Commentary Magazine


Topic: Timothy McVeighs

Obama Should Heed His Own Advice

This weekend President Obama delivered the University of Michigan commencement address and returned to a favorite theme of his: the need for civility and respect in public discourse. In the president’s words:

The… way to keep our democracy healthy is to maintain a basic level of civility in our public debate…. we cannot expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question someone’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism. Throwing around phrases like “socialist” and “Soviet-style takeover;” “fascist” and “right-wing nut” may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, or our political opponents, to authoritarian, and even murderous regimes.

… The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation. It prevents learning — since after all, why should we listen to a “fascist” or “socialist” or “right-wing nut?” It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences to sit down at the same table and hash things out. It robs us of a rational and serious debate that we need to have about the very real and very big challenges facing this nation. It coarsens our culture, and at its worst, it can send signals to the most extreme elements of our society that perhaps violence is a justifiable response.

So what can we do about this?

As I’ve found out after a year in the White House, changing this type of slash and burn politics isn’t easy. And part of what civility requires is that we recall the simple lesson most of us learned from our parents: treat others as you would like to be treated, with courtesy and respect.

These are wise words that should be taken seriously. Especially by the president himself.

I say that because President Obama’s party and his chief defenders — including the DNC, Speaker Pelosi, and Majority Reid — have routinely engaged in the kind of vilification the president condemns. Think of the assault on the Tea Party Movement and those who attended town-hall meetings last summer; they were accused of being racists and bigots, “an angry mob,” practitioners of “un-American tactics,” “astroturfers” and Nazi-like, and potential Timothy McVeighs. Harry Reid referred to people who showed up at town-hall meetings as “evil-mongers.” Representative Alay Grayson, in characterizing the GOP health-care plans, said that “the Republicans want you to die quickly if you get sick…. This is what the Republicans want you to do.”

On and on it goes, issue after issue, slander after slander. Yet President Obama has done nothing to call off the attack dogs in his own party, despite his enormous influence with them.

In fact, Obama himself has engaged in ad hominem attacks to a degree that is unusual for a president. He constantly impugns the motives of those who have policy disagreements with him. His critics are greedy, venal, irresponsible, demagogic, cynical, bought and paid for, spreaders of misinformation, distorters of truth. “More than any President in memory,” the Wall Street Journal recently editorialized, “Mr. Obama has a tendency to vilify his opponents in personal terms and assail their arguments as dishonest, illegitimate or motivated by bad faith.”

So President Obama lacerates his critics for engaging in the very activity he indulges in. And he does so in the haughtiest way imaginable, always attempting to portray himself as hovering above us mere mortals, exasperated at the childish and petty quality of the political debate, weary of the name-calling. How hard it must be to be the embodiment of Socratic discourse, Solomonic wisdom, and Niebuhrian nuance in this fallen and broken world.

Here is the rather unpleasant reality, though: our president fancies himself a public intellectual of the highest order — think Walter Lippmann as chief executive — even as he and his team are accomplished practitioners of the Chicago Way. They relish targeting those on their enemies list. The president himself pretends to engage his critics’ arguments even as his words are used like a flamethrower in a field of straw men. It’s hard to tell if we’re watching a man engaged in an elaborate political shell game or a victim of an extraordinary, and nearly clinical, case of self-delusion. Perhaps there is some of both at play. Regardless, President Obama’s act became tiresome long ago.

I am reminded of the line from Emerson: “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”

This weekend President Obama delivered the University of Michigan commencement address and returned to a favorite theme of his: the need for civility and respect in public discourse. In the president’s words:

The… way to keep our democracy healthy is to maintain a basic level of civility in our public debate…. we cannot expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question someone’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism. Throwing around phrases like “socialist” and “Soviet-style takeover;” “fascist” and “right-wing nut” may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, or our political opponents, to authoritarian, and even murderous regimes.

… The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation. It prevents learning — since after all, why should we listen to a “fascist” or “socialist” or “right-wing nut?” It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences to sit down at the same table and hash things out. It robs us of a rational and serious debate that we need to have about the very real and very big challenges facing this nation. It coarsens our culture, and at its worst, it can send signals to the most extreme elements of our society that perhaps violence is a justifiable response.

So what can we do about this?

As I’ve found out after a year in the White House, changing this type of slash and burn politics isn’t easy. And part of what civility requires is that we recall the simple lesson most of us learned from our parents: treat others as you would like to be treated, with courtesy and respect.

These are wise words that should be taken seriously. Especially by the president himself.

