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Lynn Swann Scores Cheap Points

An empty campaign for an empty political system

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It should go without saying that Lynn Swann's campaign kickoff, held Jan. 4 at the Heinz History Center, celebrated his football career to the near-exclusion of everything else.

Almost everything about Swann's campaign goes without saying, in fact. It goes without saying much about his policies. Or about why we should trust a guy to run a state when he's never run for dogcatcher. Swann has promised a more detailed agenda for being the next governor, but judging by his campaign kickoff, he seems more interested in being Tsar of Steeler Nation.

People wearing "88" Steelers jerseys in the Heinz Center crowd -- check. Audio clips of Swann's Steelers highlights -- check. Chants of "Here we go, Swannie, here we go!" to the tune of "Here we go, Steelers" -- check. And plenty of signs with witticisms like "Blitz in 2006" and "No spin with Lynn." (Except, presumably, for the tight, perfect spiral of a Terry Bradshaw TD pass!)

Once Swann took the stage -- to the sound of Van Halen's "Right Now," one of the Five Rock Songs Even Republicans Can Listen To -- it was all spin with Lynn. He noted, for example, that his alma mater, USC, was playing for the national college football championship that night: "They're trying to make history, I'm trying to make history."

But if Swann's campaign is a bad cliché, so is complaining about it. Spin is what politics is all about, and the Swann campaign is diagrammed like a post pattern. (Hey, I just made a sports metaphor! Sign me up for a Senate race!) The GOP hopes Swann will hurt the Democratic incumbent, Ed Rendell, in Democrat-heavy Pittsburgh. Swann's pro-life credentials should help him in the rural areas, and while he may not impress pro-choice Republicans in Philly's suburbs, that's Eagles country anyway.

What's funny about Swann's candidacy is this: He's running as a candidate for change -- denouncing the Harrisburg pay hike, for example -- when it's never been more obvious that athletes are just another special interest.

The construction of new stadiums with tax dollars is only the most obvious example. Right now, the biggest question most Pittsburghers have about gambling is whether it will benefit Mario Lemieux and the Penguins. Gambling's effects on anyone else -- like poor city residents -- are of much less concern. And guess whom various local gambling interests are trying to rally to their cause, according to a Jan. 7 Post-Gazette story? Former Steelers running back Franco Harris. (Whom, by the way, Democrats have fruitlessly encouraged to run against Congresswoman Melissa Hart this year.)

We often profess disdain for celebrities who run for office (such as Arnold Schwarzenegger) -- or who merely voice political views (like Jane Fonda). But athletes are different, it seems, perhaps because they play for our city -- on our behalf. Sports may be just another special interest, but at least it still interests us.

A winning sports team flatters our sense of superiority, even we don't expect that feeling to last. We know that, in the era of free agency, athletes don't stay bought any more than politicians do. We know that, at best, the home team can only provide a fleeting sense of false, vicarious accomplishment.

But do Pennsylvania politics deliver even that much?

While Swann may say little of substance, for example, Rendell has done little of substance -- at least for Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh has been flirting with bankruptcy for years, yet state officials have given it far less financial help than their own Harrisburg-appointed panels say we need. Rendell got a much better deal for Philadelphia when he was mayor than he has given to Pittsburgh as governor. When you finish second behind Philadelphia, a simple answer is to fire the coach -- even if Pittsburgh's travails are largely the fault of the Republican-led legislature.

Many establishment Republicans, meanwhile, are getting only lukewarm support for their preferred candidate, former Lieutenant Gov. Bill Scranton. Scranton and Swann are neck-and-neck in the polls, which is hardly any surprise. For years the GOP has trumpeted its contempt for government -- while running the governments in Harrisburg and Washington as contemptibly as possible. Is it any wonder the party faithful aren't impressed by such trifles as the fact that Scranton has some experience?

If Swann's laughably shallow campaign wins, in other words, it will be off of turnovers.

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