"Our gross national product does not allow.... for the intelligence of our public debate." -- Senator Robert F. Kennedy, 1967
What would Bobby Kennedy think now?
For eight years the people inhabiting prominent roles on RFK's side of today's ideological divide, all of them suddenly speaking of reconciliation, of respect for the presidency and the president, who speak glowingly of a fresh start -- did none of this. None. Zero. Nada. Zip. To hear the departing President Bush, a gentleman to the core, muse at his last press conference about his disappointment in the tone of the criticisms he has received only makes one marvel at his understatement.
Let's take a sampling of the kinds of things that were said of George W. Bush. The kinds of people and things Bobby Kennedy was speaking of when he stressed the importance of "the intelligence of our public debate."
* From Frank Rich, the columnist for the New York Times, came this tone-setting citation of Bush via David Letterman. Bush, offered the allegedly erudite Rich, is a "colossal boob." Not a "memorable villain" (Bush being villainous, you see, was part of the tone-setters equation as proffered by Rich.) Other "intelligent" comments offered by Rich on Bush include asserting (without a shred of fact but, of course, who cares about that??) that the President "lied us into war" and exhibited "smugness" (hey, maybe he got that from reading Frank Rich columns!). Rich even wonders whether this "worst president ever" actually prays to God. There's infinitely more of this kind of stuff from Rich, but there's a space limit here.
But in defense of Mr. Rich, "intelligence" in our public debate as that intelligence was defined on the left was easy to find. The comments below are but a skimming of the sewer.
* From Keith Olbermann: Bush "let their (Americans') sons and daughters be killed!" Bush aides "may yet be charged with war crimes" and were "sycophants." The President was guilty of "murderous deceit" and had an "addled brain." We should question Bush's "very suitably (sic) to remain in office." Bush was guilty of "faithless stewardship" of the presidency. In short, the president of the United States should "Shut the hell up!"
* From the Daily Kos: Bush was "incredibly stupid" and a "chickensh--." (The last two letters were present in the original.) Not to be outdone, liberal critic Neal Gabler seethed on the DK that the Bush presidency "is (the) nation's first medieval presidency" And another Kos contributor was blunter (as blunt as we can allow in a family publication) about Bush and company: "They are goddamned liars. And they are bastards." Oh, and don't forget the standard cry from the left: "Bush lied. People died."
* MoveOn.org was more visual, with an ad morphing Bush into Hitler. This theme obviously was just fine with George Soros, who claimed Bush supports "supremacist ideology" and "reminds me of the Germans" (meaning the Nazis).
* Terrence McNally, playwright: Watching Bush is "like watching Jason or Chucky from the slasher movies."
* Paul Krugman: The words most associated with Bush are "incompetent," "idiot," and "liar."
And these were some of the allegedly smart people on the left. Think of it. Columnists for one of America's most prominent newspapers. A television commentator who gets his own show on a cable network run by one of the oldest and (once) distinguished broadcast networks in the world. A playwright who has won four Tony Awards, a comedian with one of the top rated shows in television history, a billionaire financier. All this supposed intellectual firepower and this is their response to RFK's call for intelligent debate? Pretending to discuss deeply substantive issues that demand both serious thought not to mention thoughtful discussion, Frank Rich and his intellectual soulmates (uh, might we scratch the term "intellectual") respond by calling the President and his staff Hitler, a slasher, murderous, a colossal boob, an idiot and a liar?
Somewhere Bobby Kennedy is deeply embarrassed. These are the worst presidential and public policy analysts this side of John Wilkes Booth.
Quite aside from pulling the curtain back to reveal that, lofty media perches or not, these people have shown a breathtaking inability to think critically and present thoughts on policy, something else has been displayed here. The inability to articulate opposition to ideas in any serious fashion other than the shallow nuttiness as quoted above condemns them individually and collectively as guilty of a massive failure of serious opposition.
Worse, they have managed to set up Barack Obama for similar criticisms from some on the right.
Nowhere, of course, did any of these critics have a clue that they were (yet again) injecting a poisonous toxin into the intellectual bloodstream that allows a serious political opposition to exist. (Please see the tales of the Nixon and Clinton presidencies, also known as the episodes of The Sauce for a Goose and a Gander. See also Thomas, Clarence, sexual harassment raised at confirmation hearings and Jones, Paula. Also a good reference, Reagan administration, number of special prosecutors for, and, Clinton administration, ditto.) Never did it appear to cross the minds of Mr. Rich and his fellow Bush critics that they were in fact setting standards for the opposition to employ when faced, inevitably, with the charge of opposing the next Democrat to hold the White House.
