Talk Radio, Ghoul Politics
From the Krauthammer archives: April 28, 1995.
Fewer than half the dead had been recovered from their bombed-out tomb in Oklahoma City before the political exploitation of their tragedy had begun. It began perhaps with my Inside Washington colleague Carl Rowan attributing the bombing to “the angriest of the angry white men” inflamed by opponents of affirmative action. He later specifically named Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole as public figures whose rhetoric “creates a climate of violence in America.”
Now, if we are going to attribute outrageous murders to “climates” created by legitimate political speech, then why not attribute last year’s murder of six white Long Island rail passengers by a crazed black man to the “climate” created by those who, like Rowan, incessantly (and quite legitimately) highlight the racism and injustice of contemporary America? If Timothy McVeigh is Bob Dole’s triggerman, then Colin Ferguson is Carl Rowan’s.
Absurd as Rowan’s claim is, it is politically potent — too potent to be passed up by a weak president looking for an opening. Accordingly, Clinton pounced. Using Oklahoma for his attack, Clinton went from consoler of the nation to cheap politician in less than 24 hours. In a speech in Milwaukee on Monday, the day after a moving memorial service in Oklahoma City, he denounced the “purveyors of hatred and division, the promoters of paranoia.”
“They spread hate,” he charged. “They leave the impression, by their very words, that violence is acceptable. You ought to see . . . the reports of some things that are regularly said over the airwaves in America today.” His obvious target was conservative talk radio, his nemesis throughout his presidency and the object of sputtering presidential attacks in the past.
No more sputtering. Clinton has found his weapon: the dead of Oklahoma. He refused, however, to admit the point openly. Indeed, his aides denied that the president was even referring to talk radio, though the implication was so obvious that practically every major news broadcast went directly from Clinton’s “purveyors of hate” speech to reports on talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Oliver North.
Rowan had the courage to name names. Clinton repeatedly charged dark and unseen forces, a shadowy and unnamed “they” with spreading paranoia — a classic of the very paranoid style of politics Clinton is ostensibly decrying. He did everything but pull out a list of people — not State Department traitors but talk-radio agitators — who are undermining the nation.
Having divided the country between the nefarious “them” and us, Clinton proceeded to charge “them” with dividing the country, keeping “some people as paranoid as possible and the rest of us all torn up and upset with each other.”
What makes this all the more cynical is that when the most deeply paranoid views of America have come from the Left, we have not heard Clinton decrying them for creating a climate of hatred. The single most malignant — and widely disseminated — portrayal of the federal government in our time is, easily, Oliver Stone’s movie JFK. Has Clinton ever denounced Stone, either publicly or when he shook his hand at the White House after a Saturday morning radio address?
Has Clinton ever denounced those members of his own congressional party who two years ago proclaimed a “sacred covenant” with the Nation of Islam, the No. 1 purveyor of anti-Semitism in this country? Had he done so, his current attack on “purveyors of hate” would have less the look of rank opportunism.
Given Clinton’s charges, and the frenzied media follow-up on the theme, it is now conventional wisdom that ours is an era of unusual extremism — rhetorical and actual — in America. On the contrary. Extremist political groups are more marginal today than perhaps at any time since World War I.
In the 1920s, historians estimate, the Ku Klux Klan had between 1.5 million and 5 million members. Its 1925 march on Washington attracted 50,000 people. The ’60s, with its bombings and riots, Panthers and Weathermen, were a time of generalized madness. Even in the placid ’50s and early ’60s, the John Birch Society — which held, among other lunacies, that President Eisenhower was a Communist agent — was a political force to be reckoned with. Its tattered descendants now run around the wilds of Michigan playing soldier.
The difference today is that technology enables even the smallest, most marginalized group to do great damage. The truck bomb, perfected abroad during the past 25 years, gives the Charlie Mansons of the ’90s a weapon of unmatched mobility, camouflage, and destructive power. This power is not a reflection of a sick society but a baleful byproduct of accelerated technological advance.
Yet the greatest difference between the America of today and the America of 25 or 75 years ago is a newly acquired level not of extremism but of tolerance. As Pat Moynihan has famously written, our tolerance for deviancy of all types — from mental illness to criminality — has increased to a point that would shock previous generations.
That spirit of excessive tolerance extends now to the politically deviant, the armed wackos who threaten insurrection and commit terror. In reaction to FBI excesses against the left in the ’60s and ’70s, we have relaxed surveillance and infiltration of all fringe groups, left and right.
It is the very openness of America that makes Oklahoma possible. The correct response is a calibrated closing: a closing in on the freedom of terrorists and criminals, not — as the president has so cynically implied — on the legitimate speech of the political opposition.
— Charles Krauthammer is a nationally syndicated columnist. This column first appeared on April 28, 1995, and is reprinted here with the author’s permission. Talk Radio, Ghoul Politics - Charles Krauthammer - National Review Online