Bill Clinton wants the GOP, conservatives, and especially the tea party people to cool their rhetoric against President Obama and the Democrats because, he believes, it could lead to violence.
“There can be real consequences when what you say animates people who do things you would never do,” Mr. Clinton told the New York Times. “Because of the Internet, there is this vast echo chamber and our advocacy reaches into corners that never would have been possible before,” he said. Mr. Clinton added that demonizing government and those who serve in it can have tragic consequences, as evidenced by the Oklahoma City bombing in 1993 where he insists the executed Timothy McVeigh was influenced by anti-government rhetoric.
Specifically, Clinton took Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann to task for using the phrase “gangster government” to describe the Obama administration. “They are not gangsters. They were elected. They are not doing anything they were not elected to do,” the former president said.
Mr. Clinton’s concern for the quality of our nation’s political discourse is touching, if not a little curious. Apparently, the avalanche of hate, violent rhetoric, and invective against President Bush for 8 years didn’t pose much of a danger in his mind. Otherwise, he would have said something, right?
During the Bush years, major figures on the left referred to the “Bush regime” as “fascist,” while insisting that the president was trying to set up a dictatorship. Mr. Bush was regularly hung in effigy at protest rallies, and something of an “assassination chic” arose where the killing of the president became a parlor game for some of the president’s more hip critics.
I don’t recall Mr. Clinton — or anyone else on the left for that matter — raising the specter of political violence as a result of that fantastically exaggerated, hateful rhetoric. Few, if any in the mainstream media raised an alarm that such unscrewed looniness would incite or enable some left wing kook to act out his violent impulses. Not even as the left en mass were screaming about Bush “destroying the country” did we hear a peep from the former president about “demonization” of Bush by his liberal allies.
The point being, Mr. Clinton is engaging in an effort to silence and delegitimize critics of President Obama by hinting at violence that hasn’t occurred yet. He is, in effect, setting the stage for a massive backlash against the right and tea partiers if, God forbid, some nutcase were to listen to the voices in his head telling him to kill people and act on those impulses. If this were to occur, we would once again be treated to the entire left playing amateur psychologist and trying to guess the insane person’s “motivations.” The fact that most crazed gunmen don’t need any outside stimuli to perpetrate their crimes is beside the point. Even the idea that the fringe right character plotting mayhem cares what some internet blogger has to say about Obama gains currency when the left engages in its politically motivated hunt for blame.
It is not the first time Bill Clinton has raised the specter of “hate speech” causing violence. He performed a similar fete of rhetorical legerdemain in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, hinting broadly that conservative talk radio was to blame for that horrific attack.
Byron York reminds us that there was method in Clinton’s madness; a cynical attempt to connect the GOP and Timothy McVeigh:
In addition to seeing a criminal act and human loss, Clinton and Morris saw opportunity. If the White House could tie Gingrich, congressional Republicans and conservative voices like Rush Limbaugh to the attack, then Clinton might gain the edge in the fight against the GOP.
[Dick]Morris began polling about Oklahoma City almost immediately after the bombing. On April 23, four days after the attack, Clinton appeared to point the finger straight at his political opponents during a speech in Minneapolis. “We hear so many loud and angry voices in America today whose sole goal seems to be to try to keep some people as paranoid as possible and the rest of us all torn up and upset with each other,” he said. “They spread hate. They leave the impression that, by their very words, that violence is acceptable.”
In his book Behind the Oval Office, Morris relates the strategy employed by President Clinton — an elegant, brilliant, subtle, and wholly dishonest plan to deliberately forge a false link from the bombing to the admittedly overheated rhetoric being used by talk radio hosts. Both then and now, Clinton is arguing that hyperbole and exaggeration borders on criminal incitement to violence — at least when conservatives are at fault.
The question he raises is not without precedent. When the Warren Commission was investigating the Kennedy Assassination, there was a debate over how much blame should be assessed the city of Dallas. William Manchester in his seminal work on the assassination Death of a President writes of the unhinged nature of right wing fanaticism that had been let loose in that city in the months leading up to JFK’s death. Open talk of killing the president, as well as a palpable atmosphere of hate in Dallas caused several Texans in the administration to warn Mr. Kennedy to avoid the city. Just weeks prior to Kennedy’s visit, Adlai Stevenson experienced a fright when he was physically assaulted after a speech.
The Commission’s problem; did all this right wing hate have an effect on Lee Harvey Oswald? Oswald, a self described Marxist, had a superficial understanding of the term, embracing it because it made the desperate loner stand out in a crowd. Might the white hot rhetoric employed by the Birchers, the Kluxers, the segregationists, and the southern revanchists have enabled Oswald in some way?
In the end, the Commission took the safe, politically expedient way out and barely mentioned the climate of hate and loathing for Kennedy in Dallas. But there is a world of difference between the kind of violent rhetoric employed by the right in Dallas prior to the assassination and the sometimes angry speech used by talk radio hosts and tea partiers directed at President Obama and the Democrats.
In fact, there is no comparison at all. Where a case can be made that the Dallas News placing a mug shot of the president on their front page the day of his visit with the caption, “Wanted for Treason” is beyond the pale of decency, referring to Obama as a “gangster” hardly rises to the level of incitement. It may by inaccurate and over the top, but the last I looked, nobody has gone off half cocked because a conservative compared the president to Al Capone.
The real wackos who might be galvanized into action and actually try to hurt someone or blow something up look upon the Limbaugh’s of the world and the tea partiers with contempt. They, like McVeigh, see them as weaklings without the courage of their convictions. The violent fringe on both sides have abandoned democratic norms and see those who protest as part of the problem. It does not seem rational to believe that anything the protestors say matters a whit to those who would perpetrate violent acts to make their statement against government. To do so ascribes rational thinking to irrational people.
The motivations of the far right fringe are not gleaned from mainstream sources. Timothy McVeigh received his inspiration from The Turner Diaries, and other far right, fringe literature. To posit the idea that right wing fanatical kooks scour the internet for motivation to commit violent acts, or even thinking that they might accidentally come across some unhinged rant by a right wing blogger that will set them off, is not supported by what we know of potential domestic terrorists. Thus, Bill Clinton’s warnings can be seen as nothing more than an attempt to silence critics, and to delegitimize their criticisms in the eyes of the public.
Certainly, using reason and logic in political discourse is always preferable to hyperbole and angry rhetoric. But to hint that passionate speech, even if it is irrational or over heated in its description of the opposition, will lead to violence is an insidious attempt to shut off debate and get people to shut up.
It didn’t work when Clinton tried it in 1994. And it won’t work now.