I say that because President Obama’s party and his chief defenders — including the DNC, Speaker Pelosi, and Majority Reid — have routinely engaged in the kind of vilification the president condemns. Think of the assault on the Tea Party Movement and those who attended town-hall meetings last summer; they were accused of being racists and bigots, “an angry mob,” practitioners of “un-American tactics,” “astroturfers” and Nazi-like, and potential Timothy McVeighs. Harry Reid referred to people who showed up at town-hall meetings as “evil-mongers.” Representative Alay Grayson, in characterizing the GOP health-care plans, said that “the Republicans want you to die quickly if you get sick…. This is what the Republicans want you to do.”

On and on it goes, issue after issue, slander after slander. Yet President Obama has done nothing to call off the attack dogs in his own party, despite his enormous influence with them.

In fact, Obama himself has engaged in ad hominem attacks to a degree that is unusual for a president. He constantly impugns the motives of those who have policy disagreements with him. His critics are greedy, venal, irresponsible, demagogic, cynical, bought and paid for, spreaders of misinformation, distorters of truth. “More than any President in memory,” the Wall Street Journal recently editorialized, “Mr. Obama has a tendency to vilify his opponents in personal terms and assail their arguments as dishonest, illegitimate or motivated by bad faith.”

So President Obama lacerates his critics for engaging in the very activity he indulges in. And he does so in the haughtiest way imaginable, always attempting to portray himself as hovering above us mere mortals, exasperated at the childish and petty quality of the political debate, weary of the name-calling. How hard it must be to be the embodiment of Socratic discourse, Solomonic wisdom, and Niebuhrian nuance in this fallen and broken world.

Here is the rather unpleasant reality, though: our president fancies himself a public intellectual of the highest order — think Walter Lippmann as chief executive — even as he and his team are accomplished practitioners of the Chicago Way. They relish targeting those on their enemies list. The president himself pretends to engage his critics’ arguments even as his words are used like a flamethrower in a field of straw men. It’s hard to tell if we’re watching a man engaged in an elaborate political shell game or a victim of an extraordinary, and nearly clinical, case of self-delusion. Perhaps there is some of both at play. Regardless, President Obama’s act became tiresome long ago.

I am reminded of the line from Emerson: “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”

Read Less

Bill Clinton’s Double Standard on Rhetoric

The Big Dog has slipped his leash again.

Bill Clinton began a concerted attack on the Tea Party movement in the New York Times late last week:

With the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing approaching, former President Bill Clinton… drew parallels between the antigovernment tone that preceded that devastating attack and the political tumult of today, saying government critics must be mindful that angry words can stir violent actions…  “There can be real consequences when what you say animates people who do things you would never do,” Mr. Clinton said in an interview, saying that Timothy McVeigh, who carried out the Oklahoma City bombing, and those who assisted him, “were profoundly alienated, disconnected people who bought into this militant antigovernment line.”

“Because of the Internet, there is this vast echo chamber and our advocacy reaches into corners that never would have been possible before,” said Mr. Clinton, who said political messages are now able to reach those who are both “serious and seriously disturbed.”… Mr. Clinton said his intent was not to stifle debate or muzzle critics of the government but to encourage them to consider what repercussions could follow. He acknowledged that drawing the line between acceptable discourse and that which goes too far is difficult but that lawmakers and other officials should try.

“Have at it,” he said. “You can attack the politics. Criticize their policies. Don’t demonize them, and don’t say things that will encourage violent opposition.”

Then, at an event for the Center for American Progress Action Fund, he said this:

What we learned from Oklahoma City is not that we should gag each other or that we should reduce our passion for the positions we hold — but that the words we use really do matter, because there’s this vast echo chamber, and they go across space and they fall on the serious and the delirious alike. They fall on the connected and the unhinged alike.

As you would expect from Mr. Clinton, his words are both sophisticated and slick. There is even some truth to them. Words have meaning, and context matters. Public officials in particular should be careful not to exploit passions that can become harmful. There’s no rulebook that tells us which slang phrases and locutions are clever and which are inflammatory. Things that may be fine in one context might not be so in another. We have to rely on common sense and good judgment.

The problem for Mr. Clinton is that his concern about the dangers of incendiary rhetoric seems to have taken flight during the two terms of the Bush presidency, as well as during his own. Regarding the former, there was, for starters, the 2006 film, The Death of a President, on the assassination of President Bush. Mr. Clinton did not, to my knowledge, condemn the movie in a front-page story in the New York Times or in a major speech.

