Faux Outrage

Regarding all the weeping and wailing from the Right over recent comments by Rep. Pete Stark, I agree with Digby that their outrage seems a tad calculated.

Are these macho tough guys really offended that some congressman made these comments in a debate? Are their feelings hurt on behalf of the president? Does CNN really believe that’s what’s going on? Does anyone think that what Pete Stark said on the floor yesterday truly upset the Republicans? Of course not. These are the same people who spent month after month calling president Clinton a rapist and worse, for crying out loud. They are not shrinking violets who believe that there are limits to acceptable rhetoric about the president. They don’t believe there are limits to any rhetoric.

Everyone knows exactly why the Republicans sent out “statement after statement” about this obscure congressman’s words yesterday — distraction. Does anyone point that out? No. In fact, the damned Democrats go right along with this nonsense and “hold meetings” and leak to the press about how they agree with the Republicans agreeing that Stark caused the distraction, and basically showing themselves to be a bunch of pathetic fumblers falling for this nonsense over and over again.

For the record, here’s what Congressman Stark said:

“I’m just amazed that the Republicans are worried that we can’t pay for insuring an additional 10 million children. They sure don’t care about finding $200 billion to fight the illegal War in Iraq.

“Where are you going to get that money? You’re going to tell us lies like you’re telling us today? Is that how you’re going to fund the war? You don’t have money to fund the war or children.

“But you’re going to spend it to blow up innocent people if we can get enough kids to grow old enough for you to send to Iraq to get their heads blown off for the President’s amusement.

“This bill would provide health care for 10 million children and unlike the President’s own kids, these children can’t see a doctor or receive necessary care.

“Six million are insured through the Children’s Health Insurance Program and they’ll do better in school and in life.

“In California, the President’s veto will cause the legislature to draw up emergency regulations to cut some 800,000 children off the rolls in California and create a waiting list. I hope my California Republican colleagues will understand that if they don’t vote to override this veto, they are destroying health care for many of our children in California.

“In his previous job as an actor, our Governor used to play make believe and blow things up. Well, the President and Republicans in Congress are playing make believe today with children’s lives.

“They claim we can’t afford health care and say the bill will socialize Medicine. Tell that to Orrin Hatch, Chuck Grassley, and Ted Stevens, those socialists on the other side of this Capitol! The truth is that the Children’s Health Insurance Program enables states to cover children primarily through private health care plans.

“President Bush’s statements about children’s health shouldn’t be taken any more seriously than his lies about the War in Iraq. The truth is that that Bush just likes to blow things up – in Iraq, in the United States, and in Congress.

“I urge my colleagues to vote to override his veto. America’s children need and deserve health care despite the President’s desire to deny it to them.”

Here’s the video:

[Update: From the “lies and the lying liars who tell them” department — rightie blog Gateway Pundit accuses Crooks and Liars of misquoting Stark. But Gateway Pundit lies. C&L quoted Stark accurately. What Gateway Pundit quotes as the “accurate” statement is a different part of the same statement. Gateway Pundit also called Stark’s statement “anti-military,” and I believe that is a lie; I don’t see anything anti-military about it.]

Is that really so outrageous? Maybe the line about “kids to grow old enough for you to send to Iraq to get their heads blown off for the President’s amusement” was hyperbole, if only because Bush might have noticed that soldiers are getting tougher to replace. But the rest of it seems fairly mild. I know I could have come up with something a lot harsher.

The double standard about what one can say about a President has been going on for a long time. I was a teenager during the LBJ years, and I doubt any president ever got slammed harder than Johnson did. And that was by the press, the public, and other politicians across the board. I can’t say he didn’t deserve it. Maybe I missed it, but I don’t remember that anyone complained much that a president ought to be treated with more decorum, if only out of respect for the office.

