Sixties liberals never thought free speech dangerous until conservatives wielded it against them. Recall that even as Bill Clinton commanded the bully pulpit of the presidency, he whined about Rush Limbaugh's uncontested "three hours" on the air, and then suggested that terrorist Timothy McVeigh had fallen under the influence of right-wing talk show hosts.
Recall also that in the 1990s, after the Republican takeover of Congress, some liberal college professors, many of whom had launched their careers as unruly advocates of free speech, began high-minded "civility" discussions at American universities. Too much "extremism" -- which just meant that conservatives were finally challenging them -- had them knitting their brows over the abuse of the First Amendment.
This trend continues with Senator Tom Daschle's oddball attack on Rush Limbaugh this week. The Democratic leader who rose to power through cheap-shot critiques of the Reagan years suddenly sounds like an embattled conservative establishment pol from the 1960s: "What happens when Rush Limbaugh attacks those of us in public life is that people aren't just content to listen. People want to act because they get emotional…and the threats to those of us in public life go up dramatically, against us and against our families, and it's very disconcerting."
Borrowing a page from Clinton, Daschle sees a parallel between the wild fundamentalism abroad and the harsh rhetoric of "Rush Limbaugh and all the Rush wannabes" at home.
Daschle's remarks about Limbaugh will prove as credible and persuasive as his pre-election pouting about George Bush's supposed questioning of the Dems' patriotism. When liberals have been reduced to complaining about free speech and too much passion in politics, it is clear they have lost their way.
Now out of power, are Daschle and the Democrats likely to adopt a civil tone? No, they will return to the rebellious free speech and emotional demagoguery that Daschle finds so conveniently worrisome in Limbaugh.
Liberals do not like being beaten at their own game. They can whip up activists, drive the homeless to the polls, hurl insults at politicians they deem dangerous, riot outside registrar's offices, and play to the emotions shamelessly. But woe to Republicans when they do the same. The Dems' windy rhetoric about the value of robust speech, gadfly protests, and unconventional agitating is proportionate to their power: when they have got it, they speak like Voltaire; when they don't, they think like Mussolini.
How long before the liberals now fretting about incivility start calling Limbaugh a "big fat idiot" again? If conservatives called Michael Moore a big fat idiot, liberals would put down their Al Franken book and champion Moore as an idealist vital to the health of the Republic.
Yes, Limbaugh is dangerous, but only to the careers of liberal politicians. Obtusely attacking him will not resuscitate their careers because Limbaugh is now more mainstream than they are. If these "populist" pols want to take the pulse of America, they would do well to tune in, not out. Limbaugh's success is due not to demagogic magic or circus acts -- fresh from his "Saturday Night Live" performance, John McCain is calling Limbaugh a "clown" -- but to effective and entertaining truth-telling. Were demagoguery and charisma enough to corral an enormous audience, the radio shows of Mario Cuomo and Alan Dershowitz would not have flamed out so quickly.
Afraid of losing viewers, many members of the media have wised up about Limbaugh and see no point in marginalizing him. As the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz notes, "Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert had him on their Election Night coverage," and in recent years Brian Williams and Ted Koppel have given him a respectful hearing too.
But liberal politicians who need votes as badly as the media need viewers remain behind the curve, clumsily swinging at Limbaugh as a figure of the fringe as they get closer to it.