SHORTLY AFTER 2 p.m. last Friday, right-wing radio blowhard Rush Limbaugh was orating his way through a few news briefs. After dispensing with the first Democratic presidential debate, which was to be held two days hence, Limbaugh turned to a story that had nothing to do with politics — or so one would have thought.
He began by reading a wire story about Aron Ralston, the 27-year-old mountain climber who cut off his arm with a pocket knife after he’d been trapped by a boulder for several days while hiking in Utah. Bleeding profusely, Ralston rappelled down the side of a cliff and walked to safety.
"Can you imagine the pain, having the presence of mind to do all this? It is amazing," said Limbaugh, briefly sounding like a normal human being. And then he started riffing, coming to a conclusion that was almost as "amazing" as Ralston’s tale of survival.
"You know, this is one of these stories, this is one of these acts of human courage, that people are going to strive to associate themselves with," Limbaugh intoned. "Such as Democratic presidential candidates. This is the kind of story — you know, you might have this guy in the audience and claim he’s one of your supporters or whatever. We might even hear from John F. Kerry, for example, that his Jewish grandfather was a mountain climber, and this story has reminded him that his Jewish grandfather was a mountain climber, and therefore he knows the rigors of this engagement, this enterprise, and can relate to what this Colorado climber went through. I mean, they’ll stop at nothing to build bridges of relatability to these acts of courage. They can’t cite many of their own." Heavy, theatrical throat-clearing. Commercial break.
In a sense, it was the perfect storm of demented reasoning: 1) attack the Democrats for cowardice and exploitative behavior, even though said behavior exists only in Limbaugh’s own fevered imagination; 2) aim the brunt of the attack at Kerry, the one Democrat who is a decorated war hero; 3) stick in a snide reference to Kerry’s late discovery of his ethnic and religious background. Nor did Rush neglect the opportunity to say "Jewish" twice, even though he had to repeat himself nearly word for word in order to do so.
But if the bizarro nature of Limbaugh’s attack was sui generis, the sheer viciousness — the implication that Democrats, liberals, and anyone else who gets in the way of the conservative juggernaut is cowardly, unscrupulous, and unpatriotic — has become a staple of the modern Republican Party.
Indeed, the Republican Attack Machine is now such an entrenched part of the political landscape that it no longer seems remarkable — until you stop and think about the corrosive effect it has on our political discourse. And few have benefited from its toxic rhetoric as much as George W. Bush.
THERE ARE MANY examples of the Republican Attack Machine’s relentless drive to demonize its critics, so many that it would be nearly impossible to cite them all — from Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon’s being disinvited from an appearance at the Baseball Hall of Fame because of their anti-war statements to the Dixie Chicks’ being excoriated as virtual enemies of the state because lead singer Natalie Maines commented that she was ashamed Bush was a fellow Texan.
The effect is to create an atmosphere in which dissent — and dissenters — are publicly humiliated, their careers and livelihoods threatened, thus serving as an object lesson to anyone else who might think about deviating from the Republican-defined patriotic line. And yes, of course, people have just as much right to protest and boycott the Chicks as Maines did to speak out. But there is an organized quality to the efforts of the Republican Attack Machine that goes far beyond the spontaneous anger that conservatives might legitimately feel.
Then, too, attacking the likes of Maines and Robbins is akin to throwing red meat to the mob, aimed at nothing more than keeping the anger boiling. The Republicans reserve their most lethal attacks not for mere entertainers, but rather for their political foes. Consider three recent examples.
• With the Democratic presidential candidates so far coming off as lackluster, there has been a boomlet among some party activists to push Senator Hillary Clinton into the race.
Well, we can’t have that, can we? On April 24, Steven Brill appeared on Fox News’s The O’Reilly Factor in order to talk about his new book, After: How America Confronted the September 12 Era (Simon & Schuster). But all host Bill O’Reilly wanted to talk about was some negative information Brill had included about Clinton’s attempt to take more credit than she deserved in helping the families of the World Trade Center victims — and her effort to play down the work done by New York’s other senator, Charles Schumer.
"This is not a book about Hillary Clinton, you know, faking her involvement or not faking her involvement," Brill protested. When O’Reilly pressed him, Brill responded: "Now, in the book there are examples — not about Hillary Clinton — of people trying to take credit for things they shouldn’t take credit for. For example, there’s a scene where John Ashcroft attempts to take credit for the security at the Olympics that belongs to Tom Ridge. So, you know, I — again, I know this is a big story for you, but I don’t think it’s quite the earth-shattering story that you are making it out to be."
