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The GOP attack machine (continued)


IF YOU’RE A GOP partisan, then the temptation is to chalk up such incidents to politics-as-usual — they all do it, so why pick on the Republicans? Politics, after all, is a contact sport, and the Democrats are hardly immune from the accusation that they, too, play down and dirty.

Yet the evidence is overwhelming that the Democrats and the Republicans have drawn the lines beyond which they will not tread in entirely different places, with the Democrats’ line closer to civility than the Republicans’. Partly this is political calculation — the Democrats perceive that they are seen as weak on national-security issues, as they have been for much of the post-McGovern era, and they are loath to appear too critical of our flight-suit-wearin’, high-fivin’ president, even if he did apparently go AWOL while he was in the Texas Air National Guard.

Partly, though, it’s the result of a simple fact: the Democrats just don’t fight as dirty as the Republicans, and they never have. You can follow a path that runs from the McCarthy era of the 1950s, to the career of Richard Nixon (Watergate, after all, began with an attempt to steal files from the Democratic National Committee), to the dubious achievements of Bush 41 operator Lee Atwater (who once memorably said of Michael Dukakis that he would "strip the bark off the little bastard"), to the Clinton-impeachment fiasco, to the post-election mess in Florida in 2000. In every instance, there has been virtually nothing the Republicans would stop at in order to achieve their goals.

Their rhetoric betrays their intent: whereas the Democrats think the Republicans pursue wrong, harmful policies — hardly a surprise — the Republicans tend to see the Democrats as evil, unpatriotic, weak, pathetic, dangerous. This demonization leads to outrageous hypocrisy, since the Republicans believe that they are always right and the Democrats always wrong.

Take, for instance, an incident that took place in April 2001, shortly after Bush had become president. China had forced down a US military plane and was holding its crew prisoner while the Bush administration negotiated for its release. In a report on NPR’s All Things Considered, Republican strategist William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, forthrightly agreed with the proposition that the conciliatory line being taken by George W. Bush would have been denounced for its "softness" and "inconsistency" if Bill Clinton had been president.

Senator Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, went one step further, frankly admitting, "I have more confidence in the Bush administration than I did the Clinton administration when it comes to foreign affairs. So I am naturally much more willing to assume that they are making good decisions and will make good decisions than I was after we began to see what the Clinton administration did." Well, here’s what the Bush administration did: it all but got down on both knees and begged the Chinese for forgiveness in order to end the standoff. It was a necessary if unpleasant step. But think of what the reaction would have been if Clinton (or Gore) had done the same.

Indeed, the Clinton era marked the apotheosis of the Republican Attack Machine. Elected in 1992 with just 43 percent of the vote, Clinton, as a minority president, was never considered legitimate by the Republicans, who worked ceaselessly to bring him down almost from the moment he was sworn in. (Consider that the Democrats have rarely lashed out at Bush so viciously even though he actually received a half-million fewer popular votes than their candidate, Gore, in 2000.) From Whitewater to the suicide of Vincent Foster to the Monica Lewinsky episode, the Republicans forced Clinton to respond to one alleged scandal after another until finally — inevitably, perhaps — he got caught.

In an excerpt from his new book, The Clinton Wars (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), that ran in Salon on Monday, former Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal recounts an exchange Clinton once had with Republican senator Alan Simpson, who was retiring. "‘You know there’s nothing wrong that Hillary and I did in Whitewater,’ Clinton told him. ‘Of course,’ Simpson replied. ‘We all know there’s nothing there. It was just politics. And it just got out of hand.’"

Some Republicans, though, were just getting started. Consider what happened when independent counsel Robert Fiske concluded that Clinton was essentially clean. North Carolina’s two right-wing Republican senators at that time, Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth, conspired to replace Fiske with the thong-obsessed Kenneth Starr. The rest, of course, is history. And however grotesque Clinton’s behavior was toward Lewinsky, there is no getting around Starr’s weird, obsessive fixation with the president’s sex life. Think of all your friends, all your family members. Is there one whose sexual proclivities you know about in the same detail (or in any detail, for that matter) that you know about Clinton and Lewinsky’s — the sink, the stain, the cigar? Of course not. The Starr Report reads more like a cry for help from its perverted author than it does a prosecutor’s report. And yet it led to an impeachment trial that nearly succeeded in removing Clinton from office.

And by all means let’s not forget Florida, although even bringing up the subject these days is seen as a sign that one secretly speaks French. Remember, before the 2000 election, some prognosticators believed that Gore might lose the popular vote but win the Electoral College — and there were rumblings out of the Bush camp that the legitimacy of Gore’s election would be challenged if that came to pass. Yet when just the opposite happened, the Bushies fought like the Viet Cong on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Again, because of popular disdain for politics-as-usual, the truth tends to be obscured. Gore and Bush both acted cynically. Gore, for instance, was all too willing to let the votes be recounted only in Democratic counties. But whereas the Democrats were their usual disorganized selves, the Republicans were a fierce, disciplined fighting force, demanding that no ballots be recounted, and screaming that Gore wanted to win the election in the courts even as they pursued a far more aggressive legal strategy.

As former senator Carol Moseley Braun joked at last Saturday’s Democratic debate, Bush finally won because of the black vote: Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas was with the majority on the five-to-four decision that awarded the presidency to Bush.