But that changed during the Nixon years. Television reports of criticism of Nixon frequently were “balanced” by expressions of outrage that anyone would say such things about a President of the United States. No end of sweet-faced matrons, tears in their eyes and quivers on their lips, expressed shock that anyone would talk about a President so. Burly men with VFW caps pounded tables and thundered, they’re saying these things about the President, as if public criticism of a President were somehow beyond the pale of civilized conduct. Never mind that most of “these things” turned out to be true, and never mind that Johnson was treated, IMO, much worse than Nixon was, at least by the standards of Nixon’s first term. The Watergate scandal did let the dogs loose, so to speak.

President Ford was ridiculed frequently, and my impression is that the Right didn’t exactly have his back. True righties didn’t care for Ford, possibly because they truly despised his Vice President, Nelson Rockefeller. President Carter also was ridiculed mercilessly through his presidency.

But after Saint Ronald was elected, suddenly conservatives became very protective of the dignity of the office. And the White House press corps of the Reagan Administration was a muzzled and castrated thing compared to that of the Johnson years. Something had changed.

And as soon as Bill Clinton was elected, it was open season on Presidents again.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this shifting of of standards is being orchestrated from the top of the rightie power pyramid. But I don’t think rank-and-file righties are capable of seeing the double standard as a double standard. In their minds, the only legitimate presidents are the conservative ones, and the rest are interlopers, never mind that they were elected.

But that takes us to another question, and let’s keep it hypothetical. Let’s say frank, harsh criticism of a head of state is unacceptable and cause for public censure, unless the head of state is a tyrant. We tend to think that people who stand up to a tyrant are being courageous and heroic. Where is the line drawn? A remark that seems unfair to the head of state’s supporters might seem perfectly fair to lots of other people. At what point does the needle flip from “not OK” to “OK”?

I say it’s not always clear, particularly in the case of an up-and-coming tyrant who hasn’t yet gained full dictatorial powers. Early in their political careers even the great tyrants of history — Mao, Hitler, Stalin — didn’t seem that bad to everyone.

My questions:

Are people supposed to keep their mouths shut until after freedom of speech has been lost?

If people are intimidated by societal pressure from speaking frankly about a moderate, democratic leader, how will they find the courage to speak out when the real tyrant shows up?

Every president is slammed by some part of the public, including members of Congress who are, after all, representing the people. I don’t agree that Congress critters have to hold their tongues out of some sense of beltway propriety. They’re supposed to be speaking for us. If our representatives can’t speak frankly, who will?

If the criticism is genuinely off the wall, it’s fair to criticize it back. If someone makes false accusations about a President, by all means speak up loudly and set the record straight. Let the court of public opinion judge the matter. But let’s stop playing games about what commentary is appropriate or disrespectful of the office. I say that if a citizen, politician or otherwise, is thinking something, he shouldn’t be afraid to say it.

What Did They Expect?

More on why Fred Thompson won’t be the GOP nominee, from Steve Benen.

Yesterday’s “Values Voter Summit,” the year’s largest religious right gathering, offered the actor/lobbyist/senator a chance to reconnect with the activists who’ve been slipping away. How’d he do? I spoke to several people who were on hand for the event, and everyone agreed that they were amazed at how awful he is on the stump.

And here Steve quotes from a New York Times article by Michael Luo:

[Thompson] spoke with his chin often buried in his chest, his voice largely monotone, and he cleared his throat or coughed repeatedly, prompting some to wonder if he might be ill.

“He didn’t look good,” said Ronald Sell, 63, a musician from New York City.

Mr. Sell said he initially had high hopes for Mr. Thompson but left disappointed and wondering why as an actor, Mr. Thompson did not “at least have his lines memorized.”

“If he was the candidate, we’d be in trouble,” Mr. Sell said.

Hopes were raised, then dashed. I sincerely believe a lot of people who got on the Thompson bandwagon confused him with the character he plays (woodenly) on Law & Order. The only question I have is, if Thompson really wanted the presidency enough to bother to run, why isn’t he making a better effort?