Sarah Palin says Barack Obama "launched his political career in the living room of a domestic terrorist" and is fond of "palling around with terrorists." The McCain campaign releases ads calling Obama a liar who has "worked with [a] domestic terrorist." Virginia GOP chair Jeffrey Frederick notes that Obama and bin Laden "both have friends that bombed the Pentagon."
We have seen this movie before. It’s not just the Swiftboat liars four years ago–liars whom George W. Bush refused to repudiate. His father, George H.W. Bush, who is treated as an honorable elder statesman who possessed all the virtues one might desire in a president, followed the same dirty-tricks playbook. He beat Michael Dukakis in 1988 by exploiting psychosexual fears of black criminals with the notorious "Willie Horton" ad. The Bush campaign claimed at least one degree of separation from the spot because it was produced and marketed to cooperative television news programs by an independent conservative organization. But in the new documentary Boogie Man, about the life of Bush campaign chair and former RNC head Lee Atwater, Republican consultant Roger Stone reports that Atwater showed him the ad before it aired and told him he had arranged to keep the campaign’s fingerprints off it for the sake of appearances.
Four years later, when Bush grew desperate as he fell behind Bill Clinton in the campaign’s final days, appearances were tossed overboard and Bush all but accused his opponent of being a Communist spy. Twenty-six days before election day, Bush wondered aloud on Larry King Live just what Clinton had been doing on a trip he took to Moscow twenty-three years earlier, when the candidate was a Rhodes scholar, and "how many demonstrations he led against his own country from a foreign soil." These followed attempts by Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Tamposi, pressured by the White House, to search through Clinton’s passport files for a rumored letter in which Clinton allegedly renounced his US citizenship. Though nothing was found, the campaign leaked word of the alleged letter to Newsweek, which insinuated that perhaps such evidence had been removed earlier. The conservative press was much smaller and weaker back then. Fox News did not exist, and talk-radio was in its infancy. The Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times floated allegations in early October that Clinton could have been a Soviet "agent of influence." This was considered too implausible, however, to get much pickup in the then-all-powerful mainstream media.
Now, of course, almost nothing is out of bounds. On Fox recently, Sean Hannity hosted "author and journalist" Andy Martin, originator of the Internet campaign to convince the ignorant that Barack Obama is a Muslim. Martin told viewers that Obama had been in "training for a radical overthrow of the government." Hannity and his Fox colleagues apparently saw nothing objectionable in relying on a source with a history of emotional problems who called a judge a "crooked slimy Jew" and who has said he understands "how the Holocaust took place, and with each passing day feel[s] less and less sorry that it did." (Recall that the program Fox and Friends resorted to the Nazi-style tactic of retouching a photograph of a Jewish journalist to exaggerate his nose and teeth; they even put his face on the body of a dog.)
Yes, these are extreme examples, but unfortunately such practices have become routine in the world of conservative media. To look outside presidential politics for a moment, Wall Street Journal columnist Mary O’Grady recently published an attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Jim McGovern, in which she accused the pair of playing "footsie" with Hugo Chávez and the Colombian rebel group FARC. She charged that "Jim McGovern’s name is all over the captured FARC documents and when a Wall Street Journal editorial reported as much in March, the Massachusetts Democrat didn’t deny it." That March editorial had claimed that McGovern had headed "an ardent effort to do business directly with the FARC." O’Grady’s missive was accompanied by a photograph of the two with Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba, who, O’Grady wrote, was a "close friend" of Chávez and had close ties to the FARC. She noted that in the photograph, both Pelosi and Córdoba were "dressed in matching chavista red." She ended her piece by taunting liberal Democrats to "come out and say whose side they are on."
What O’Grady failed to mention about the allegedly incriminating photograph was that it was taken after Córdoba was appointed by Colombian President Álvaro Uribe–a friend of the Bush administration and of many right-wingers–to aid in hostage negotiations with the FARC. As for the charges against McGovern, since when do journalists accept the unverified boasts of foreign terrorists? (McGovern not only denied the allegations in a letter to the paper–O’Grady had not contacted him in advance–he pointed out that they also contained information about an alleged meeting he had with the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez, something I’m sure he wishes had taken place but unfortunately had not.) It will probably not surprise anyone that Journal editors have defended the practice of lying on their editorial pages, calling the disproven allegations of the Swiftboat liars "no doubt contentious, but…of a piece with the contemporary bipartisan standards of adversarial politics." If this is in fact true, it is due, at least in part, to the Journal editors’ efforts to mislead their readers in the service of their deeply ideological goals.
Sure, politics ain’t beanbag, but the cost of tolerating this kind of thugishness in today’s environment is too high to ignore. Verbal violence has already begun to infect conservative discourse as Obama cruises to victory, and its physical manifestation may not be far behind. Pray we do not reap what they have so heedlessly sown.