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Steve Barnes | The pain of the bumblebees

The little television set in the corner of my office is always tuned to one or another of the cable news channels unless there’s an especially good baseball game underway. But this is an even-numbered year, and thus every commercial break is jammed with political advertising, often back-to-back spots for Mark Pryor and Tom Cotton in the Senate race; or Mike Ross and Asa Hutchinson in the gubernatorial sweepstakes. Or commercials for any of the above disguised as “issue” ads by “independent” third party organizations. Even with the sound very low or muted altogether the visual assault is overwhelming, enough to turn one away from a bases-loaded, two-out, ninth-inning rally involving two division-leading teams.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Sarah Wire examined publicly available documents and recently reported that Arkansas candidates and the organizations attempting to influence Arkansas elections had booked almost 26,000 television spots, at a cost of more than $13.5 million, for the final three months prior to the November election. Keeping in mind the “perpetual campaign” ethos of today’s politics, and the fact that both Senate candidates began their broadcast advertising last year, the total tab for all political television spending in the cycle now approaching its end could easily exceed $20 million. Toss in radio spots and what comparatively little newspaper advertising statewide candidates purchase in our era, then add direct mail, and the number becomes even more serious.

And to think that many were stunned by the $1 million Winthrop Rockefeller reported (emphasize, reported) spending on his unsuccessful 1970 re-election campaign, although it should also be remembered that others were stunned that it was only a million.

The stretch-run (or ninth inning) figure that Wire reported, that $13.5 million? It’s difficult to imagine anyone being surprised, at least anyone with a television set. And here a tip, or warning: that number will only get larger.

The day after Wire’s report appeared I left the office early and drove straight home and noticed the mailbox was full. I entered the house through the back door per usual and stepped onto the front porch to retrieve the post. Seconds later I leapt onto the sidewalk beyond, whooping in pain and, using the mail, swatted away a horde of stinging insects. Bumblebees, I think they were (I didn’t pause to examine their voter ID cards), and I would later — rather later — discover they had chosen the door’s awning as their building site. I took one to the forehead, a second to the left earlobe, another on the right forearm and a fourth on the back of my left hand. Serious pain, especially my noggin. Throbbing, throbbing. But it set me to thinking.

I had not been so swarmed in decades, since the day I was trying to clear a weedy patch at the rear of a previous domicile. I took three hits that day. I called my old man to ask if he had any country remedies. Not really, he said, just sweat it out. Tough old geezer, he was.

Then, almost casually, almost an afterthought: “Where’d they get you?”

“My hand,” I told him. “All of them on the hand.”

“Which hand?” he immediately asked, a bit of urgency in his voice.

“The left.”

Pop said nothing for a moment. Then: “Put the phone down. Put it down, and take off your wedding ring. Take it off — now. Now.”

At once I understood. He was right: a half-hour later my left hand was the size of a catcher’s mitt. The silver marital band would have had to have been sawed off to prevent the ring finger from going black; already it had gone crimson.

Thirty years later and here I am, swarmed again, not once but twice in a season. The pain of the bumblebees, or whatever species, would fade in a few days, but the campaign spots, their venom no less toxic, would continue for months. Taking off a wedding ring or swallowing a Benadryl, to ward off discomfort or avert allergic reaction, won’t do, though turning off the set and snorting a tumbler of bourbon suggest themselves.

Nobody, really, wants to turn off the set, not with the World Series approaching. The best relief, the surest and safest, is tuning out, which is also the smartest.

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