Commentary Magazine


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.

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