Could our politics actually get uglier? I’m afraid so

LAST WEEK, a woman in Hilton Head asked John McCain a question that referred to Hillary Clinton by a five-letter word for a female dog.
    Sen. McCain reacted about the way many guys would: He tried to keep his composure, failed momentarily, then finally mastered himself enough to say, very soberly and sincerely, that he had the highest respect for his Senate colleague. And after a priggish CNN announcer’s failure to portray Sen. McCain as being to blame in the incident, and the McCain campaign’s lame attempt to parlay that into sympathy and campaign contributions, the whole thing sort of faded, making way for the next round of spin-cycle nonsense.
    But the incident still worries me, for reasons that have nothing to do with who called whom what, or how anybody responded.
    I worry that it never occurred to anyone to wonder to whom the obnoxious question referred. I worry that within 24 hours of the clip appearing on YouTube, there was a Web site up selling T-shirts emblazoned with that question. I worry that there are those who will buy such T-shirts, and that such people increasingly define the tone of political discourse.
    The same day that the “b-word” incident came to my attention, an op-ed piece appeared in The Wall Street Journal headlined “The Insanity of Bush Hatred.” Those who call themselves “liberals” will now snort in derision and say, “That’s The Wall Street Journal for you!” But it was actually a pleasingly dispassionate treatment of the subject by a professor named Peter Berkowitz who looks about at some of his colleagues and worries about “the damage hatred inflicts on the intellect.” I worry more about the damage it inflicts on our republic.
    Mr. Berkowitz, after noting that “Hating the president is almost as old as the republic itself… Reagan hatred, Nixon hatred, LBJ hatred,” and so forth, frets that “Bush hatred is different,” because of the way many intellectuals have not only embraced that impulse, but endorsed it as a virtue, and proclaimed “that their hatred is not only a rational response to the president and his administration but a mark of good moral hygiene.
    I see it as something else — the next, more virulent stage of the political disease once known as “Clinton hatred,” which itself was qualitatively uglier than previous forms of political resentment, within my lifetime at least. I trace the onset of symptoms to the first days after the 1992 elections, when “Don’t blame me; I voted for Bush” started appearing on late-model cars.
    And things just got worse from there. Many Republicans never accepted that Bill Clinton was the president of their country, and for eight years treated him as though he were the illegitimate leader of some enemy nation. I thought things couldn’t get worse, and looked forward to the end of the Clinton era as a time when partisans could regain their sanity.
    Lord help me, I was so wrong. From Day One — nay, before Day One of the Bush presidency — there was a virulence aimed at the man like nothing I could have imagined. And no, it’s not about the Iraq War. I can recall asking colleagues, before Sept. 11, 2001, to help me get my mind around why so many Democrats hated the man so. This was actually qualitatively worse than what I’d seen aimed at Clinton, and that floored me.
    I wish I could believe that the Bush-haters are right, that there is something — or many things — about the man that make such passionate dislike rational. I would like to think that because the alternative possibility — that this is a degenerative national syndrome that feeds on itself, and gets worse with each shift of power — is just too awful.
    Except for a precious few days in the fall of 2001, this savage polarization of the electorate has crippled our national will in a time of great crisis, a time when we need to be taking difficult actions — from waging war to retooling our economy away from oil — that are unachievable without strong consensus.
    At this point some Democratic readers are getting steamed, thinking I’m blaming them. But I don’t care whether it’s their fault, or Mr. Bush’s. There’s plenty of blame to go around, much of it of the well-deserved variety.
    I’m more concerned about the effect. I’m worried that the most polarizing individual in the Democratic Party is, day by day, looking more certain to be that party’s nominee. And that is not to blame Mrs. Clinton — it’s just a fact that if she is the nominee, we’re on a downhill rush toward a general election of such bitterness that it may make us nostalgic for 2000. And I’m not sure there is anything that either she or the GOP nominee will be able to do or say to stop it. What do you do about a Zeitgeist in which a woman is unashamed to ask a candidate, publicly, the question that was asked of Sen. McCain last week?
    As I look upon the threats to our nation’s future — our dependence on tyrants’ oil, the rise of Islamofascism, the relentless rivalries of a booming China and an aggressive Russia descending again into authoritarianism — there is one menace that looms more urgently than others: the possibility that the partisan bitterness militating against rational discussion of policy in this country could get worse.

