At the memorial service in Tucson on Wednesday night, President Obama delivered a moving speech
-- one of the best of his political career -- and fulfilled the role of leader. He called on Americans to debate our policy and political differences with honesty and respect, noting that "a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation." It is the president's job to inspire and encourage what Abraham Lincoln described as "the better angels of our nature."
But the problem that remains and confounds is this: What happens when someone doesn't play by these rules? It is rather tough to have the sort of discourse the president rightfully urges with a party that engages in name-calling and tosses about extreme and violent rhetoric. And when such a person or institution earns a profit from that sort of behavior, it is especially difficult to nudge him or it toward better-nature territory.
With that in mind, allow me -- respectfully -- to point out what was possibly the worst thing said this week by a major player in the national discourse. No, it's not Sarah Palin's "blood libel" remark. As I've pointed out elsewhere
, she was wrong and off-base in so many ways. After all, for Palin to equate the criticism she received after the Tucson rampage (for having marked Rep. Gabrielle Giffords district with cross-hairs on a list of Democrats she targeted for defeat in November) with the genocidal persecution of an entire people demonstrated either ignorance or narcissism. Or both. (My hunch: She didn't know what "blood libel" meant and thought it was just a visceral way to say really libel-y.) Still, this comment was a silly charge that only undermined Palin's argument that her foes on the left had rushed to tie her directly to the massacre before the full facts were known.
Surpassing Palin in debasing the debate this week was none other than Rush Limbaugh. I know, you're shocked. On his radio show, Limbaugh declared
What Mr. Loughner knows is that he has the full support of a major political party in this country. He's sitting there in jail. He knows what's going on, he knows that. . . . The Democrat party is attempting to find anybody but him to blame. He knows if he plays his cards right, he's just a victim. . . . That smiling mug shot -- this guy clearly understands he's getting all the attention and he understands he's got a political party doing everything it can, plus a local sheriff doing everything that they can to make sure he's not convicted of murder -- but something lesser."
Limbaugh was suggesting --no, make that stating as a fact -- that the Democrats want to help Jared Lee Loughner escape full justice for allegedly murdering six people (including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl) and attempting to kill Giffords, a Democrat quite popular within her party. What could Limbaugh be thinking?
Then again, it's not truly a rational thought process that derives such a conclusion. Would he have his audience of ditto-heads believe that the leading Democrats who have visited Giffords in her hospital room -- Nancy Pelosi, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Kristen Gillibrand -- want to help the man who nearly killed their friend to get off easy? Limbaugh has no evidence to cite, because there is nothing to back up his ranting. This is craziness. Hateful craziness.
Does Limbaugh even believe this swill? He could be saying it merely to satisfy the red-meat yearnings of his followers. That would render him perhaps the biggest cynic on the American landscape. (For such care and feeding, Limbaugh earns
at least $50 million a year.) Yet if he truly thinks that Pelosi is plotting to assist the assassin who put a bullet into the head of a friend, he is delusional.
There is no other explanation: panderer-for-profit or nutcase. I realize this is not a civil way of describing someone. But there are moments when civility prevents us from serving and protecting the truth. Mendacity, ignorance, provocation -- sometimes these must be called out by name. Otherwise, those who would use or exploit such means to pervert the national discourse gain an advantage.
Obama is correct: To advance the national interest, Americans must mount rigorous debates in the best terms possible. But you cannot have an honest debate with a mud-thrower. (My father used to tell me, there's no fair fight with a skunk.) Those who purposefully undermine reasonable and necessary discourse do not deserve a pass in the name of civility. Limbaugh, as he so often has done, resorted to extreme rhetoric and a big lie in an attempt to undercut or destroy a political adversary. He made a dark week even darker.
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