Darrell Ehrlick

Billings Gazette Editor Darrell Ehrlick

Just in case you had thought better of the political process this campaign season, hold that thought.

Folks are sometimes shocked to hear me say around Election Day, "I hope they all lose." 

It's not directed toward any one candidate, but it's the long, and growing longer, cycle of candidates and campaigns bombarding citizens and journalists with petty issues or shameless story pitches. By Election Day, I just want it to end.

This year has been no different.

Journalists are privileged to see candidates up close. They have an awesome responsibility to portray candidates not in the best light, but the brightest.

Our profession is called to rise above the attack ads and the anonymous mailers sent by organizations with patriotic or benevolent sounding names.

We usually don't report on every single word a candidate said because we are not stenographers. We don't record a candidate's every move because not everything is germane to the campaign.

Political races continue to up the ante. Now, candidates are hounded by trackers from political parties and political action groups. They are followed nonstop, sometimes even home, as if they'll suddenly pop out of the car and start kicking puppies.

Imagine my surprise when a story by The Los Angeles Times on Oct. 24 contained a nugget from the House debate held in Billings in September. 

The story recounted a little scene right before the two candidates, Ryan Zinke and John Lewis, went on stage. Four people heard the remark, including the moderator, me. The other person was from the Lewis campaign.

Zinke said, "John plays the guitar. I waterboard."

It was, I can only assume, a remark borne out of levity or nervousness. For weeks leading up to the debate, I had been joking with the Lewis camp about how to fill the entire hourlong forum after Zinke had originally bowed out of the debate. Someone suggested that Lewis could play a guitar to help fill the 59-minute session. Several times after that comment was made, I jabbed the Lewis campaign about John needing to brush up on his guitar work.

The night of the debate came and Zinke had agreed to rejoin the debate. Before going on stage, I asked Lewis again, before the coin toss, if he had his guitar tuned. We laughed.

Several minutes later, right before Zinke, Lewis and I took the stage, Zinke said, "John plays the guitar. I waterboard."

I didn't get the chance to follow up on the comment because I was preparing to take the stage and introduce the candidates. It was simply a passing comment. 

Was it a self-deprecating crack? A joke? A veiled threat?

Who knows? And who cares?

Well, obviously who cares is the Lewis camp. They decided to leak the comment to the L.A. Times, which used it as part of a larger story on Zinke that examined how candidates use their military records in a run for public office.

I can only guess it wasn't the story the Lewis folks had hoped for. And, it wasn't the first time Zinke had talked about waterboarding. Quite frankly, Zinke's military records have been a key part of this congressional campaign. However, no one has asked or seriously broached the subject of Zinke and waterboarding. I suspect that there's a group of Montana voters who would like Zinke more if it was true he knew how to waterboard. The off-the-cuff comment was leaked to one of the largest papers in America. I guess the campaign hoped there'd be a story that said: Zinke jokes about torture. 

That clearly didn't happen.

But it's exactly these tactics and no regard for context that leaves such a bad taste with voters. For a campaign that has tried to paint itself as above the fray, the Lewis folks stooped pretty low. Trying to use an off-hand remark to play gotcha is politicking worthy of the gutter.

Quite frankly, it smacks of desperation.

In a previous column, I chided Zinke for canceling a debate, commenting that if he or his campaign acts like this, what's going to happen if we elect him? 

Same question, now to Mr. Lewis.