30 thoughts on “Could our politics actually get uglier? I’m afraid so

  1. Karen McLeod

    They’ve been ugly before. If you will recall from history, Lincoln’s victory over his opponent led to the Civil War. There were people who despised Roosevelt, and I don’t think Grant was terribly popular. But I agree that there seems to be a downward spiral here. I think Mr. Pitts take on the ‘Clinton/bitch’ episode is right. But it’s only a step away from Atwater dirty politics. His approach didn’t call the opposition names, but his twisting of the truth effectively branded the opponent with an epithet. Could this phenomenon be the result of fear and confusion? Are we so scared of the world right now that we need to revert to tribal loyalty so that we can blame everything bad on the ‘other’ tribe?

  2. John

    I think there are a number of details that make this more complex than presented. First, Bush’s numbers were very soft just after the election, and there was a degree of vitriol directed at him from some on the left. But much of that was as a result of the way he won. The button down riot (when a patch of paid and flown in Republican operatives stormed the recount in Dade County to disrupt and delay it) and other such actions made Bush’s election seem dubious at best to many.
    But with the world trade center attacks it was all mute. He was by far the most popular and approved president in generations. In the eyes of 85% or more of the population he was fantastic. It took years of unpopular actions on the part of his administration to get to the point where a degree of hate directed at him was close to the level of irrational reflexive disgust that so many projected from 92 to today at the Clinton family (and it has always appeared to me that there was much more hate aimed at her than him).
    One last point of interest, a post that starts off discussing a overt display of Republican hate (not noted in your piece was the gleeful way the hateful question was greeted by the room full of Republicans), spends most of the time discussing Democratic hate directed Bush. I agree that some of this is quite irrational but there are many reasons to dislike this man. He has done more in 7 years to weaken our constitution, done more to lower our standing in the international community, than any president in any of our lifetimes. The developing consensus among historians is he will rank among, if not as, our nations worse leader. This may not be a great reason to hate someone, but it is a good reason to dislike and denounce his rule and administration. And, many may take this as hate that doesn’t exist.

  3. Mike Cakora

    Today’s WaPo has a column by Andi Zeisler, a founder and editorial director of the magazine Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture. While agreeing that “bitch” is a bad word, she argues that it can be a badge of honor or mark of distinction depending on who used the epithet. In other words, the word tells us more about who uses it than against whom it’s hurled.

    Bitch is a word we use culturally to describe any woman who is strong, angry, uncompromising and, often, uninterested in pleasing men. We use the term for a woman on the street who doesn’t respond to men’s catcalls or smile when they say, “Cheer up, baby, it can’t be that bad.” We use it for the woman who has a better job than a man and doesn’t apologize for it. We use it for the woman who doesn’t back down from a confrontation.

    While we can debate this definition (I was about to quibble with the last two sentences using Margaret Thatcher as an example until Google reminded me of the Labour Party’s 1983 “Ditch The Bitch” campaign), I share your concern about the high level of emotion in politics, but don’t think that the use of emotionally laden terms is necessarily all bad.
    Remember 1991’s Governor’s Race from Hell? Thanks to the peculiarities of Louisiana election law, the runoff featured the corrupt Edwin Edwards versus the racist David Duke. In this contest of personalities over policy and platforms, honorable citizens mounted a campaign for Edwards with the simple message:

    “Vote for the crook; it’s important!”

    In this case they distilled their argument into a simple phrase that could be readily conveyed to other voters. The folks at the McCain stop were against the junior senator from New York for a host of reasons — their minds were made up — so using such language had little negative consequence.
    I do agree that name-calling gets in the way of policy discussions, especially where a candidate is riding the populist pony. That’s a real nice horse, but please tell us how the saddle stays on.
    This objection is valid in approaching for those who have not made up their minds, arguably the majority of folks. I think that partisans would be better off if they learned to convince the undecided of the merits of their candidate’s policies than to resort to emotional labels.
    In any case, I blame Leonard Pitts Jr .

