Originally published in National Review
Lyndon Johnson was loathed enough that, in his final year in office, he dared not make a public appearance other than at a military base; it was commonplace for chanting crowds to gather and spray verbal obscenities at LBJ’s White House. Jimmy Carter’s presidency was a routine subject of cultural derision, some of it viciously aimed at his pre-teen daughter and his brother. Bill Clinton spawned so much hate that at least some of his adversaries spread strange rumors that he was connected to murder; then there was this thing called impeachment. George W. Bush inflamed some of his enemies enough that they carried signs crudely depicting him as a war criminal or a Hitler clone.
I mention all these instances of ugliness directed at presidents because they are apparently unknown to Andrew Rosenthal, a New York Times columnist, who caused a stir last week by implying that strident opposition to Barack Obama is racially motivated, and that it’s all part of a racist tide building in advance of the November elections. In fairness, Rosenthal said nothing that is not an article of faith in many liberal circles, and he at least deserves credit for saying it in the light of day and naming names. However, it’s still a lazy smear that twists recent history and is worth refuting.
Personal animus toward political opponents is a venom that has disfigured politics for a long while and has had little to do with skin color, but everything to do with self-righteousness and hyper-ideology. The fringe Right wielded it against Carter and Clinton; the Left wielded it against Johnson, as well as the younger Bush, Nixon, and Reagan; and before television and the digital age captured it, the same thing was done to FDR and Harry Truman. I’ll exercise an artificial statute of limitations and not dredge up slurs hurled at Lincoln and Jackson, or the bile in 1796, when Jefferson’s rivals tagged him as an atheist and Adams’s labeled him a monarchist.
To be sure, some of Obama’s enemies have depicted him in dumb, outrageous ways. Their bad behavior ought to be denounced, but accuracy demands that this be done in the context of rejecting the personal demonization that is par for the course in partisan politics. Rosenthal does civility a disservice by deploying it narrowly, to make a smear of his own, and by falsely suggesting that the toxicity in politics is a right-wing product.
Rosenthal compounds the offense by citing recent rhetoric from Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum about poverty, and statements from Mitt Romney regarding concepts of “entitlement” and dependency, as racially tinged “code.” The best defense of Rosenthal is to suppose that his ideas and facts got clipped in the editing room. Otherwise, it’s inexcusable to accuse Romney of talking in code when he criticizes the president for promoting an “entitlement society”; as Rosenthal must know, that’s a familiar conservative trope against liberalism and expansive government that is arguably older than Obama’s fifty years.
It’s equally obnoxious to cry racism against Gingrich, who has regularly chided his own party for having a blind spot on poverty, and Santorum, who supports a pathway for restoring federal voting rights for convicted felons. Unless Rosenthal denies the appalling fact that African-Americans are disproportionately incarcerated, the effect of Santorum’s position would be to expand the voting rights of a sizable class of blacks, especially black men.
I will grant that race is a fiendishly difficult subject to talk about; that’s why even the well-intentioned stumble. That’s why conservatives with legitimate bona fides like Santorum and Gingrich sometimes end up sounding clumsy on the subject. Perhaps it’s why some Southern white Democrats can lapse into the most condescending jawboning when they describe their get-out-the-vote strategy for blacks in unmixed company; or why they were so quick to describe black statewide candidates in the last several election cycles, from Florida to Georgia to Mississippi to Alabama, as uniformly “unelectable.” By Rosenthal’s lights, because they aren’t conservatives, these descendants of Dixiecrats must have meant well.
There is certainly unconcealed racism on the edges and in the center of our culture. The many-centuries-old civilizations in the rest of the world would remind us that Selma is a bat of an eyelash away; and that Appomattox was virtually yesterday. Rosenthal and a crowd of liberal critics do no good, however, in describing racial bias as the affliction of one party and one philosophy. Gutting historical memory to make today’s political blows seem unique — or, in Rosenthal’s reasoning, previously “unthinkable” — only adds heat instead of light.
I do wish Rosenthal had remembered the most bald-faced use of race to win a recent election. It was 2003; the candidate was a man belonging to a racial minority who was surprisingly leading in the polls in a governor’s race in a southern state, Louisiana. His opponents produced flyers with an artificially darkened photograph of the candidate taken when he was in college, with unkempt hair, which they circulated to the rural areas that had had once been enraptured by George Wallace. The stunt worked, and in that cycle, the candidate came up short. It was a blunt, hard racism that didn’t bother with code. The injured candidate was an Indian-American Republican named Bobby Jindal, and the people who knee-capped him were neither conservatives nor Republicans.