Sunday, October 19, 2008

'Joe the Plumber' in media cross hairs

By John Kass
Chicago Tribune
5:13 PM CDT, October 18, 2008

The eyes of Joe the Plumber stare sightlessly from the media pike that his head has been impaled upon. A few crows fly over. As crows are curious, they become interested in the offering below. They lock their wings, caw and begin their swoop.

Poor Joe. "I'm kind of like Britney Spears having a headache. Everybody wants to know about it," joked Joe Wurzelbacher of Ohio, the celebrated Joe the Plumber of this presidential election.

The quote proves Joe Wurzelbacher is alive, and that it's not Joe's real flesh-and-blood head up there on the media's mocking pike. It's just his figurative head, not the head of a man, but of an American reduced to symbolism for political purposes. It's much easier to mount a bloodless two-dimensional cartoon head on a sharp point.

Yet even symbols have feelings, and it sure must have hurt. So, how did Joe lose his head?

It's simple. He made three big mistakes. Mistake No. 1 was that Joe got involved in presidential politics without a license. You must have a license to do anything in this country these days. Joe didn't know any better.

But it was mistake No. 2 that really got him. Wurzelbacher got Obama to tell him about his tax policy. The Democratic senator from Illinois confessed that if elected president, he'd institute a tax plan to "spread the wealth around."

Those four words just about finished Joe. Joe said he was a plumber and would like to buy a plumbing business but was worried about Obama's planned tax increases on small business owners earning more than $250,000.

"Do you believe in the American dream?" Joe asked Obama. "I'm being taxed more and more for fulfilling the American dream."

Obama answered him patiently, calmly, saying his tax policy would not hurt most small businesses. But there was that unfortunate gaffe—not really reported as a gaffe since the media is generally weak-kneed for Barack, but a gaffe nevertheless—in which Obama said those four remarkable words:

"Spread the wealth around." Oblivious and witless, Joe the Plumber was like those ancient Egyptian contractors who finished the secret treasure vault in the pyramids and wondered why pharaoh wanted them to precede him in the afterlife.

"Spread the wealth around" is regular Joe speak for redistributionist tax policy, in which the government takes from the Joes and keeps a fee for handling Joe's money, then gives it out to other folks who want Joe's money, so the other folks will love the politicians who run the government and vote for them again and again.

This is a system that works remarkably well for politicians, government workers with fat pensions and others who get Joe's money. It doesn't work out for the Joes, but there aren't as many of them as there used to be. Increasingly, Joes are encouraged to get in the government soup line for what is called "their fair share."

Anybody from Illinois understands how this works. In Illinois, it is an art form. Illinois Republican politicians do it. Illinois Democratic politicians really, really do it. Soon, perhaps, the rest of the nation will understand our way of doing it.

But let's stick with Joe's tale of woe and his third big mistake. That mistake, the one that was unconscionable, was to allow his conversation with Obama to be recorded on news tape, after which Republican John McCain converted Joe the Plumber to a hieroglyphic, to thwack Obama in the recent debate.

The Joes were on the verge of getting agitated, and it was clear there was only one thing to do. I'm thinking of the last scene from the great film "Being There," about the gardener who was pushed into the White House because everyone loved his speaking style. I hope you'll allow me to amend it some:

"Gentlemen," one fellow says to the others. "If we are going to keep the presidency, we must destroy Joe the Plumber."

Off with Joe's head! "Joe the plumber's story has some cracks" said the Chicago Tribune. "Plumber's story springs a leak: Say it ain't so, Joe / He's not a licensed plumber, and he owes Ohio almost $1,200 in back taxes," said the Sun-Times.

"McCain may stumble with focus on 'Joe the Plumber' " said the headline. In newsrooms across the land, Joe's head thunked to the floor.

The tone of most of the stories was the tone of a stern teacher lecturing the class hooligan. According to this reasoning, even though he was working for a plumber and didn't need a license to do residential work, his lack of a license left him without credibility. And those back taxes also made him incredible.

Tax experts were consulted and said that even if Joe could afford to buy the plumbing business, he shouldn't worry about Obama's taxes. But I grew up in a small family business, and saw what my father went through to pay this tax and that tax and the other tax and then try to pay our bills, so listening to experts reassure small business owners that they shouldn't worry when Democrats may control all of Washington made me want to laugh my head off.

Joe wasn't the one who said he wanted to "spread the wealth around." But it's Joe's head up there, on that pike, as the crows come down.

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