  4. Gordon Hirsch

    “Except for a precious few days in the fall of 2001, this savage polarization of the electorate has crippled our national will …”
    One of the ironies of terrorist attack is that it brings us together, however briefly. Our enemies learned that lesson with 9/11, and now leave us to destroy ourselves.
    Or as Walt Kelly’s Pogo put it: “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us.”

  5. Phillip

    I don’t recall quite the level of pre-9/11 Bush hatred that you do, but there was a very special set of circumstances which I was surprised you did not mention (though Berkowitz does) that made it almost certain Bush would start his presidency without a strong mantle of legitimacy: the hotly contested result of the 2000 election.
    Since the days of Lee Atwater and way before that in fact, the sad truth is that the politics of attack, negativity, and playing on people’s innate prejudices and fears does work more often than not.
    Speaking of the “militating against rational discussion of policy,” I once again ask you to reconsider your use of the word “Islamofascism.” As you well know as an intelligent, professional journalist, that is a terribly inaccurate and misleading term that is designed strictly to invoke certain emotional responses that run counter to rationality. Dealing with the threat requires precise analysis of it. “Islamic fundamentalist terrorism” would be just fine.

  6. Brad Warthen

    Phillip, read up on the Taliban and the way they ran Afghanistan while they were in charge, and would like to run the world. Sounds like fascism to me.
    What on earth is wrong with the word, applied to such people?

  7. bud

    John and Phillip makes some excellent points. Let me just add two more. The central tenant of the Watergate scandal was a Republican break-in of a Democratic party office. Many of those involved remain unrepentent. Then there was the swift-boating smear. Neither of these episodes was directed at a Bush or Clinton but both involved Republican dirty tricks. I would suggest that the party of dirty, partisan politics is the GOP. At least they are much better at playing the game.
    Frankly I don’t give a damn if a bunch of newspeople pronounce Hillary as a “polarizing” figure. If she wins the election she becomes president and to hell with the people that don’t like it. As others have pointed out the sorry excuse G.W. Bush managed an 85% approval rating. So what makes it a foregone conclusion that Hillary won’t be a popular president if she performs well in office.

  8. Brad Warthen

    “To hell with the people that don’t like it” — the attitude that prompts that statement is what my column today is about.
    If she is elected, I don’t care whether she is “popular.” I doubt that she will be; she lacks her husband’s charisma. I do care that she be respected. It is essential that our next president be respected, that both the people whose candidate won those whose candidate lost will set aside their stupid party concerns and engage the next president in ways that we can work together to meet the nation’s challenges.

  9. weldon VII

    She’s a polarizing Polaroid.
    One day Jung, next day Freud,
    Old girl getting wise.
    Photo-op thought cop,
    Husband does the doo-wop.
    Made a life out of their lies.
    What can see the light in her eyes?
    You, maybe,
    But not me.

  10. bud

    I do care that she be respected.
    Then condemn, without equivocation, or distractions about what some CNN reporter said about McCain, the woman who called her a bitch. Perhaps if the media could show her a bit of respect the rest of the people would too.

  11. Randy E

    Karen makes a good point about vitriol in our past elections and the same is true for presidential promiscuity. The difference is now we have vastly enhanced media capability.
    I’d bet the ranch this is not the first time a profane term has been used towards a presidential candidate, although it’s probably the first time THAT term has been used.

  12. Gordon Hirsch

    She may get nominated, for which she will earn respect. But that will mean nothing come November, when the shelling stops.
    The dirty bombs have been stockpiled and are ready to launch.

