BROOKE GLADSTONE: Recently there was a dustup on Capitol Hill when Ernest Hollings, South Carolina's junior senator despite his 35 years in the job, was prodded by a local paper to say something unseemly about the senior senator, Strom Thurmond.
Hollings said that Thurmond was quote "not mentally keen." Such blunt assessments of brain power on Congress are very rare, and we wondered why the Washington press corps, usually game when it comes to reporting on the financial or sexual or alcohol problems of elected officials seems so much more fastidious when it comes to questions of basic competence.
Tom Oliphant, the Boston Globe's longtime Washington columnist, joins us now. Tom, welcome to On the Media.
TOM OLIPHANT: Good to be with you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Let's talk about this issue of competence. There was a wonderful episode involving the Washingtonian Magazine and Senator William Scott.
TOM OLIPHANT: Indeed there was! This was one of those "ranking" stories -- you know, who's the best X or Y--; this was who is the most stupid senator. And Senator Scott came out number one in this poll. [LAUGHTER] What we still remember about the episode 24 years later though is that the poor fellow actually called a press conference.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well I seem to recall the, the seminal quote from that press conference was when Scott said there are plenty of people here who are stupider than I am. [LAUGHS]
TOM OLIPHANT: Indeed! In fact another of his colleagues a decade before that, the late Roman Haruska [sp?] of Nebraska once argued that one of President Nixon's Supreme Court justices should be supported despite the fact that he was generally seen as a mediocre judge and Senator Har--Haruska said that the mediocre people deserve to have spokesmen and representatives too.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] You're talking about Herbert Carswell.
TOM OLIPHANT: Indeed, we are.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now these are a couple of notable examples but I see them somewhat as the exception that proves the rule. Why is it that we can now report on alcoholism, say, or we can report on sexual peccadilloes because they both arguably can affect the effectiveness of an elected official, and yet we can't talk about basic competence and mental acuity?
TOM OLIPHANT: What occurs to me is that this - what you called fastidiousness about issues of basic competence is I think a vestigial practice here, and the way it was explained to me when I first came to Washington at the end of the 1960s was that we leave people alone as people unless something that they do as people can be see directly as impairing their official functions.
And beyond that, the only other thing that would trigger Washington anyway press activity would be something that showed up say on a police blotter or a hospital admission form or say divorce papers -- some official act.
I mean I can think of two words to make my case about how our institution has changed, and those two words would be Gary Condit. No one has made a direct or fact-based connection between the disappearance of this poor young woman and anything that the congressman did, and that hasn't restrained the feeding frenzy.
And yet we have this hangover that keeps us from, say, having a feeding frenzy on the issue of whether somebody is a doddering old fool or not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. So being muddleheaded does not have to open you up for criticism.
TOM OLIPHANT:It's interesting how we have not as an institution gone the entire mile and started--delving into people in ways that I think are impossible to quantify as well as to define.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In other words you can't quantify or define incompetence or dim-wittedness.
TOM OLIPHANT:[LAUGHS] Indeed. And also you know it may be philosophically for a second that it's impossible to make a case for its importance. I'm thinking here about what are the things that a public official does that are the most newsworthy?
I mean if you're a senator or a congressman, it's how you vote on the issues that come before you. The fact of the matter intelligence as we understand it or wisdom as we understand it is not really at the core of what produces a yes or a no.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well you actually made the-- rather original suggestion that perhaps being intelligent isn't even necessarily a qualification for the job of sitting in Congress. Reminds of a line of Gilbert and Sullivan where one member of Parliament, tsking at the affairs of another said this is what comes of being of two capacities. Thank goodness I am a capacity of no capacity whatever.
TOM OLIPHANT: There it is in a nutshell. The only thing I could throw back at you would be the observation of the great Woody Allen that -what is it - 80 percent of getting by in life is just showing up, which is why perhaps so many congressmen and senators have put such great importance on their attendance records.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom Oliphant, thank you very much!
TOM OLIPHANT: My pleasure Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom Oliphant is the Washington columnist for the Boston Globe.