Monday, October 12, 2009

Dissing the Office of President

October 12, 2009, 6:10 a.m.
Looking for commentary about the Oct. 12 Hancher relocation forum? Click here.
Looking for the entries about the University, and Iowa's, budget cuts? Click here and here.

Ad Hominem Attack as Political Strategy
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Rodney Dangerfield made a career out of the line "I can't get no respect."

What was funny coming from Dangerfield is not so funny coming from those Republicans today who seem to have chosen ad hominem attacks on the President as their primary political strategy.

Is this anything more serious than a very, very thin plank in what they offer as their political platform? I fear so. As Jon Stewart once said to the "Crossfire" hosts, I say to these Republicans: "You are hurting America."

1. "You lie!" "[T]he House held that by shouting 'You lie' during the president’s speech Mr. Wilson [Congressman Joe Wilson], a South Carolina Republican, committed a 'breach of decorum and degraded the proceedings of the joint session, to the discredit of the House.' . . . The outburst . . . made Mr. Wilson . . . an embarrassment and symbol of Republican disrespect to the president . . .." Carl Hulce, "House Rebukes Wilson for Shouting 'You Lie,'" New York Times, September 16, 2009, p. A14.

2. Break Obama. The Republicans' strategy is revealed most nakedly in their attacks on health care reform.

"Last week, in a variety of television appearances, Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina said he'd like to see the health care reform push slow down. DeMint proceeded to tell a conservative conference call what he really hoped to accomplish: 'If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.'

"Today, RNC Chairman Michael Steele endorsed this approach.

"At the end of the address he was asked by the Huffington Post whether he agreed with Sen. Jim DeMint's (R-S.C.) assessment that health care reform could be Obama's Waterloo -- a chance for the Republican Party to break the president politically. 'I think that's a good way to put it,' he [Steele] responded." Steve Benen, "Reform Opponents Can't Do It Alone," Washington Monthly, July 20, 2009.

Sadly, Iowa's own Republican Senator Charles Grassley has joined in these efforts:

"Mr. Grassley also cited policy objections to the Baucus legislation. He criticized its costs, though Mr. Baucus has proposed offsetting savings, and he objected to its mandates that individuals have insurance, though Mr. Grassley previously has said health insurance should be mandatory just as auto insurance is for drivers. He said the bill would not do enough to guard against aid going to illegal immigrants and for abortions, and complained that it would not limit malpractice awards.

"For Democrats, Mr. Grassley’s list only reinforced their belief that he never would have compromised no matter how much time he had.

"Democrats wrote off Mr. Grassley in August, when at his meetings with Iowa voters he seemed to affirm conservatives’ claims that Democratic proposals would create government death panels to 'pull the plug on grandma,' and when he vowed in fund-raising appeals to lead the opposition to health care legislation." Jackie Calmes, "G.O.P. Senator Draws Critics in Both Parties," New York Times, September 23, 2009, p. A22.

Although I'm unable to find the link at the moment, my memory is that Senator Grassley along with other Republicans also earlier supported a bill that would have created Medicare funding for the end-of-life counseling that the Republicans are now calling "death panels." That Bill, "Medicare End-of-Life Care Planning Act of 2007," S. 466, was introduced into the 110th Congress by Senator Rockefeller [D-WV], two other Democrats, and three Republicans: Senators Collins, Isakson and Lugar. Others presumably signed on later, possibly including Grassley, but the Bill never passed.

So the "anti-death-panel" Republicans are not only deliberately misrepresenting the contents of the currently pending legislation, engaging in obstructionism for the sake of obstructionism that they hope will "break" the President, but willingly engaging in some considerable hypocrisy as well -- fear-mongering a proposal that their fellow Republicans once introduced.

3. "President Can't Swim." In a reaction to what he felt was unfair treatment in the media President Lyndon Johnson once complained, "If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read 'President Can't Swim.'"

For President Obama to be the third sitting president to receive the Nobel Peace Prize is as much a tribute to America, and the Americans who elected him to their highest office, as it is for him alone. Here is a report of some of the world's reaction:

"'Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future,' the [Nobel Prize] committee said. 'His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.' . . . President Nicolas Sarkozy of France said the award marked 'America’s return to the hearts of the world’s peoples,' while Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said . . . 'In a short time he has been able to set a new tone throughout the world and to create a readiness for dialogue.'" Steven Erlanger and Sheryl Gay Stolberg, "Surprise Nobel for Obama Stirs Praise and Doubts," New York Times, October 10, 2009, p. A1.