Be that as it may, the moment has arrived and the unlucky inheritor of what might be called in Robert Ludlum-thriller style "The Rich Legacy" (or Olbermann, Soros, McNally, Letterman or Krugman Legacy etc., etc., ad infinitum) is one President Barack Obama. It is Mr. Obama who must now deal with the presidential reality that the left spent its time out of the White House setting standards for the right of what's acceptable discourse when one opposes a president. Standards that, thanks to the likes of Mr. Rich, Mr. Letterman, Mr. Soros, Mr. McNally and company are surely going to attract some on the right as they set about settling in to the role of the political opposition.
It will be well and vividly remebered, of course, that Bush mistakes on, say, weapons of mass destruction were morphed into "lies." That a philosophical commitment to keeping America safe by taking the fight to enemies abroad was treated not as a serious difference of opinion or judgment but rather as evidence of a lust for deliberate murder in the mode of the infamous mass murderer of six million Jews. That this lust included a desire to murder the children of American citizens. And so on and on and appallingly and drearily so on.
THE QUESTION NOW IS, should conservatives pick up the cudgel? Should Obama be Bushed in the style of Mr. Rich and his friends? For example, is President-elect Obama's trillion dollar spending plan simply a wrong-headed (if spectacularly mammoth) example of even more government financial mistakes that will prove ruinous for generations? Or, in Rich-think, is it the mark of a venal liar (the new President Obama) scheming to rob average Americans blind in perpetuity to reward both his own political cronies and those of his party? Is the push to close Guantanamo a mistaken decision that could allow a collection of vicious killers to go free under the guise of legal protections never given before in American history? Or is it instead the action of a devious fool who has no intention of protecting American citizens because in reality he believes Americans should be murdered for their multiplicity of sins (against blacks, native Americans, all people of color etc., etc., etc.) during their history? Did Obama's support for the election and re-election of the now-nationally infamous Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich mean that he was just doing the routine rally-around-my-party's-nominee-for-governor dance common to all politicians? Or was he a sinister cynic and a willing participant if not a leader in the effort to elect as governor a man whose ethics were plenty visible to insiders before caught on tape trying to sell a seat in the U.S. Senate?
This is a serious question for conservatives. There are now (as there have been the last eight years) vital issues at play in the world. Issues of economics, constitutional law, national security, foreign policy, health, immigration and on and on. If conservatives start down the road of these Frank Rich-style Shallow Hal's of the left -- and doubtless there will be some unable, understandably, to resist the temptation -- the conservative movement will not be back any time soon. Nor would it deserve to be. The fundamental successes of the Reagan era and, yes, of the George W. Bush presidency are devotion to ideas. In Reagan's case it was a well thought out and deeply serious commitment to end the Cold War and put right (no pun intended) the American economy. Volumes have been written about the serious approaches inherent in launching the defense buildup that included the 600-ship Navy and Strategic Defense Initiative while rejecting the nuclear freeze or installing Pershing missiles over the vociferous objections of the American and European left. Or the intellectual work that went into supply-side economics and the understanding of tax cuts and monetary policy. Indeed, the criticisms of the current Bush presidency from the right were precisely substantive, focusing on federal spending, a prescription drug program, amnesty on the immigration issue and so forth.
The transition from in party to out party can be easy or it can be hard. If it revolves around the shallow name-calling and a "so's your old lady" mentality, the specialty of Frank Rich and company, history shows that it will bring even a later victory to grief. Decades of the left dealing with the Nixon, Reagan and Bush 41 presidencies by defining them in terms not only of name-calling but of special prosecutors, impeachment and sexual harassment brought forth a Clinton presidency defined as the time of Slick Willy, a tit-for-tat mentality that kept the country occupied even as the leadership of al Qaeda was sitting in an Afghanistan cave plotting death and destruction in the very heart of America.
There is an important lesson on this subject captured in the wonderful film The Queen, in which actress Helen Mirren did an Oscar-winning turn as Queen Elizabeth. In the film Elizabeth is struggling to cope with the tidal wave of emotion sweeping over her subjects after the death of Princess Diana and the wide perception that the royal family couldn't care less. In a conversation with then Prime Minister Tony Blair it is observed that the public can turn on a once very popular figure (in that case the Queen) in an instant.
And so it can. With the new President Obama taking office on a wave of popularity, it is worth noting that even the vicious tactics of Frank Rich and friends eventually had an effect on the once popular Bush. A real toll was taken with the acid of their insistent claims the President was an idiot, boob and a liar.
This can be done again. Over time the drip-drip-drip quality of this kind of thing can create an Obama version in the style of the Rich portrait of Bush. Should this be done? Will it? Now that Mr. Rich and company have led the way, can this kind of thing even be stopped?
It wouldn't be right to do it (no pun intended). It wouldn't be smart. It wouldn't be good.
It would, though, be Rich.
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