ONE REASON the Republican Attack Machine is so successful is that its victims rarely fight back, at least not with much effectiveness. As Nation media critic Eric Alterman observes in his recent book What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias in the News (Basic) (see "Don't Quote Me," News and Features, March 14), much of our political discourse is media-driven. And the media, in a sense, reflect the two major political parties: the so-called liberal media — the major television networks, establishment newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, NPR, and the like — are not particularly ideological, and are home to as many conservative commentators as liberals. On the other hand, the conservative media — Rush Limbaugh and his numerous talk-radio wanna-bes, the Fox News Channel, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and, further down the food chain, the New York Post and the Washington Times — are united, on message, and ready to attack liberals at a moment’s notice.

Consider Tom Daschle, the mild-mannered Senate Democratic leader, regularly portrayed by the Republican right as a combination of Eugene V. Debs and Marshal Pétain. When Senator Trent Lott inserted his foot in his mouth at Strom Thurmond’s birthday party, thus capping a lifetime of racist comments and associations, Daschle’s first response was to accept Lott’s apology. The mainstream media were remarkably slow off the mark. It was only when the White House declared open season on Lott that the unreconstructed old bigot finally gave up his leadership position. And hardly a peep was uttered by Daschle recently when Republican senator Rick Santorum defended Texas’s sodomy laws and compared homosexuality to incest and polygamy. Then again, Santorum was merely addressing his party’s base. And what a base base it is.

Yet when Daschle dared lament Bush’s failed diplomacy after the war in Iraq had begun, he was attacked as an unpatriotic scoundrel by some of the same Republicans (paging House Republican whip Tom DeLay) who lambasted Clinton during military action over Kosovo. The contemptible Sean Hannity, on Fox News’s Hannity & Colmes, asked this "question" of Illinois congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat: "Forty-eight hours we’re sending our men and women in harm’s way, and there’s the leader of your party in the United States Senate disgracefully attacking our president at a time when we’re going to war. You ought to be ashamed. Every Democrat in this country ought to be ashamed of what this man did yesterday and what he repeated again today."

And when Schakowsky pointed out DeLay’s criticism several years back, Hannity responded: "Well, first of all, you may not know the difference. There is a big distinction. Kosovo is not Iraq."

Obviously you can’t fool Sean Hannity.

While Fox carries water for the White House, the allegedly liberal mainstream media carry water only for their own craven desire for ratings and profit. Last week NBC correspondent Ashleigh Banfield was chewed out by her bosses for giving a speech at Kansas State University in which she criticized the networks — not just her own — for their antiseptic coverage of the war. "You didn’t see where those bullets landed. You didn’t see what happened when the mortar landed. A puff of smoke is not what a mortar looks like when it explodes, believe me," she said.

Banfield got in trouble despite only obliquely criticizing her NBC colleagues. Yet right-wing hatemonger Michael Savage — who hosts sister station MSNBC’s latest desperate bid for ratings, a below-local-access-quality talk show — has called Banfield a "slut" on two occasions, once in his book, The Savage Nation (WND Books), and then again on the air, after she had the temerity to interview terrorists with the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Banfield defended herself against Savage during her speech — something her network had pointedly chosen not to do. Then again, Savage is considered one of MSNBC’s rising stars. Banfield’s own MSNBC show, which debuted in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, was a ratings failure, although it was hardly the journalistic catastrophe that her critics claim.

NBC’s failure to defend Banfield from Savage — indeed, MSNBC actually hired Savage after he first called Banfield a slut — was shameful, but not surprising.

IN LAST WEEK’S Newsweek, columnist Anna Quindlen connected the ferocity of the Republican Attack Machine to the war on Iraq. "Each time the United States becomes imperial it betrays the very keystone upon which its greatness rests," she wrote. "It suppresses dissent and suggests that national interest is more important than free speech."

The problem is, the Republican Party of George W. Bush has conducted itself as if it were perpetually at war, a stance it ratcheted up after 9/11. With a presidential election to be won next year, there is virtually no chance of a let-up.

The irony is that Bush predicated his presidential campaign on the notion that he was a healer, a uniter, someone who had brought Democrats and Republicans together as governor of Texas and who would do the same as president. But Bush hasn’t just failed to buck the trends of recent decades, he has accelerated them.

In his speech last week aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, the president made several allusions to 9/11 — allusions clearly designed to reinforce the mistaken notion that Iraq had something to do with the terrorist attacks.

"The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11, 2001 — and still goes on," Bush said. "That terrible morning, 19 evil men — the shock troops of a hateful ideology — gave America and the civilized world a glimpse of their ambitions. They imagined, in the words of one terrorist, that September the 11th would be the ‘beginning of the end of America.’ By seeking to turn our cities into killing fields, terrorists and their allies believed that they could destroy this nation’s resolve, and force our retreat from the world. They have failed."

It is hard to exaggerate what a deeply cynical, disingenuous statement this was. By falsely tying 9/11 to the regime of Saddam Hussein, Bush denigrated thoughtful critics of his hyper-aggressive, unilateralist foreign policy as anti-American dupes, as appeasers, as ... well, as Frenchmen.

"Just compare the stature of these candidates to Bush on the Abraham Lincoln," sneered Rush Limbaugh last Friday, referring to the nine Democratic hopefuls. "It would be an interesting juxtaposition."

It is a sad, depressing commentary that the Democrats lack the wherewithal to fight back against such idiocy. Score another one for the Republican Attack Machine. These days, it seems like the only reason Democrats even pull themselves off the mat is so they can be pummeled again.

And again. And again.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a] Read his daily Media Log at

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Issue Date: May 9 - 15, 2003
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