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Signing Off 

Today’s political language no longer makes campaign signs worth stealing.

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A curious incident played out in Salt Lake Valley last week. A Riverton man by the name of Tim Heaton was accused of stealing the campaign signs of Republican candidate for Salt Lake district attorney Lohra Miller.

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“I really don’t have a good reason for stealing the signs. The only way I can explain it is I am a sign Nazi,” the Deseret Morning News quoted him as saying from the official police report.

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Tim Heaton is also the name of a former Riverton City Council member. Problem is, that Mr. Heaton denies taking the signs. But he has contributed $250 to the campaign of Miller’s opponent, Democrat Sim Gill, who, incidentally, has also had many of his campaign signs stolen.

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All of which is interesting, but not so interesting as the question of why someone would feel possessed to pilfer campaign signs to begin with. Not only does stealing campaign signs smack of high school election bully tactics and lack of a true hobby. No, it says something about the mind of a person who really, truly believes that campaign signs swing voter behavior. That may sound like blasphemy in an era when books titled The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference end up on best-seller lists. Speaking of “sign Nazis,” no doubt the National Socialists thought they were making headway every time they slapped a swastika banner across some public square. Campaign signs speak to the weakness inside us all that says quietly, “Everyone else is doing it, why shouldn’t I?”

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Campaign signs are crude tools of awareness. Unlike most advertising, they don’t even attempt to persuade. By themselves they’re crude detritus hanging from signs near freeway entrances or posted on manicured lawns. But are they really worth the effort of outright theft?

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Hardly. That’s because, these days, they don’t contain even the most simple of campaign slogans. And thanks to an American culture that’s strangled language of meaning it once contained, slogans are meaningless. Notice, too, that while Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Pete Ashdown boasts lots of lawn signs reminiscent of the Union Pacific logo, incumbent Hatch has hardly bothered. Not that he has to, of course, but there’s something disturbing about an incumbent so overwhelmingly confident about his job security that, last I checked, all his campaign Website contains is an emergent portrait of Hatch resplendent in a yellow tie. If you believe clothes make the man that alone speaks volumes. Ashdown’s Website, meanwhile, sticks solely to brick-like nouns: “Father / Utahn / Small Businessman / American.” Nice, and all true, but too safe.

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But so are all campaign slogans these days. LaVar Christensen’s “I’m Dedicated to Serving You” sounds more like something you’d hear at a chain restaurant, after your waiter stopped talking about Ronald Reagan, of course. Rep. Jim Matheson’s slogan, “Puts Utah First,” is perhaps the safest of all, and off-putting to anyone who understands words like that keep pork-barrel politics churning.

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Looking over a list of campaign slogans from our nation’s past reveals a daring political spirit long since past. Abraham Lincoln demonstrated blatant gusto with “Vote Yourself a Farm,” and really outdid himself with “Don’t swap horses in the middle of a stream.” Woodrow Wilson’s slogan, “He kept us out of war,” proves definitively the old maxim that “the past is a foreign country.” “I Like Ike” was gutsy because it was so damned geeky. Even detractors must admit Reagan scored with “It’s morning again in America.”

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And dig the sheer pluck of Henry Clay, who seemed to question the very existence of his opponent in the presidential race with the slogan, “Who is James K. Polk?” That’s a far cry from John Kerry’s sorry slogan of 2004, “Let America be America Again.” Our country might be an adolescent in need of therapy, as the slogan suggested, but you just don’t say things like that in the company of voters. President George W. Bush’s “Yes, America Can!” was hardly better, which is probably why you don’t even remember it. Which makes my point all over again. Our country’s political language isn’t worth stating, so isn’t worth the space of memory, and so isn’t worth putting on a sign, and consequently isn’t worth stealing or even touting. Does American political language exist, then? In a vaporous, shifty sort of way, I suppose.

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But that makes it simply annoying, not effective. President Bush desperately needs some sort of slogan, if only to get off the endless track of his current rhetoric, which can be boiled down to its simplest essence with the phrase, “The terrorists hate us because of our freedoms, which is why I’m ridding our great country of any and all judicial oversight.” Or should that instead be, “Vote Republican, or the Islamofascists will rip off our heads and shit down our necks”? Whatever, it can’t be denied that the unofficial slogan of his second is that of “The Decider.”

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Miller’s campaign slogan makes a whole four-course meal out of the word “justice.” First up is “Justice First,” followed by a litany of definitions transforming the word into some sort of father figure: “Justice keeps us safe,” “Justice is about taking responsibility,” “Justice helps communities work together,” and “Justice keeps the laws of our country and community intact.”

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Well, one thing justice is not is Enron chief financial officer Andrew Fastow serving a mere six years for wiping out $2 billion worth of pension plans, so who’s going to argue with Miller’s futile exercise in defining such an elusive concept? Only the mysterious individual who stole her campaign signs, apparently. And he apparently supports Miller’s opponent, Gill, who by all appearances has no slogan whatsoever. Smart man.

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