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Words, Feb. 14

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“ ‘Special interests' as a term of political opprobrium has a history going back at least a century in American politics. Now as then, the term implies that those designated as ‘special interest groups' have something other than the larger public or national interest at heart as they organize or lobby. What has changed in the last hundred years, though, is just who is tagged with the special interest label.” — Steve Rendall, writing in the January/February issue of Extra!

A hundred years ago, when Theodore Roosevelt was busting the trusts, special interests was applied to big corporations using their wealth and influence to get their political way. A later Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, called the weapons industry special interests in his famous warning against “the military-industrial complex.” But in today's political journalism, as Rendall documents, special interest is more often applied to groups of people — teachers' unions and organized labor generally, consumer groups, public-interest groups, environmentalists. A union seeking higher wages for workers is a special interest. A corporation seeking to deny higher wages is not, nor is the local chamber of commerce that assists it.

“Pandering” is similarly used. To pander is to appeal to lower instincts, and in journalism today “lower instincts” are what retired people have when they want to protect Social Security and Medicare, or teachers when they oppose merit pay. When Bill Clinton was a presidential candidate and promising not to cut Social Security, opponents accused him of pandering; one called him “Pander Bear.”

Corporate interests are rarely described as the targets of pandering, Rendall says. Rudolph Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson all appeared before the Club for Greed in October. Giuliani told the pro-business, anti-tax group that he liked the idea of a flat tax and opposed raising taxes as a part of Social Security reform. These were reversals of earlier positions, and yet, Rendall says, “no article in the Nexis database referred to Giuliani or the other GOP hopefuls appearing before the group as ‘pandering.' ”

If Fox News had been around, Lincoln would have been accused of pandering when he freed the slaves.

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