Politics & Policy

Obama and the New Civility

During the Bush years a dangerously heated rhetoric became commonplace. Now, lo! a new age has dawned.

It was sometime early this year that Americans finally learned the rules of proper political discourse — another dividend from the Obama administration. We can all be grateful for our new bipartisan protocols, which will go something like the following.

It will be considered childish to caricature a stressed president for mangling his words, whether “nucular” or “corpseman.” If, from time to time, the commander-in-chief flubs up and says something stupid like Bush’s “Is our children learning?” or Obama’s “Cinco de Quatro,” we have learned to accept that such slips are hardly reflective of a lack of knowledge. The old “gotcha” game is puerile and, thankfully, is now a thing of the past.

Nor should we ever refer to any elected administration as a “regime” — that unfortunate habit of the likes of Maureen Dowd, Chris Matthews, and various talk-radio hosts. Thank God, we in 2010 all recognize the pernicious effects of such near-treasonous rhetoric.

At last there is a return to civility. If we were confused in recent years as to whether “hate” was a permissible word in public discourse — as in the outburst of Democratic national chairman Howard Dean, “I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for,” or the infamous essay by The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait that began, “I hate President George W. Bush” — we now accept that such extreme language in the public arena is not merely uncivil, but is an incitement to real violence. The use of the word “hate” at last has become “hate speech.”

With Rep. Joe Wilson’s improper outburst to President Obama — “You lie!” — we also have at last come to appreciate that those in Congress have a special responsibility not to use incendiary language to defame our government officials. That’s why we now lament Rep. Pete Stark’s slur of George W. Bush from the House floor as a “liar” — the same Rep. Pete Stark who said of our troops that they had gone “to Iraq to get their heads blown off for the president’s amusement.” 

But since 2009 Americans have finally learned that our soldiers are sacrosanct and must not be smeared — as in Sen. Richard Durbin’s characterization of American military personnel as synonymous with Nazis, Stalinists, or Pol Pot’s murderers; as in the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s comparison of American troops to Saddam’s lethal jailers; as in Sen. John Kerry’s smear of our soldiers as acting in terrorist fashion. Evocation of Nazi or Brownshirt imagery particularly coarsens the public discourse; it demonizes opponents rather than engage them in real debate. So we can all concur now that Sen. John Glenn, Sen. Robert Byrd, and former vice president Al Gore spoke quite improperly when they compared their president’s governance to that of the Third Reich.

Our military officers deserve special consideration. No senator should ever again accuse a wartime theater commander of telling an untruth (“suspicion of disbelief”). Major newspapers should not extend discounts to pressure groups that defame our officers with cheap slurs such as “General Betray Us.” All that is dangerous rhetoric. Indeed, it risks undermining our noble bipartisan efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We now know that environmental terrorists of the sort that spike trees, torch forestry equipment, blow up people with letter bombs, or wage anti-globalization urban violence are engaging in the same sort of behavior as are the unhinged militias. Therefore we must all be careful, left and right, in criticizing our government — lest either another Ted Kaczynski becomes too inflamed by Al Gore’s accusatory furor about environmental desecration, or a Michigan militia member goes over the top after hearing a talk-radio rant about Barack Obama.

Ever since Dwight Eisenhower hit the back nine, critics have snickered at golf-playing presidents — as if their polo shirts, shades, and splashy caps were revelations of aristocratic disdain for the rest of us, or as if they were engaging in a sort of loafing amid world crises. Not now. We have come to realize that presidents should play golf — in fact, lots of it — both for needed relaxation and as a reminder that it is no longer a sport of the elite.

With the appropriate criticism of former vice president Dick Cheneys public attacks on the Obama anti-terrorist protocols, we have established that vice presidents emeriti, by virtue of the dignity of their positions, should not engage in partisan hits on subsequent administrations. Cheney’s slights remind us why there was once media outrage when former vice president Al Gore said of President Bush, “He lied to us,” “He betrayed this country,” “He played on our fears” — or when he dismissed Bush’s Internet supporters with the slur of “digital Brownshirts.”

We have always been worried about presidential braggadocio. Just as we came to realize that George Bush’s “bring ’em on” and “dead or alive” were unnecessarily polarizing, so too talk of bringing a gun to a knife fight, or predictions that a supporter would “tear up” a talk-show host, or remarks about “fat cat” bankers are unnecessary presidential provocations.

In other words, with the presidency of Barack Obama, the nation has collectively established at last the proper parameters of political rhetoric and conduct. What was the norm in the past is now recognized as coarse, if not dangerous — and so won’t be repeated in our future.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.

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