This went on for several minutes, but all O’Reilly managed to prove was that Brill had discovered that Hillary Clinton behaved like — well, a politician. It didn’t help that Clinton herself overreacted by having her office issue a statement saying, "Brill’s accusations are completely false and an obvious last-ditch effort to jump-start anemic book sales. It’s hard to understand why Mr. Brill would choose to exploit such a horrible tragedy in this manner." But the fact remains that O’Reilly was obsessed with taking a minor incident in Brill’s book and using it to tar Hillary Clinton at a time when some Democrats were starting to look longingly in her direction.
Then, too, there is no bigger anti-icon for Republicans than Hillary Clinton, their Bitch Goddess, perhaps the only Democrat who is tough enough and outspoken enough (remember the "vast right-wing conspiracy"?) to make them tremble.
• In a weird mixture of patriotic fervor and xenophobic know-nothingism, Stephen Moore, head of the libertarian Club for Growth and invariably described as someone who is close to the White House, launched ads denouncing two moderate Republican senators, Olympia Snowe of Maine and George Voinovich of Ohio, as "Franco-Republicans" for refusing to go along with Bush’s proposal for a $726 million tax cut.
The "Franco" reference, of course, was meant to evoke loathing for the French, who attempted to stymie Bush’s efforts to build support for war in Iraq. (Thus the recent crack from a White House operative that John Kerry "looks French," a feat he presumably manages on those days when he’s not looking Jewish.) It also sent a signal that the ultraconservatives who control today’s Republican Party will spare no one, not even fellow Republicans — especially if they are "RINOs," or Republicans in Name Only, as Moore recently described them in National Review Online. It was an echo of 2000, when Senator John McCain dared to challenge Bush in the Republican primaries, only to be smeared in South Carolina as the father of an illegitimate black daughter — a twisted reference to the Bangladeshi girl McCain and his wife had adopted.
Yet so intent is the Republican Attack Machine in making its heavy-handed ideological points that it didn’t even realize how badly it had miscalculated in the case of Snowe: Maine has a large Franco-American population that would surely not take kindly to Moore’s anti-French rhetoric. "Are these people nuts? In a word, yes," wrote Portland Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz. "Did they stop to think that calling Snowe a ‘Franco-Republican’ ... might actually help her in a state where more households speak French than anywhere else in the nation? Apparently not."
So intent is the Republican Attack Machine on carving another notch in its belt that Moore obviously didn’t even remember the lesson of 2001, when another moderate New England Republican senator, Jim Jeffords of Vermont, quit the party in the face of White House attacks, thus costing the Republicans the Senate for a year and a half.
That’s not going to happen with Snowe — her brand of social liberalism and balanced-budget conservatism is the mainstream of Maine Republicanism, even if it is the opposite of the brand of Republicanism that prevails nationally. Indeed, the Maine Republican Party is renowned for its independence — Margaret Chase Smith, who served in the Senate from 1949 to ’72, spoke out against Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, ran for president in 1964, and was a critic of Richard Nixon in the 1970s. Snowe, like Smith, would no more leave the Republican Party than she would move out of Maine. Her position was further solidified this past Monday, when the New York Times ran a respectful profile of her and her recent White House–fueled travails.
So Bush gets to have his cake and eat it, too — his surrogates can attack Republicans such as Olympia Snowe for refusing to go along with his budget-breaking tax-cutting agenda, but he needn’t worry about losing his Republican majority in the Senate.
• The Republican Attack Machine’s desperate efforts to paint Al Gore as a thuggish liar suggest how deeply it fears him and the galvanizing effect on African-Americans and liberals that all those re-elect gore bumper stickers might have in 2004. So when Gore stuck his head up briefly last fall in order to talk some sense about Bush’s foreign policy, he was subjected to a barrage of ad hominem attacks.
Typical was an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal last September by that pompous fraud William Bennett. "Mr. Gore’s speech was more critical of President Bush than our enemies," Bennett tut-tutted, as if that somehow proved Gore had a higher regard for Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein than he did for Bush. Bennett, recently revealed as Las Vegas’s favorite moral scold, concluded: "Last September, Americans breathed a sigh of relief in reflecting on the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. Now we have reason to be grateful once again that Al Gore is not the man in the White House, and never will be."
Bennett was not alone. The late Michael Kelly, an old-fashioned liberal who was an honorary member of the Republican Attack Machine, was apoplectic, writing in the Washington Post of Gore’s speech, "It distinguished Gore, now and forever, as someone who cannot be considered a responsible aspirant to power.... It was dishonest, cheap, low. It was hollow.... It was wretched. It was vile. It was contemptible. But I understate."
Limbaugh and Fox News piled on. And before you could say "butterfly ballot," Gore was on the phone to 60 Minutes, negotiating the terms of his political surrender.