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The Truth, Mainly - 04/24/1995

Coming soon: Ben on a billboard?

Anyone who thinks we Democrats don't have a masochistic inclination to self-destruct hasn't been paying much attention to recent Nebraska politics.

The paper trail was there on the front page for all to see. Something called a "PLEDGE TO NEBRASKA" and it went like this:

"I pledge to the citizens of Nebraska that if duly elected Governor on November 8, 1994, I will serve and fulfill the duties of Governor for the entire four year term."

And that's not all.

"By signing this pledge, I fully understand the above statement and deem it to be a binding contract with the citizens of Nebraska."

Dated last August, the pledge was duly—is that one "l" or two?— signed by Gene P. Spence and E. Benjamin Nelson. In case you slept through the campaign, those two were candidates for Governor last fall. E. Benjamin won.

So Ben Nelson is our Governor, but now he's eyeing the Senate seat. Especially since Bob Kerrey contributed to the party's lemming instinct by saying Ben would be the strongest candidate to succeed Jim Exon.

Sen. Kerrey may be slightly addled this spring, what with all those Republicans swarming around the Capitol. But to give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe he didn't know that Ben signed The Pledge.

Anyway, when someone crunched the numbers and pointed out that Ben's vow—signed in easily traceable handwriting—won't expire until two years after we elect Exon's replacement, the Guv got sulky.

"I'm not going to think about or comment about it anymore," he said.

I don't blame him. It'd put anybody in a funk to promise not to do something you don't think you'll have a chance to do anyway, then find yourself presented with a chance to do it. Especially if it's something you really want to do.

When I was 12 years old, I really wanted to jump out the window of the church I grew up in down in Kansas. But I'd pledged not to jump out the window when I joined the church on a cold day in January three years earlier.

The preacher made us take the pledge to deter wholesale bailing out of the windows during fire-and-brimstone sermons on hot summer days.

And now it was a hot Sunday in July and I'd fallen under the wicked influence of Duane Sparks, who was 13 and smoked his father's Lucky Strikes.

"Let's jump out the window when the prayer is over," Duane said during the benediction.

"OK," I said. "Sure. Why not? Nobody remembers pledges anyway."

So as soon as the preacher had finished the benediction from back by the door, I made my monstrous leap. He'd apparently been praying with his eyes open and saw what I was up to. He was outside waiting for me when I hit the ground.

"The Pledge!" he said. "You broke The Pledge not to jump out the window!"

My mother concurred in that interpretation. My father wasn't certain, ecclesiastical law not being his strong suit. But I was mortified, shamed, humiliated, and pretty well convinced I was going to hell. I didn't want to talk about it. I didn't even want to think about it.

The Truth, Mainly


So I can empathize with Ben when he doesn't want to think or talk about violating The Pledge Mr. Spence thrust on him at the State Fair debate. Even though the Governor would really, really, really like to be a Senator.

I have advice.

Think about it, Ben. Talk about it with someone who's not wondering if he might get to go to Washington with you.

It's important that Democrats put up a candidate who can hold the seat. Because the Republicans aren't going to run a Nobby Tiemann or a Robert Spire. They're going to run a Don Stenberg, If Ben's the Democrat candidate, the contest will be over who's the meanest member of the Pardons Board.

And Stenberg will win. Not just on the meanness issue, but because he—or any other Republican—will plaster the state with 14 X 48-foot billboard blowups of the "PLEDGE TO NEBRASKA."

Think of it, Ben. Your signature two feet high and eight feet wide on a billboard pledging not to do what you're in the midst of doing.

Sure, The Pledge shouldn't be taken any more seriously than a January promise not to jump out a church window in July. It was bogus politics, having nothing to do with serious issues. But Ben bought into it as easily as George Bush bought into his "Read my lips: no new taxes" pledge—and for the same dumb reason: neither could resist being simplistic in the pursuit of votes.

In the right context—say at the State Fair surrounded by Bearded Ladies and Three-Headed Calves, or at the GOP National Convention— pledges that dumb may not sound so dumb. But in the real world, they'll ruin you.

There's still hope. The Guv can keep looking for other people named Ben Nelson, and maybe find one who looks enough like him that we could teach him to forge Ben's signature, then say he's the one who signed The Pledge.

Failing that, we could look around for another candidate.


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.


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