Aug. 2, 2004

The Sandwich Board Effect

The hero of the week award goes to Wimoco County (Md.) District Court Judge D. William Simpson, who recently crafted a unique punishment for 18-year-old Sherelle Purnell, a gasoline thief. Purnelle tried to pull a bait-and-switch maneuver earlier this year with the proprietors of Gordy’s Tiger Mart in Salisbury, Md. She put $4.52 worth of gas into her car, then strolled in and inquired about cigars. After looking over the selection of stogies, she nodded her head, “no,” strolled out and drove away. Surveillance cameras caught the whole thing, and Purnell quickly had to face the music.

Which leads us to Judge Simpson. He decided to make the teen put on a large sandwich board, bearing in bold red letters the declaration: “I WAS CAUGHT STEALING GAS.” She was to appear last Friday at noon in front of Gordy’s and stroll for three hours next to the busy highway that leads to the station.

The judge clearly understands the importance of shame. He wanted Purnell to feel a sense of keen embarrassment for a stupid and arrogant crime, knowing that a good dose of humiliation often can persuade young would-be criminals to walk the straight and narrow. (Would that other judges understood human nature as well, and were as committed to teaching young scofflaws to appreciate the difference between right and wrong.)

The good news is that the good citizens of Salisbury agree with Judge Simpson. A lot of parents came to Gordy’s last Friday at noon (the appointed hour) so they could show their kids what happens when young people do bad things. But Purnell didn’t show – or at least didn’t appear for 90 minutes. Once on the premises, she and her boyfriend allegedly complained about the heat and discomfort of the sign. Don’t be surprised if she doesn’t make national news again. When Judge Simpson hears about her antics, he’s not likely to be amused.

The Dead Cat Bounce

Republicans are euphoric because the Democratic National Convention produced nothing but a dull thud for John Kerry. According to one poll, Kerry got a 2-point “bounce” among registered voters (a less reliable indicator of potential electoral success than a canvass of “likely voters”), while other surveys indicate he actually lost ground. Either way, it marked the least successful Democratic Convention since George McGovern grabbed the brass ring in 1972 – on his way to losing 49 states to Richard Nixon.

The GOP might want to restrain its glee, however, at least for now. The Democrats certainly ran an awful convention – one in which they tried to masquerade as Republicans in drag – but Kerry also suffered from the fact that broadcast networks spurned the gathering by airing just one hour on the first, third and fourth nights. For that, viewers got the Clintons, Edwardses and Kerrys – and not much else.

Republicans will get precisely the same amount of coverage – and, if they script their convention as tightly as Democrats, people are likely to be every bit as bored, if not more. That would produce a dead-cat bounce for the president as well. Rumor has it that the president will throw a couple of Vision Thing long balls, such as suggesting the abolition of the Internal Revenue Service, the scrapping of the income tax, and the installation of a national sales tax. That’s a good start, but the debates between George Bush and John Kerry likely will determine which man takes the oath of office next January. It may seem awfully odd that forensic skill could determine our next president – but in this year of hot tempers and high levels of public boredom, some good verbal theatrics might indeed separate the loser from the Leader of the Free World.

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