Moreover, George W. Bush was, during his two terms in office, routinely called a war criminal, an international terrorist, and compared to Hitler [see a photo gallery here and here]. Signs with bullet holes in Bush’s forehead, with blood running down his face, were all part of the fun and games. The president was accused of moral cowardice by Al Gore, of being a liar and the anti-Christ, and of being a totalitarian and dictatorial leader. Members of Congress such as Keith Ellison compared the attacks on September 11 to the Reichstag fire.

This was all pretty common fare during the Bush presidency. Yet Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, remained silent, apparently unconcerned that such words would fall on the serious and the delirious, the connected and the unhinged, at the same time. And many of Mr. Clinton’s fellow Democrats, including his vice president, said words that encouraged the worst elements and instincts of the haters and the loons.

The Tea Party protests, in terms of the level of hate speech and the placards and signs used, don’t hold a candle to the anti-war protests we witnessed during the Bush years. Yet for some inexplicable reason — inexplicable because we all know the press and the political class are fantastically free of bias — the hate directed against Bush didn’t receive anything like the scrutiny the Tea Party is receiving.

It’s also worth recalling that the Clinton administration organized, coordinated, and participated in some of the ugliest rhetoric we have seen in recent American politics. I have in mind, for example, the campaign against Judge Ken Starr, who was the independent counsel during the Clinton-Lewinsky investigation. The Clinton team said Starr was a “spineless, gutless weasel” and “engaged in anti-constitutional destructiveness.” He was a “thug” and a “Grand Inquisitor for life.” His tactics were “frightening,” “vicious,” and “lawless.” His investigation was an “inquisition,” “smacks of Gestapo,” and “outstrips McCarthyism.” He was acting “irresponsibility, illegally.” Starr was “undermining the very integrity of the criminal-justice system.” The office of independent counsel was filled with “a crew of prosecutorial pirates” and Starr was using “instruments of intimidation and smear without restraint.”

And now Mr. Clinton is preaching to us about not demonizing our opponents and about the importance of not crossing rhetorical lines. Can a Clinton sermon on the importance of fidelity and the gift of celibacy be far behind?

The level of concern and consternation that is being directed at the Tea Party movement is hard to take seriously given the blinding double standard at play. When Bush was president and greater hate was directed at him than is today directed at Obama, the narrative was that this was a sign of Bush’s divisiveness. In those days dissent was the highest form of patriotism. Today, with Obama as president, everything is reversed. Obama is the victim, not the divider; dissent is viewed as sedition.

I have no problem at all condemning the Tea Party movement if it crosses lines of civility and reason. But the hypocrisy at play here is discrediting.

In a deeper sense, the impulse on display here is, despite what Clinton says, illiberal. The end game for many Tea Party critics isn’t to silence a few nuts in a movement comprising millions of people; it is to discredit the movement itself. It is to silence the overwhelming number of decent people who comprise the Tea Party movement by attaching them to the hip with haters and kooks.

This tactic will, I think, backfire. We are seeing a huge, lawful, civic uprising against the Obama agenda — and to slander people as clones of Timothy McVeigh will only add kindling wood and kerosene to this bonfire.

Liberals and the Democratic Party are losing virtually every substantive debate on the issues. It is blowing their circuits. And so they are left to resort to libel, to portray Tea Party participants as Timothy McVeighs in waiting. There will be a high price to pay for this ugly and petty tactic, beginning with the first Tuesday in November.

The Big Dog has slipped his leash again.

Bill Clinton began a concerted attack on the Tea Party movement in the New York Times late last week:

With the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing approaching, former President Bill Clinton… drew parallels between the antigovernment tone that preceded that devastating attack and the political tumult of today, saying government critics must be mindful that angry words can stir violent actions…  “There can be real consequences when what you say animates people who do things you would never do,” Mr. Clinton said in an interview, saying that Timothy McVeigh, who carried out the Oklahoma City bombing, and those who assisted him, “were profoundly alienated, disconnected people who bought into this militant antigovernment line.”

“Because of the Internet, there is this vast echo chamber and our advocacy reaches into corners that never would have been possible before,” said Mr. Clinton, who said political messages are now able to reach those who are both “serious and seriously disturbed.”… Mr. Clinton said his intent was not to stifle debate or muzzle critics of the government but to encourage them to consider what repercussions could follow. He acknowledged that drawing the line between acceptable discourse and that which goes too far is difficult but that lawmakers and other officials should try.

“Have at it,” he said. “You can attack the politics. Criticize their policies. Don’t demonize them, and don’t say things that will encourage violent opposition.”