  13. Doug Ross

    It’s interesting to compare the opening of your column to that of Leonard Pitts. Your version of events is far kinder to Senator McCain than the video evidence suggests. McCain laughed. He didn’t lose his composure. He laughed…. as in “har, har, we’re all among friends here”
    Also, I would question your commitment to respecting politicians based on your frequent comments directed at people like Mark Sanford, Andre Bauer, Karen Floyd, et al and your frequent condescension toward and derision of those of us who do not believe government is the answer to all problems. Simple question – do you respect Mark Sanford? Do your opinions posted here reflect the fact that he was re-elected by a significant majority of South Carolinians?
    Physician, heal thyself…

  14. Brad Warthen

    Actually, Doug, I couldn’t disagree more with what you say about Leonard Pitts. I thought his piece was embarrassingly facile and superficial. Here’s what I wrote about it in a comment on a previous post:

    The prissiness of newsrooms in the 21st century with regard to the mildest of swearwords is a marvel to behold. Wait until you see the Leonard Pitts column we’re running on the op-ed page, opposite my column, on Sunday. It’s like he’s regurgitating a decade’s worth of internal memos on the subject, with a phrase changed here and there to reflect his distinctive style. He even presents, without irony or the slightest expression of doubt, the feminist canard that MEN who act like total jerks don’t get called down for it or called rude names, just women. Observations such as that, taken as indisputable gospel by most feminists, make me wonder what planet THEY’ve been living and working on. Trouble is, women are not called "jerks" because… well, because it constitutes a certain gender-specific sort of insult that applies most clearly to men, if you get my drift. So when a woman acts like that, and somebody wants to call her on it, she might call her the nearest feminine equivalent to "jerk."

    And in response to bud’s command that I must legitimize myself by kicking around the unknown who started this:

    Finally, let me say that the woman who started this ball rolling with her locker-room language came across as the nearest feminine equivalent to a jerk. But I’m not going to use the word myself, because it would be unchivalrous.

    I’m sure that won’t satisfy bud, but I am under no obligation to do so. I’ve written a column and two or three posts that had no other purpose than to decry and condemn this sort of behavior. If that doesn’t satisfy you, you are determined not to be satisfied.

    Finally, I have tried to picture what McCain would have had to do to please the likes of Leonard Pitts and others who want to hold him responsible for that woman’s behavior. No matter how I direct the scene in my head, it comes across as absurd. I picture McCain suddenly turning into a kindergarten teacher, immediately stern as the class giggles because one of the children said a bad word, explaining that there will be no such talk in HIS classroom.

    Unfortunately for those who want something else, McCain is the kind of guy who does his best to show everyone respect — including people who have just demonstrated their unworthiness for such treatment. So once he gets past the initial embarrassment, he soberly models the correct behavior and attitude. I think that’s the best, the soberest and the wisest sort of rebuke a candidate can offer.

  15. Doug Ross

    I was only commenting on how your interpretation of how McCain responded does not reflect how the majority of people would interpret.
    He wasn’t embarrassed. He wasn’t offended. He was laughing along with the “joke” and then put on a went into a phony “gravitas” mode worthy of John Kerry or Al Gore.

  16. Brad Warthen

    Phony? You thought THAT part was phony? If so, you absolutely don’t get what McCain is about.
    I don’t know what the hell people who criticize McCain on this — people who act exactly the way that guy CNN expects them to act, with hypercritical superficiality — actually expect a grownup to do when suddenly someone says something wildly inappropriate. There is a natural human tendency to nervous laughter — sort of the natural reaction to someone shouting “fart” in a crowded theatre, only this word was far more malevolent than that, so once the moment of goofiness settles down, you say the correct thing, the classy thing, the thing that makes the original inappropriate thing look just as wrong as it was.
    I’m just sick of all of this — politics by “gotcha” moments. If you aren’t completely ready for a woman to call one of your candidates a “bitch,” and have your game face all ready for it, you’re a bad guy.
    That is utterly asinine.

  17. Brad Warthen

    One more thing — it just struck me that no one has attached significance to the fact that a woman said the naughty word, not a man. I think that played into the awkwardness of the reaction. A man who calls a woman that sounds like a wife-beater, and is automatically persona non grata. A woman says it, and the world feels a little out of balance; guys tend to react somewhere between “Did I hear that right?” and “Girl fight!” — neither of which matches the appalling impact of a man saying it.

  18. Doug Ross

    I didn’t watch or read anything related to what the CNN guy said. I formed my own opinion after watching the video.
    His reaction was the reaction of someone who says one thing in private (the laugh) and another as Senator (the phony “respect” for Senator Clinton). He could have handled the situation from the start the way someone who wasn’t standing with his hand out looking for a donation would – without a laugh followed by flipping on the Senator switch.