Those sentiments from abroad are no mean accomplishment given where America's prestige had fallen during the last administration. And they do constitute, in fact, when multiplied by the number of the world's people who now share them, a significant element in creating a more peaceful world.

So what was the Republican response?

On Saturday, October 10, Michael S. Steele, the Republican National Committee Chairman, sent the Party faithful an email under the subject line, "Nobel Peace Prize for Awesomeness." It succeeded in not only dissing the President but the Nobel Committee as well, and began:

"I'm sure you've heard the news -- Barack Obama has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It's a stunning, if not truly surprising, indication of just how meaningless a once honorable and respected award has become. What has President Obama actually accomplished? . . . Even the normally fawning media have expressed shock at the clearly political and unmerited award. . . ."

The email concluded: "Help us remind the Democrats that trendy slogans and international esteem don't create new jobs for Americans, reduce the national debt, or keep our country safer in a dangerous world . . .."

In the same spirit, and to no one's surprise, the Republican Television Network, Fox, also trivialized the Prize. The Times reports, "On the Fox News show Fox & Friends, Brian Kilmeade, one of the hosts, said: 'This arguably could be the third person to win the award for not being George Bush.'"

The point is, Republicans don't have to take this stance. The story continues, Senator John McCain, President Obama's rival in the 2008 election, while not unrelievedly enthusiastic about the President and his new honor, at least had the decency to add, "as Americans, we’re proud when our president receives an award of that prestigious category.” Kate Phillips and Maria Newman, "Blog Talk: Perceptions of Obama's Prize," New York Times, October 9, 2009.

"President Can't Swim," indeed.

Could anything be worse than trying to disparage an American president's receipt of the Nobel Peach Prize?


4. Cheering America's loss of the Olympics. President Obama, like other heads of state, went to Copenhagen in an effort to win an Olympics bid for America -- Chicago 2016.

He was unsuccessful.

So how did the pit bull conservative Republicans (with and without lipstick) respond? They cheered! They cheered the fact that America had lost in its effort to host the Olympics. Why? Because it was a further achievement in their campaign to disparage and trivialize President Obama, their efforts to make sure he "can't get no respect," to "break him."

"'The worst day of Obama's presidency, folks. The ego has landed. The world has rejected Obama,' echoed Rush Limbaugh.

"'For those of you ... who are upset that I sound gleeful, I am. I don't deny it. I'm happy,' Limbaugh said. 'Anything that gets in the way of Barack Obama accomplishing his domestic agenda is fine with me.'" Rachel Slajda, "Conservatives Revel In America's Olympic Defeat," Talking Points Memo, October 2, 2009.

OK, Limbaugh is just a talk show host -- albeit one who is rabidly anti-Obama and pro all things Republican.

But take a look at this Rachel Maddow video.

Rachel Maddow, "Conservatives Applaud Chicago's 2016 Olympics Loss," October 2, 2009, includes some of the audio and video of conservatives cheering Chicago's loss (and presumably their perception of conservatism's gain from any misfortune that comes President Obama's way) along with statements from a broad spectrum of the attack dog anti-Obama conservatives:

But what you also saw, if you watched this YouTube video, is President Bush's much more genuinely patriotic view of a Chicago Olympics, starting about 1:50 into the video: "But really it's coming to America. And I can't think of a better city to represent the United States."

Here again, the point is both that (1) Republicans don't have to be hateful to be successful, and (2) it's a little hypocritical to cheer an American loss that the Republicans' last president clearly hoped would be a win.

Where do we go from here?

It was not always thus. In 1932 a court upheld the old Radio Commission (predecessor to the 1934 FCC) in its denial of a license renewal to Reverend Dr. Shuler of the Trinty Church in Los Angeles, licensee of station KGEF.

Based on the record in the case it would seem that his speech was no more inaccurate, mean spirited and hateful than what is coming from some Republicans today or passes for talk shows on Fox or Rush Limbaugh. The court, while upholding Shuler's First Amendment rights to hold and speak his views elsewhere, drew a distinction in terms of his right to use a station licensed to serve "the public interest" for such purposes. Judge Groner wrote:

[If broadcasters are permitted to] use these facilities, reaching out, as they do, from one corner of the country to the other, to obstruct the administration of justice, offend the religious susceptibilities of thousands, inspire political distrust and civic discord . . . and be answerable for slander only at the instance of the one offended, then this great science [of radio broadcasting], instead of a boon, will become a scourge, and the nation a theater for the display of individual passions and the collision of personal interests. This [restriction on a broadcaster's speech, in this case resulting in the Commission's refusal to renew Shuler's license] is neither censorship nor previous restraint, nor is it a whittling away of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, or an impairment of their free exercise.

