "absolute" statements are an open invitation to be proven wrong. As in --

  • Jackie Robinson was the first African-American ever to play Major League baseball. [He wasn't. There were some in the "pre-modern" era, so editors usually add "in the modern era."]
  • Christopher Columbus was the first European to set foot in the Americas. [Vikings actually lived in Newfoundland.]
  • Jim Brown was the best NFL player ever. [He may well have been. But most editors will put an "arguably" in there, lest they hear from fans of Johnny Unitas or other all-time greats.] It's a little more certain that Jim Brown was the greatest lacrosse player ever -- but we digress.
  • Chuck Berry was the father of rock and roll. [You're a lot safer to put ". . .one of the fathers of rock and roll." Jerry Lee Lewis might come and kick your ass. Who knows what Little Richard might do?]
  • - Bill Gates in the richest man on earth. [Warren Buffett passed him by this year, as did good ole' Carlos Slim HelĂș.]

As to the Krauthammer statement above, John McCain is a good guy, and no one [make that "few"] would argue with the statement that McCain is "one of the most worthy presidential nominees ever to be denied the prize."
But the statement as it is requires us to go back through the 50-odd elections in U.S. history. How worthy was Millard Fillmore's opponent?
Even if Krauthammer had added an "in recent history," you could start an argument with worthy fellows like Hubert Humphrey (who, like McCain couldn't overcome the burden of an unpopular incumbent in 1968 ) and Al Gore, "denied the prize" in 2000.

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