In the Arena

On Civility

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Back in the 1990s, before he became Karl Rove’s Deputy Minister of Propaganda, Pete Wehner had two friends in what might be called the liberal media–E.J. Dionne and me. Pete was William Bennett’s ghost-writer in those days and he liked us because we both liked faith-based social programs, and were critical of some of the more heartless and thoughtless aspects of the Democratic Party’s urban policies. We liked Pete because he was erudite and, unlike many religious conservatives, actually seemed to understand that Jesus was into feeding, clothing and housing the poor (and chastising the wealthy for their greed).

I’m still a big fan of faith-based social programs–especially inner-city parochial schools and the panoply of fabulous, unheralded programs run by the black church. Not such a big fan of Pete Wehner’s, anymore. Privately, he’s proven to be a self-righteous prig, abandoning friends who don’t meet his lofty moral standards on divorce, gambling and other assorted non-virtues. Publicly, he’s descended into utterly predictable right-wing hackery and near-daily pronouncements about the imminent demise of Barack Obama. And now he’s taken to attacking his old friend, E.J. Dionne…

You can agree or disagree with EJ’s politics, which are firmly rooted–I believe–in the social teachings of his church. But one thing that everyone who has ever met E.J. agrees on is that he’s one of the few truly nice people in our increasingly ugly business, one of the most civil humans extant on the planet, a truly noble and gracious person. Wehner’s assault is both gratuitous and foolishly excessive. It stems from his sole purpose on earth these days: defending George W. Bush.

Wehner’s argument, such as it is, is that E.J. is calling for civility now, but didn’t sufficiently attack the leftists who went over-the-top in attacking Bush personally during his disastrous regime. Certainly, there were some outrageous things said and written about that President. I never much went in for the use of the word “hate” or personal attacks on Bush, and EJ never did. I always liked the President personally, and I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt where possible–especially at the beginning of his second-term, when a grace period seemed appropriate for a newly-elected President–but I thought his policies were atrocious and his presidency, ultimately, one of the two or three worst in American history. I could be wrong, but I don’t remember EJ going that far in his criticism, even though, if he had, he would have been well within the bounds of columny–harsh attacks a President’s policies and public demeanor have always been fair game. (When the attacks did cross the line, like the infamous Moveon.com “General Betrayus” ad, I made my views known, to the howls of more than a few loyal Swampland commenters).

There is a difference between the attacks on Bush and some of the attacks on Obama, though. The attacks on Obama, retailed by creeps like Rush and Beck, are outright lies. They question his citizenship, his patriotism, his religious convictions. To his credit, Wehner has, on occasion, called out some of the more severely demented attacks. But the level of anger, and insinuation, being directed at this President–without any pushback from the Republican leadership–is downright dangerous.

I don’t mind these fools calling Obama a socialist or a communist–it’s uncivil, but it’s hyperbole and well within the grand tradition of American vitriol, like the lefties who called Bush a fascist. But there is a problem of critical mass: the right-wing hyperbole is unimpeded by any sense of moderation from the party’s leaders. Rush rules (and if you don’t believe me, take a look at the sorry history of those who defied the blowhard and then had to walk back their criticisms).  One of the two major political parties has jumped the tracks, is living in a fever swamp of lies and disinformation. That is not good for the Republic…Indeed, I believe that if the Republicans had raised some of the (universal, mandated) health care reform principles they stood for in 1994, the bill slogging its way through the Congress now could have been stronger than it will probably be.

In any case, EJ is right to rail against incivility. And Wehner–who will, no doubt, use this opportunity to attack me again, dredging up the same two or three quotes he always does–has proven to be the sort of prosyletizer he once claimed to dislike: self-righteous to the point of moral blindness, far more concerned with smiting evil than with doing good.

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