Meacham: Words Have Consequences

The wars of the Obama presidency—the tea parties, the heckling, the charges of racism—are covered breathlessly, but they are, sadly, all too familiar. Controversial presidents have always inspired epic love and epic hate; Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, TR, FDR, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush are among those who commanded the loyalty of millions and endured the enmity of many. Given our short national attention span, it may come as a surprise to some that our present ferocity is the historical rule, not the exception. To want to look backward sentimentally is understandable: it is more pleasant to be a Scarlett O'Hara, thinking about tomorrow, than it is to be a William Faulkner, for whom the past is never past.

But the airbrushing of what has come before leaves us ill equipped to judge the significance of the passing scene. That is why the sooner the political conversation takes into account the fact that there has never—never—been a golden age of bipartisanship, the better. There have been, it is true, eras in which there was more rather than less cooperation across party lines, but rival forces have always tried to destabilize one another. I sometimes think of moments like the current one—with Jimmy Carter playing the race card, and the right sputtering about the race card while happily playing the socialist and birther cards—as "Hofstadters," when commentators turn to Richard Hofstadter's 1964 essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" for an intellectual frame in which to view conspiracy-minded fury.

For Obama's supporters to say that he is facing unprecedented hostility, then, is overstated. That does not mean, however, that the purveyors of the hostility are absolved from responsibility when they heckle the president, attack his speaking to schoolchildren, bring guns to town halls, and equate his policy proposals to Nazism. One of the canonical works of movement conservatism is Richard M. Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences. Words have consequences, too. I wish that more liberals had appreciated this point during the George W. Bush years. It was wrong then to demonize the president, and it is wrong now.

So where does that leave us? The fact that the attacks on Obama's legitimacy as president are part of our primordial politics should raise, not lower, our level of concern about the style and substance of the debate. What begins in vitriol has far too often ended in violence.

We know how we get into these periods of polarity. Demographics change, foreign threats loom, government seems to expand its reach, ordinary people feel powerless to hold onto the world as they know it. Some combination of these forces was in play in the presidencies of Jackson, Lincoln, TR, FDR, JFK, and Reagan. Because it has happened before, then, we know how we could find our way toward a manageable madness.

I would argue that the 1980s were manageably mad in political terms. Liberals went crazy decrying Ronald Reagan, who was said to be a nuclear cowboy who hated the poor. Enough Americans, however, found Reagan to be a good man with whom they might disagree on particulars but whose essential character was worthy. The debates of the era were ferocious, but no one questioned Reagan's legitimacy as president. They accepted, too, that at its best, politics is about civilized combat, a competition of ideas conducted in a climate of respect.

As recounted in his memoir, True Compass, Ted Kennedy once mistakenly received a direct-mail appeal from Jerry Falwell urging him to send money to fight "ultraliberals such as Ted Kennedy." The mishap led to a remarkable scene: Falwell hosted Kennedy on the campus of Falwell's university in Lynchburg, Va. There, to applause from the crowd, Kennedy quoted a speech that his brother Jack gave to the Protestant Council of New York City: "The family of man is not limited to a single race or religion, to a single city, or country … the family of man is nearly three billion strong. Most of its members are not white and most of them are not Christian." (The speech had been delivered in November 1963.) Ted Kennedy concluded by citing Saint Paul: " 'If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.' I believe it is possible."

What we need now is for the opposition to say that they, too, believe living peaceably with President Obama is not only possible but desirable. Obama is not Reagan, but a Reaganesque politics would be a huge improvement over what we have at the moment.