Politics & Policy

Shoot to Sell

Knopf's tangos with presidential assassination.

When I was eight years old, school was let out early. The teachers were inexplicably upset, several were crying. But we students weren’t. We were happy to be suddenly released. I didn’t begin to be troubled until I got home and saw that my mother was crying too.

”Honey, I have to tell you something,” she said. “The president’s been shot.”

“Dead?”

She nodded.

An hour later, my father came home, looking terrible. This I did not quite understand. My father loved to laugh at mean things he would read about the president in columns written by someone named Buckley. My father often said that Kennedy was too busy being a “playboy” (whatever that was) to stand up to Khrushchev. Oddly enough, though, my busy father had come home early too, just as upset as my mother.

He fixed himself a Scotch and downed it all just before the phone rang in late afternoon. My mother answered it and told my father who it was, a family friend. I couldn’t hear what my father was told, but I witnessed his reaction. He got all red in the face, and starting barking harsh, angry words. He hung up on his friend, slamming the phone down. A long time would go by before he ever talked to that man again.

When I was older, I learned what the family friend had said to my father. The man, a Republican Kennedy-hater, had said, “Well, they finally got the son of a bitch.”

Forty-one years later, something terrible has reemerged in the soul of America, something immoral. A major publishing house, Alfred A. Knopf, which once published H.L Mencken, D.H. Lawrence, Albert Camus, Franz Kafka–and, most recently, former president Bill Clinton’s My Life–has decided that it is now acceptable to sell, as edgy entertainment, Checkpoint, a novella by Nicholson Baker that explores explicit fantasies about killing President George W. Bush. With saws. With boulders. With bullets. A British newspaper reveals that a main character runs through various outrages over Iraq and concludes, “I’m going to kill that bastard.”

The author and publisher, no doubt, will argue that they are expressing an emotion, not an intention (which would be illegal). The problem is, intentions emerge out of emotions. A powerful enough emotion, validated and popularized by a prominent book by a seemingly respectable publisher, can be taken as an incitement. Checkpoint, whatever its literary conceits, will be an act of linguistic terrorism. “He is beyond the beyond,” the Washington Post reports the main character saying of Bush. “What he’s done with this war. The murder of the innocent. And now the prisons. It makes me so angry. And it’s a new kind of anger, too.”

It is, indeed, a new kind of anger. It is one that takes me aback, even though I am no stranger to partisan rancor. Like many conservatives, I have been willing to risk being considered outré for questioning the Clintons’ ethics, motives, and how they explain their personal life. I have written unkind things about them, as people often do about their leaders in a democracy. There are times when I see Bill Clinton on TV that I want to throw something at the screen.

But I never would throw anything at him. I’d rather break my TV. Nor would I nod in agreement with lunatics who believe that Hillary murdered Vince Foster and dumped his body in a park. I am frightened of people who hate so much, because hate rests on fanatical certitude–an inability to grasp the idea that they might actually be wrong. I could well be wrong about the Clintons. Maybe there is something great about them that I just cannot see. Millions of Americans do.

There was a time when most partisans had such an internalized reality check, and a larger concern for the well-being of the country. On the day President Reagan was shot, I saw reporters and editors–almost all liberal Democrats–with tears welling up in their eyes. They were crying because they realized that a hole had been shot through our Constitution.

Today’s Left has lost its way. The season’s most-talked-about film portrays President Bush as willing to send Americans soldiers to their deaths in order, somehow, to enrich himself and his buddies. Entertainment figures turn fundraisers turn into hate rallies. And such events are embraced by the Democratic establishment as acceptable.

Now I have to wonder–God forbid–what the reaction would be if someone called a senior editor at Knopf and said, “Well, they finally got the son of a bitch.” Would he hang up?

Mark W. Davis was a White House speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush.

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