Appellant may continue to indulge his strictures upon the characters of men in public office. He may just as freely as ever criticize religious practices of which he does not approve [which were Roman Catholicism].

He may even indulge private malice or personal slander -- subject, of course, to be required to answer for the abuse thereof -- but he may not, as we think, demand, of right, the continued use of an instrumentality of commerce for such purposes, or any other, except in subordination to all reasonable rules and regulations Congress, acting through the Commission, may prescribe.
Trinity Methodist Church, South v. Federal Radio Commission, 62 F.2d 850, 852-53 (C.A.D.C. 1932). [First described in this blog in Nicholas Johnson, " Externalities: Hawkeyes' Football, Obama's Safety," September 21, 2009.]

Still earlier in our nation's history we had a law making it a crime to "write, print, utter or publish . . . any false, scandalous and malicious writing . . . against . . . the President of the United States, with intent to defame . . . the said President, or to bring them . . . into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them . . . the hatred of the good people of the United States . . .." "An Act for the Establishment of Certain Crimes Against the United States," July 14, 1798 (expiration date March 3, 1801), Statutes at Large, 5th Cong., 2nd Sess., p. 596.

The crime described is what was called in England, and in this country 210 years ago, "sedition."

I hasten to assure the reader that I am not advocating either the re-enactment of an American sedition law (the 1798 law expired in 1801) or a return to the FCC's monitoring of programming content represented, and upheld, in the Trinity Methodist Church case.

For I do not challenge the legal, indeed the constitutional, right of Republicans to savage our, and their, president in their effort to deny him, and the office he holds, the respect most Americans would say is rightfully his.

Respect for the President, and the Office of the President, is no longer required as a matter of law or FCC regulation. But it is still required as a matter of patriotism, effective and constructive governing, and civility in the discourse of a democracy's effort at a people's self-governing.

This does not mean agreement of the kind urged upon us during the first years of the latest Iraq War, in which "support the troops" became shorthand for "support the president." Throughout these blog entries can be found a good deal of criticism of members of both political parties in general, and some of the policies, personnel, and procedures of President Obama in particular -- but all, hopefully, with a respect for the person and office of the presidency.

I applaud those Republicans who have stood up to their colleagues in "the Party of 'No,'" and who, while not abandoning their values, are continuing to participate constructively and with civility in the legislative process.

I simply ask of the "give-the-President-no-respect" Republicans today what attorney Joseph Welch once asked of the red-bating Republican Senator from Wisconsin, Senator Joseph McCarthy, during the Army-McCarthy Hearings, June 9, 1954.

In the middle of the hearings Senator McCarthy chose to pin the "communist" label on a young lawyer in Mr. Welch's firm, a Republican who was neither a member of the communist party nor a potential witness in the hearings -- nor a member of Mr. Welch's team attempting to defend the U.S. Army from McCarthy's accusations.

Mr. Welch responded, "You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?

"Senator McCarthy: I know this hurts you, Mr. Welch.

. . .

"Mr. Welch: Senator, I think it hurts you, too, sir. . . . Mr. McCarthy, I will not discuss this further with you. You have sat within six feet of me and could ask -- could have asked me about [him]. . . . [I]f there is a God in heaven, it will do neither you nor your cause any good. I will not discuss it further. . . ."

I happened to have watched that exchange live, on television, was moved by it, and wrote Joseph Welch of my admiration for him -- along with a request for a photo. He replied that he was nowhere nearly as great as I thought he was but that he was good enough to send me the signed photo that is today framed and hanging in my law school office.

To those Republicans who today attack the person and office of the presidency, who seek to "inspire political distrust and civic discord," to "excite against [the President] the hatred of the good people of the United States," I say with memories of Joseph Welch, "You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"

With the protection we afford them, with the First Amendment to the Constitution, the Supreme Court's interpretations of it, and the FCC's non-regulation, all we can do is to point out the harm in their strategy -- as I have attempted to do here. We must trust in the good sense of the American people whose parents ultimately turned their backs on McCarthy, said "shame, that's not nice; it is you, sir, who are 'anti-American.'"

We can hope, to paraphrase Joseph Welch, that "[I]f there is a God in heaven, disrespecting the President will do neither the pit bull members of the Party of 'No' nor their cause any good."
* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson
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