Then, at an event for the Center for American Progress Action Fund, he said this:

What we learned from Oklahoma City is not that we should gag each other or that we should reduce our passion for the positions we hold — but that the words we use really do matter, because there’s this vast echo chamber, and they go across space and they fall on the serious and the delirious alike. They fall on the connected and the unhinged alike.

As you would expect from Mr. Clinton, his words are both sophisticated and slick. There is even some truth to them. Words have meaning, and context matters. Public officials in particular should be careful not to exploit passions that can become harmful. There’s no rulebook that tells us which slang phrases and locutions are clever and which are inflammatory. Things that may be fine in one context might not be so in another. We have to rely on common sense and good judgment.

The problem for Mr. Clinton is that his concern about the dangers of incendiary rhetoric seems to have taken flight during the two terms of the Bush presidency, as well as during his own. Regarding the former, there was, for starters, the 2006 film, The Death of a President, on the assassination of President Bush. Mr. Clinton did not, to my knowledge, condemn the movie in a front-page story in the New York Times or in a major speech.

Moreover, George W. Bush was, during his two terms in office, routinely called a war criminal, an international terrorist, and compared to Hitler [see a photo gallery here and here]. Signs with bullet holes in Bush’s forehead, with blood running down his face, were all part of the fun and games. The president was accused of moral cowardice by Al Gore, of being a liar and the anti-Christ, and of being a totalitarian and dictatorial leader. Members of Congress such as Keith Ellison compared the attacks on September 11 to the Reichstag fire.

This was all pretty common fare during the Bush presidency. Yet Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, remained silent, apparently unconcerned that such words would fall on the serious and the delirious, the connected and the unhinged, at the same time. And many of Mr. Clinton’s fellow Democrats, including his vice president, said words that encouraged the worst elements and instincts of the haters and the loons.

The Tea Party protests, in terms of the level of hate speech and the placards and signs used, don’t hold a candle to the anti-war protests we witnessed during the Bush years. Yet for some inexplicable reason — inexplicable because we all know the press and the political class are fantastically free of bias — the hate directed against Bush didn’t receive anything like the scrutiny the Tea Party is receiving.

It’s also worth recalling that the Clinton administration organized, coordinated, and participated in some of the ugliest rhetoric we have seen in recent American politics. I have in mind, for example, the campaign against Judge Ken Starr, who was the independent counsel during the Clinton-Lewinsky investigation. The Clinton team said Starr was a “spineless, gutless weasel” and “engaged in anti-constitutional destructiveness.” He was a “thug” and a “Grand Inquisitor for life.” His tactics were “frightening,” “vicious,” and “lawless.” His investigation was an “inquisition,” “smacks of Gestapo,” and “outstrips McCarthyism.” He was acting “irresponsibility, illegally.” Starr was “undermining the very integrity of the criminal-justice system.” The office of independent counsel was filled with “a crew of prosecutorial pirates” and Starr was using “instruments of intimidation and smear without restraint.”

And now Mr. Clinton is preaching to us about not demonizing our opponents and about the importance of not crossing rhetorical lines. Can a Clinton sermon on the importance of fidelity and the gift of celibacy be far behind?

The level of concern and consternation that is being directed at the Tea Party movement is hard to take seriously given the blinding double standard at play. When Bush was president and greater hate was directed at him than is today directed at Obama, the narrative was that this was a sign of Bush’s divisiveness. In those days dissent was the highest form of patriotism. Today, with Obama as president, everything is reversed. Obama is the victim, not the divider; dissent is viewed as sedition.

I have no problem at all condemning the Tea Party movement if it crosses lines of civility and reason. But the hypocrisy at play here is discrediting.

In a deeper sense, the impulse on display here is, despite what Clinton says, illiberal. The end game for many Tea Party critics isn’t to silence a few nuts in a movement comprising millions of people; it is to discredit the movement itself. It is to silence the overwhelming number of decent people who comprise the Tea Party movement by attaching them to the hip with haters and kooks.

This tactic will, I think, backfire. We are seeing a huge, lawful, civic uprising against the Obama agenda — and to slander people as clones of Timothy McVeigh will only add kindling wood and kerosene to this bonfire.

Liberals and the Democratic Party are losing virtually every substantive debate on the issues. It is blowing their circuits. And so they are left to resort to libel, to portray Tea Party participants as Timothy McVeighs in waiting. There will be a high price to pay for this ugly and petty tactic, beginning with the first Tuesday in November.

Read Less




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