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Campaign letters, a $50 tomato and a car that runs on air

July 09, 2008

Odds and ends from a columnist's notebook:

· My paternal grandfather, who died long before I was born, was an assistant district attorney in a small town in the hard coal region of Pennsylvania.

Some of his foes attempted to disbar him because he had the audacity to try to exonerate some people who were charged with a crime - people he didn't believe were guilty.

When I was younger, I thought about writing his story, but an aunt said it would embarrass the descendants of those who had tried to disbar my grandfather.

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"But they're not responsible for what their ancestors did," I said.

"Neither are you," she said.

The lesson: Everyone gets a clean slate. Your ne'er-do-well relatives might not be a source of pride, but they need not be a source of shame, unless you choose to follow in their footsteps.

I thought about all of this recently when someone sent me a group of photos of Barack Obama's African relatives. The photo captions alleged that some of them were involved in some radical activities.

The message? With relatives like these, how could we trust Obama with the presidency?

It is an unfair question, because it implies that all people are tribal, unable to separate themselves from their relatives and their attitudes and beliefs.

I write this because we are about to enter our first national campaign for president in which one of the contenders is of -American ancestry.

Letters to the editor that question his positions, his experience and his judgment will be printed. Those that allege things that cannot be proven will not.

For example, if you want to write that Obama is a member of some secret society that does not follow America's ideals, we'll need your source for that.

Preferably it will be a reputable news outlet, as opposed to some unknown person's blog or Web site.

This campaign will be historic. With your help, the history it makes will not be for bad taste and hate-filled speech.

· As part of our promotion of "The Garden Blog," The Herald-Mail is holding a big tomato contest.

It's easy to enter. Just bring your monster to the Hagerstown City Market at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 30.

There is only one rule - the tomato has to be in edible condition on that day.

The grower of the biggest one gets $50, the second-largest $25 and the third-largest, $10. The $50 winner will be interviewed and his or her garden photographed, if they're willing.

To read the blog or leave a comment, go to www.herald-mail.com/blogs/maginnis/. If you can get past that face, you might be amused or enlightened.

· The scandal over West Virginia University's award of an unearned degree to the daughter of Gov. Joe Manchin puzzled me at first. Isn't this the sort of favor politicians get for their children? And given that they don't have 50 children apiece, how much damage could the practice have done?

But then I read readers' comments on the story on The Charleston Gazette's Web site and it became clear instantly.

The hubbub is not over the fact that a politician's relative got a favor, but about the fact that she got the degree without doing all the work other students had to do.

So if you're going to bend the rules, make sure it's something too complicated for the general public to understand. For example, I'm still trying to figure out what the Clinton-era Whitewater scandal was all about - and whether any rules were bent.

· Since gasoline hit $4 a gallon, I've seen a lot more people riding scooters, but what I'm really waiting for is the arrival in the U.S. of the car that runs on compressed air. In February, Popular Mechanics magazine suggested that once it passes side-impact tests, it could be available for purchase for under $18,000 by 2009 or 2010.

Fillups would be accomplished at gas stations, which already have air pumps, or by plugging the car into an electric outlet and letting the car's own compressor fill tanks in about four hours.

Sounds like a great way for local governments to save money on fuel costs.

· A police officer's presence at a May 30 illegal poker game that was robbed by two masked men again reinforces my faith in "the headline system."

It works like this: If you're thinking about doing something you'd rather not tell the world about, imagine what could happen as a headline.

Imagine your dalliance transformed into "Man caught with friend's wife." Or picture that urge to steal just one little item reworded as "Woman charged as shoplifter."

Don't say it could never happen. It just did.

Bob Maginnis is Opinion Editor of The Herald-Mail.

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