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Red herring or wild goose chase?

As the political campaigns heat up and we move closer and closer to election day, we're going to be hearing more and more claims that "my opponent's claim is a red herring." For those of us who thought red herring was a snack to be eaten with crackers, here's some background on the origin of the expression.

A kipper is a cured and smoked herring and is red or ginger in color. The kipper or red herring was a device used by someone who wanted to disrupt a fox hunt to give the foxes a chance to survive the hounds. They would drag a kipper across a trail of the foxes to put the hounds off the scent. It worked. As a matter of fact it worked so well that in the 1800's, British fugitives from the law tied a kipper to a string and dragged it through the woods to divert bloodhounds hot on their trail.

An idea as clever and effective as the red herring was bound to spread around the world. The French word for a red herring is most descriptive -- it's "diversion." The Norwegians call it "falskt," the Italian's call it "pista falsa" and, as you might have guessed, the German expression is "das Ablenkungsmanover."

But the red herring is not the same as a wild goose chase, unless... A wild goose chase is something we can get into all by ourselves when we get confused or excited and end up running in circles and getting nowhere. On the other hand, if somebody deliberately throws out a false clue that sends us off on a wild goose chase, the false clue would be a red herring.

The red herring is a useful tactic in football, although that's not what they call it. When a team has a star pass receiver he can be used as a decoy to attract double defenders to create an opening for another receiver. It works very effectively if it's well done but not overdone.

If you have a wonderful garden that is constantly invaded by deer or rabbits, I understand you may buy a powerful, but expensive solution that you can spread around the perimeter to keep the hungry invaders out. It's coyote urine. There are no coyotes around of course, but the deer and rabbits are fooled by a red herring that doesn't smell like a herring at all, although if you've ever eaten pickled herring, you might think...(forget that thought -- I apologize to my Norwegian friends -- that was a falskt).

Back to politics. There is no ignoring politics from now until Nov. 4. What are the issues? The war, the economy, the environment, energy, taxes, immigration, health care, education, foreign affairs, age, experience, temperament and past performance. Any fair and honest discussion of these issues is legitimate and necessary campaigning.

On the other hand, discussion of any of the following are off the mark and are red herrings at worst, dirty politics, nonsense or simply a waste of time.

n How many houses John McCain owns.

n Whether Barack Obama is "a celebrity" like Paris Hilton or Britney Spears.

n Who is Oprah Winfrey's favorite candidate.

n The pregnancy of Sarah Palin's daughter.

n Whether any candidate favors a constitutional amendment prohibiting the burning of the American flag. Is anybody burning flags these days?

n Whether or not Sarah Palin has ever shot a moose or caught a muskie.

n Focus on the trivial and superficial -- like which candidate was the first to wear a flag pin on his lapel.

n What a candidate's pastor says that may offend people.

n Who can demand an apology from the other guy the most times.

n Whether it matters if a candidate is white, black, male, female, Morman, evangelical, catholic, protestant or Jewish.

n What did John McCain/Barack Obama really mean when he used the "lipstick on a pig" expression.

n Which side can get most hysterical over a slip of the tongue or an imagined insult.

n Who is whining most about the press favoring the other side.

There are many important things to think about and talk about before election day. Let's not get thrown off the trail by red herrings.