  19. Karen McLeod

    Oh, yes. I think I addressed this personally in your comment about the word ‘bitch’ ever being acceptable. In crude gossip of course, it is. But in what is supposed to be political debate, it is not. McCain got caught in the middle. If he didn’t laugh (an embarrassed laugh, I think), then he would have had to suffocate the immediate human reaction (assuming of course that you weren’t of the other party, and therefore, outraged). If he laughed, then the other side has very much got him. This is at the crux of Mr. Pitt’s comments. When one is basically on the side of the person who is being coarse, then one’s response is to the effect of ‘that’s not a good thing to say, but I know exactly where you’re coming from’. But when its used where one perceives it as an attack upon one’s own side, then one’s response is ‘that’s outrage!’ That is why politics, like religion (and to some extent, sex) is like a mined field. Make a verbal misstep, and you can find yourself in pieces. That’s why we need someone brutally honest. I would hope that McCain found some quiet way to point out to that woman (I’m not sure modelling would work for her) that using that kind of language did not work well for him. Meanwhile, Brad, the newsfolk out there need to try to do time/overtime/extra time to ensure that facts emerge. ‘Swiftboating’ on either side needs to be exposed and trumpeted. Honesty needs to be honored and applauded. Is there no way the newsfolk can’t try to agree on what’s there, and what’s not?

  20. JimT

    I remember several years ago when Shannon Faulkner had the audacity to apply for admission to the Citadel. She bore the brunt of a lot of hateful rhetoric, but I recall some of the bitterest letters to the editor that appeared in The State were from women. She and Sen. Clinton have committed the unpardonable sin of forgetting their place. Is it Southern women who despise that the most, or is that hatred universal?

  21. Phillip

    I think it’s worth pointing out that “hatred” in our political discourse can emanate not only from those out of power towards those in power (as in the examples of Clinton-hating and Bush-hating you cited in your column), but also can be aimed from those IN power towards those out of power. “Hatred” is an extreme term so perhaps “disdain” is more temperate for this context. Bush, elected twice (possibly just once, we’ll never know) by narrow margins, has governed from rather extreme positions: even a Bush supporter would have to acknowledge the relative success by which Bush has staked out positions way out on the wing for an American President. Compare to Bill Clinton, whose major “accomplishments” are things that would appeal to many if not most Republicans: NAFTA, welfare reform. But Bush, given a tiny mandate, chose to implement a far-right program of policies for the most part.
    There is a lot of Bush-disdain out there, to be sure. But what about the “Bush-initiated disdain”? Disdain for international relations and institutions and dialogue. Incredible disdain for the planet and environment. Disdain for civil liberties. Disdain for public education. Disdain for those struggling to make a living. I could go on and on.
    Yes, Brad, there are some people who are so consumed with anger over this administration that they probably would be unable to rationally acknowledge anything at all positive this this President might do. (I’m sure there’s something…give me a couple hours to think about it…) But the responsibility for this atmosphere must rest, not entirely but in large part, on the policies implemented and positions taken by this administration. Hatred can indeed run in both directions.

  22. bud

    .. it just struck me that no one has attached significance to the fact that a woman said the naughty word, not a man.
    That’s because it’s irrelevant. What’s important is the hatefulness of the comment, a reflection of the mindset of many GOP voters, and McCain’s inappropriate reaction to it, a reflection of his character. The CNN reporter’s comments are also irrelevant.

  23. Brad Warthen

    Well, now, there’s the difference between us, Doug. You’re a nice guy and all, but you refuse to let yourself see the good in people. To me, after a long career of talking to thousands of politicians, I recognize John McCain as something different and special, and I know he’s being sincere. For you, the only real and true reaction is that which allows you to see the person as low and base.

    Skepticism is a healthy thing in dealing with politics and politicians. But to be useful, skepticism has to be discriminating. Once your skepticism has caused you to examine a thing thoroughly, sometimes you’re going to decide that here is a person you can trust, there is one you cannot. If you always end up in cynical mode, then the skepticism is nothing but a destructive force that drags you and all around you down.

