ATHENS, GREECE - Last Sunday, we visited the ruins of ancient Delphi, two hours or so from the Greek capital, an extraordinary site at the base of Mount Parnassus overlooking the Pleistos Valley almost half a mile below. You could see the acres of olive trees. The Ionian Sea shimmered on the horizon.
Legend has it that Zeus released two eagles from the opposite ends of the earth. They met at Delphi, determining that it was the center, the so-called navel of the world.
Delphi and its temples were where the famous Oracle lived, uttering its often ambiguous and mysterious predictions through a priestess who spoke on its behalf -- but, our guide claimed, only after inhaling sulfuric vapors from a hole in the earth and chewing laurel leaves to get into the proper psychotropic mood.
During the Persian Wars, the guide said, Athenians asked the Oracle how to protect themselves from being attacked by the enemy. The Oracle replied, "A wall of wood alone shall be uncaptured." Many of the Athenians figured that meant they should seek protection behind a formidable wooden barricade. Makes sense, but the Persians seized the city anyway. Such is the price of being logical -- in my experience, it's always a mistake to take a priestess imbibing laurel leaves and sulfur too literally.
Others, the guide continued, interpreted the oracular message in a different way; believing that "a wall of wood" was a reference to the mighty Athenian fleet of wooden ships. This time, they got it right -- their navy went to sea and defeated the Persians at the Battle of Salamis.
All of which is a scenic route around to my reaction when reading last Tuesday night's election results back home. People were interpreting the Oracle of the Ballot Box in what seemed like very odd and exaggerated ways.
The Associated Press reported, "Independents who swept Barack Obama to a historic 2008 victory broke big for Republicans on Tuesday as the GOP wrested political control from Democrats in Virginia and New Jersey, a troubling sign for the president and his party heading into an important midterm election year."
And the lead sentence of the Los Angeles Times read, "By seizing gubernatorial seats in Virginia and New Jersey, Republicans on Tuesday dispelled any notion of President Obama's electoral invincibility, giving the GOP a lift and offering warning signs to Democrats ahead of the 2010 midterm elections"
Without resorting to chomping on leaves and sniffing fumes, we should look at that a little more closely and not let the tide of the mainstream media and the 24-hour news cycle sweep us away. Were those GOP gains in Virginia and New Jersey really an indication that the entire nation's shifting away from the President? True, President Obama campaigned for both Democrats, but exit polls showed voters in both states were more interested in local issues than him. What's more, in Virginia, Democrat Creigh Deeds was a terrible candidate, and in New Jersey, although for a while it seemed incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine might rally, his dismal popularity numbers and a whopping state deficit and unemployment rate could not be surmounted.
And look at those two special races for House seats in the California 10th and northern New York State's 23rd -- the Democrats picked up both, for a net gain in Congress of one. Upstate Democrat Bill Owens beat back an onslaught from right wingers and tea partiers -- including Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin and Dick Armey -- who spoke out on behalf of Conservative Party candidate Douglas Hoffman and bullied Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava out of the race.
Owens is the first Democrat elected from that district in well over a century. In fact, as the website Politico.com reported, with his victory, "The GOP lost its fifth consecutive competitive special election in Republican-friendly territory."
As for that independent vote that went for Barack Obama last year and seems to be shifting back to the right (in New Jersey and Virginia they went for the GOP candidate by a large margin), it may not be as monolithic a bloc as the media would have you believe.
Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly blog "Political Animal" noted a 2007 study conducted by the Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University:
"Strategists and the media variously describe independents as 'swing voters,' 'moderates' or 'centrists' who populate a sometimes-undefined middle of the political spectrum. That is true for some independents, but the survey revealed a significant range in the attitudes and the behavior of Americans who adopt the label...
"The survey data established five categories of independents: closet partisans on the left and right; ticket-splitters in the middle; those disillusioned with the system but still active politically; ideological straddlers whose positions on issues draw from both left and right; and a final group whose members are mostly disengaged from politics."
Bottom line: instant analysis of election results from a handful of races in an off year election is not very significant one way or the other. We'd be wise not to buy into the tub-thumping or doomsaying of pundits posing as priestesses claiming to speak for the Oracle. Or to be the Oracle.
From a distance here in Athens, perhaps the more balanced headline was the one that appeared in the International Herald Tribune on Thursday: "Election Results Give Both Sides Optimism." The paper could just as easily have written, "Election Results Give Both Sides Pessimism."
Ask any Athenian with knowledge of history -- you have to take your Oracles with a grain of salt. And maybe a shot of ouzo.
Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.