Sunday, March 27, 2011

Re: ‘Love in a Time of Cruelty’

Phil Dillon has changed the name of his conservative blog from Another Man’s Meat to Fires Along the Tallgrass. (Were too many visitors mistaking it for a gay website?) I stumbled across another reply I left on one of his posts, one dated May 5, 2007, and titled “Love in a Time of Cruelty,” in which he likened the rhetoric of political opposition to Bill Clinton to that of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Beginning with a quote from Phil’s post, this was my response:

“In the eighties, Democrats expressed their contempt for Ronald Reagan; in the nineties, Republicans, the Moral Majority, journalists, and right wingers savaged Bill Clinton. The page turned again at the dawning of the new millennium with Democrats, environmentalists, feminists, leftists, and journalists vilifying George Bush.”

I think that the “savaging” of Bill Clinton when he was in office was of a different character than political criticisms of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. To say that conservatives treated Clinton the same way that Democrats treated Reagan or are now treating Bush is to overlook the differences.

Contrary to what Phil says, I don’t remember the Democrats during the 1980s as expressing “contempt” for Reagan. Then as now, Reagan was a very popular president (not with me, but with much of the rest of the country), and no Democratic politician dared criticize him too harshly for fear of alienating the Democratic voters who liked him.

To me, the political rhetoric
in the mainstream heated up when Clinton became president. Maybe it was because Clinton won the White House by pluralities, and not by majorities, but mainstream voices critical of Clinton sounded much harsher, to my ears, than mainstream criticism of Reagan or George H.W. Bush did. For example, Rush Limbaugh, syndicated on hundreds of radio stations (and for a while, on TV), was especially blistering in his oral attacks on Clinton. For the life of me, I can’t think of a 1980s mainstream equivalent of Limbaugh that poured such caustic verbal venom on Reagan.

Hostility toward Clinton became especially fierce after the Republicans re-took both houses of Congress in the 1994 election. It seems clear to me that the entire Whitewater investigation, and its various spin-offs, was undertaken for one purpose, and for one purpose only: to dig up something on Clinton that could be used to impeach him. Why else would Republicans replace the original independent counsel in the Whitewater case, Robert B. Fiske, with the relentless Kenneth Starr at a time when the first attorney was ready to wrap up his investigation? Why else would conservatives leak the name of Monica Lewinsky to Matt Drudge just at the time when Clinton’s lawyers and Paula Jones’s lawyers were about to reach a settlement?

As for what the Republicans did to Clinton during the Lewinsky affair, what did the Democrats do to Reagan in the 1980s that would be its equivalent? Iran-Contra? I don’t think so: before their investigations into the scandal began, congressional Democrats took impeachment off the table. And Iran-Contra was a much more serious issue than an extramarital affair with a consenting adult — or even lying about such an affair under oath. Reagan was criticized by Democrats with kid gloves; when Clinton became president, the Republicans’ gloves came off.

I think that Clinton’s greatest sin, to Republicans, was not lying under oath. No, I think it was being a Democrat who had the temerity to get elected president, an office that many Republicans thought of as rightfully theirs. Otherwise, I’m at a loss to explain the Republicans’ vehement dislike of this rather centrist Democrat, a Democrat who pursued some policies that Republicans ought to have admired.

By contrast, you can’t accuse George W. Bush of being a centrist, despite his middle-of-the-road masquerade during the 2000 election. He has spent most of his presidency doing his best to alienate those who disagree with him. As other commentators have said, Bush would rather be President of the Republican Party [i.e., president of only half of the country] than President of the United States. Also, the misleading way that he took this country to war with Iraq and his current stubbornness in regards to that conflict don’t help his divisive image. Is it really so surprising that so many non-conservatives dislike him so intensely?

So, I don’t see the anger against Bush Jr. as a balanced inversion of the anger against Clinton. Where I believe that Bush has done much to earn the bitterness against him (what his defenders call “hate” in order to make it sound irrational), I don’t see what Clinton did to deserve such vituperation from conservatives — especially when you compare the efficient, centrist way that Clinton ran his administration to the highly partisan, botched job that Bush is doing.

Finally, I don’t think that any meditation on today’s political hate speech is complete without mentioning Ann Coulter. Whether she is saying that some 9/11 widows are enjoying their husbands’ deaths, calling for the poisoning of Justice John Paul Stevens, or suggesting that Timothy McVeigh should have bombed the
New York Times building instead, Coulter has taken political discourse in this country to a new low. She got her start in the media by lobbing her invectives at Clinton. I find it interesting that the media tastemakers at the time would consider her mean-spirited, ad hominem, anti-Clinton, anti-Democrat, anti-liberal jeremiads acceptable. Where is her high-profile equivalent on the left calling for the murder of conservatives?

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