  24. Doug Ross

    >For you, the only real and true reaction is
    >that which allows you to see the person as
    >low and base.
    Wrong again. I give people the benefit of the doubt – even politicians. The body of evidence (video and otherwise) has led me to believe that John McCain isn’t some paragon of virtue. He’s a career politician who plays off his POW resume.
    Here’s an example that negates your perception of me – I happen to think John Edwards would be a decent President. You don’t – based on a couple of secondhand anecdotes about him being late or snubbing a receptionist. Which of us is the cynic in that case?
    There are plenty of politicians who I respect: Sanford, Obama, Paul, Huckabee,
    even Bill Clinton.
    I would have voted for McCain in 2000. Not now. He proved me wrong with his words and actions. He’s dead wrong on two of my top issues: illegal immigration and the Iraq War. He continues to cozy up to the Republican political machine that defamed him and his family. That’s a serious character flaw in my book. His “straight talk” persona is a just that – a calculated persona with the objective of winning the nomination. The response to the “bitch” comment was a perfect example of what he has become – a guy who has to play the role of Republican Partisan along with the Esteemed Senator from Arizona. We got to see both sides of McCain in 15 seconds.
    So, yes, I am a cynic when it comes to buying into the John McCain as Hero President. That’s makes me a discerning, informed cynic, I guess. Which I believe is the right way to approach politicians.

  25. Brad Warthen

    Going all the way back up to Karen’s comment about tribal loyalty, I’m reminded of something I just read in the book, Breaking the Spell, in which the author is distinguishing his definition of a religion from such things as "fanatical devotion to ethnic groups (or sports teams)…"

    It occurs to me that if he doesn’t think sports fandom can be a religion, he hasn’t been in the vicinity of the Grid Temple on a home-game Saturday — in which case he should count himself lucky.

  26. Doug Ross

    Never trust a guy who calls himself the “straight talk” candidate… he’ll let you down every time.
    While I’m checking out your ENT guy, maybe you can visit my optometrist to get your rose colored glasses adjusted.
    You have read that McCain’s staff is using the CNN coverage of his reaction to the Hillary comment as a fundraising pitch now? And spinning the story to present McCain in the most positive light? You may want to put on a rose colored pair of specs on top of the other ones when you read this:
    From Salon.Com:
    In an e-mail solicitation that went out this afternoon, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis says the incident is getting so much attention because “the liberal media has figured out that John McCain is the only thing that stands between a Hillary Clinton presidency, and they are therefore trying to stop the McCain comeback.”
    Davis’ account of the “B-word incident” differs a bit from, say, what actually happened. Davis says “a voter used a word that I would not have used to describe Sen. Hillary Clinton and asked the senator how he was going to beat her.” In fact, the voter said, “How do we beat the bitch?”
    Davis says McCain “first responded” to the question “by saying that he respected Sen. Clinton, as he has said repeatedly throughout the campaign. Then, focusing on the question, he pointed to the new Rasmussen national poll showing that he is the only Republican candidate who can beat her in a general election.”
    In fact, McCain first responded by saying he’d like to offer a “translation” of the query, then by calling it an “excellent question,” then by citing the Rasmussen poll and then by saying that he respects Clinton and anyone else who might get the “Democrat Party” nomination.

    More straight talk, right? Looks a little crooked to me… Sounds like the typical partisan b.s. you constantly rail against.

  27. bud

    Great points Doug. I too once had great admiration for John McCain. Still do when it comes to his heroics as a POW. But the more I read about John McCain since Vietnam the more crystal clear it becomes that he’s just a political animal who will say or do anything to get elected.

  28. rick campbell

    your hit piece on john edwards does not give you an advantage on commenting and trying to re-write history..i can watch the tape and draw my on conclusions…if hillary was asked “how can we beat those bastards?” by a black lady this story would have moved to the front page of your newspaper so fast you would have been on call for 24 hrs to get the story ‘right’.
    he should have just moved on and said i’m not entertaining the question…but for you and other fox fake news advocates it was cnn’s fault …brilliant!

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