The respective media flaps involving Senate Democratic whip Richard Durbin and presidential consigliere Karl Rove invites a kind of admixture of awe and revulsion at the state of American political discourse and the media’s inability to make the most fundamental kinds of distinctions to help citizens navigate it.
Durbin’s offense, which set off a conservative firestorm that eventually forced an apology, was to express alarm about an FBI report describing Guantánamo prisoners as “chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water…urinat[ing] or defecat[ing] on themselves…for 18-24 hours or more.” Durbin allowed that such behavior struck him as less appropriate to Americans than to “Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime.” Clearly, Durbin was paying tribute to American ideals and expressing his dismay over their violation. But the mere mention of the words “Nazi” and “gulag” gave conservatives in the media the opportunity to decry an analogy he never made, beat their chickenhawk breasts about “dishonoring the military” and to tar all opponents with the same brush.
As Karl Rove’s comments later demonstrated, however, Durbin’s cave was pointless. Speaking to New York’s Conservative Party, Rove all but termed Durbin–and every liberal–a traitor:
Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers. In the wake of 9/11, conservatives believed it was time to unleash the might and power of the United States military against the Taliban; in the wake of 9/11, liberals believed it was time to submit a petition. I am not joking. Submitting a petition is precisely what MoveOn.org did. It was a petition imploring the powers that be to “use moderation and restraint in responding to the…terrorist attacks against the United States.”…Conservatives saw what happened to us on 9/11 and said: We will defeat our enemies. Liberals saw what happened to us and said: We must understand our enemies. Conservatives see the United States as a great nation engaged in a noble cause; liberals see the United States and they see Nazi concentration camps, Soviet gulags and the killing fields of Cambodia. Has there been a more revealing moment this year than when Democratic Senator Richard Durbin, speaking on the Senate floor, compared what Americans had done to prisoners in our control at Guantánamo Bay with what was done by Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot–three of the most brutal and malevolent figures in the twentieth century? Let me put this in fairly simple terms: Al Jazeera now broadcasts to the region the words of Senator Durbin, certainly putting America’s men and women in uniform in greater danger. No more needs to be said about the motives of liberals.
Rove’s comments were purposeful lies. The MoveOn.org petition he describes was written by Eli Pariser before he worked for the organization and was written before the perpetrators of 9/11 had been identified. (It says nothing about “therapy.”) Moreover, MoveOn.org itself supported military action in Afghanistan. Most significant, polling data demonstrate that 84 percent of self-described liberals, two weeks after the attacks, supported “military action” against the terrorists, and 75 percent supported “going to war with a nation that is harboring those responsible.” The Bush Administration, in contrast, proved far more interested in going to war against people who had nothing to do with the attacks; in doing so, it invited Al Qaeda to regroup and bin Laden to run free.
Why Rove felt compelled to launch this particular McCarthyite missive now is not ultimately knowable. Perhaps he is growing desperate, as the President’s popularity ratings spiral south, and Americans–by a 49 to 44 percent margin–tell pollsters that George W. Bush, not Saddam Hussein, holds the greatest responsibility for the horrific war in Iraq. But Rove is no dummy. He knows he can say just about anything about anyone and conservative pundits will bark “Amen.” His vicious denigration of the patriotism of so many New Yorkers (and American soldiers, I might add, many of whom are liberals) was not so different from the false and malicious charges leveled not merely by Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh but also by allegedly responsible commentators, including Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens and Peter Beinart. (It was Beinart, you will recall, who, in his famous “A Fighting Faith” article, introduced the redbaiter’s well-worn tactic against MoveOn.org of seeking to blame the organization for petitions it did not write and websites it did not control. He also sought to draw an equation between the questioning of the Administration’s military strategy and the support of the communist side during the cold war.)
Rove’s defenders, including White House press secretary Scott McClellan and New York Governor George Pataki, changed the subject to Durbin rather than offer even meek criticism of the second most powerful man in America (after Dick Cheney). But remember: Durbin paid tribute to America’s ideals. Rove not only lied about liberals, he mocked the very concepts of “moderation,” “restraint” and “understanding” as un-American. Durbin criticized no one but the torturers; Rove slandered more than 20 percent of Americans who proudly identify themselves as liberals.
And where were the mainstream media in all this? With just a few honorable exceptions they were passing along without prejudice Rove’s slander and lies and the deliberate distortions of Durbin’s words. Typically, Washington Post media cop Howard Kurtz adopted the White House spin with a report titled “Downplaying Durbin, Jumping on Rove.” The smart guys at The Note explained that Democrats were asking for this kind of thing with their general wimpiness. Apparently, it’s not a reporter’s business to decide what’s true anymore, just who sounds more macho.
There’s a lesson for liberals in all this: American politics has become a game with no rules and no referee. Play by the old rules–fairness, honesty, good faith–and face political extinction.