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Opinion Column
For the week of December 6 through 12, 2000

It’s personal, not partisan

We’ve now come to a point where every policy issue is seen through the prism of personal enmity. Health care initiatives and budget showdowns have become not ideological differences but battles infused with venom. And this is the real problem with anger; it scrambles reason.

Express Staff Writer

As Lewis Carroll might have said about this imbroglio of an election we’re in, it keeps getting "curiouser and curiouser." Sadly, the "curiouser" it gets, the more vicious becomes the contest.

Television, radio and print journalists keep lamenting the fact that politics, in general, and the race for the White House this year have degenerated into nothing but partisan stances.

If only we were so lucky.

I think we have long since left partisan jousting and entered into something far worse: the quagmire of the personal. The fact is we shouldn’t be surprised by the level of enmity and malevolence flying around the airwaves, courtrooms, and even dinner tables of America. Like any good feud—say between the Hatfields and the McCoys or the Montagues and Capulets -- the feelings on both sides have been a long time in coming.

The seeds of anger that are now in full bloom may have been germinating and getting a toe hold in the sidewalk of public discourse for more than 27 years.

The year was 1973. Richard Nixon was president. Alexander Butterfield, a former assistant to Nixon, revealed the presence of a secret audio recording system in the White House. The Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, ordered the president to turn over the tapes as evidence in the Watergate investigation. Not only did Nixon refuse to do so, he ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson ignored the order and resigned in protest. The next in line, Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, also resigned. Third in line was the solicitor general, a former conservative law professor from Yale named Robert Bork.

Bork fired Cox in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre. It was a move that not only drew fervent public reaction but enraged Democratic politicians. Though it wasn’t long before the tapes were released and the Republican presidency began to unravel, the Democrats would not soon forget that Bork had obstructed the process.

Subsequently, Bork left the Nixon administration and went about teaching at Yale, working for a Washington, D.C., law firm and, eventually, serving as a U.S. Court of Appeals judge.

Then Ronald Reagan came ambling along. At the time, Bork was widely recognized—largely because of his extensive publications—as being relatively extreme in his views. Reagan, with his inimitably charming but sometimes politically obtuse manner, appointed Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987. The Democrats perceived the move as an attempt to stack the court in his favor and reacted with fierce anger. The Senate confirmation hearings were extremely divisive and filled with rancor. Bork was rejected on a 58-42 vote.

The plot thickened and the conflicts became more internecine in 1989 when George W. Bush’s father nominated Sen. John Tower to be Secretary of Defense. Largely through allegations of excessive drinking, womanizing and close ties to the defense industry made by Sen. Sam Nunn and other Democrats, Tower was defeated. It was another bitter battle. Dick Cheney subsequently moved into the post.

In 1991, President Bush appointed Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. When Anita Hill came forward with allegations of sexual harassment during confirmation hearings, many Democrats stood behind her. The Republicans fired back with attacks on Hill. Again, the discourse strayed from reasoned analysis of the issue at hand to personal vindictiveness on both sides. Thomas was confirmed in a vote of 52-48. The then-Sen. Gore voted against Thomas. Ironically, Thomas now has a big hand in Gore’s political future.

When President Clinton defeated Bush, the animosity among the career politicians deepened. The Whitewater investigation became a constant sore point. The Democrats were angered because they saw it as a witch hunt; the Republicans continued to be frustrated by Clinton’s ability to escape the noose. When Whitewater evolved into the Lewinsky scandal, everything broke loose. Not only were the Republicans infuriated by possible legal infringements by Clinton, but his actions became a moral affront to many. While I think several of the Republicans saw it simply as a political opportunity to be exploited, many of the them were deeply and genuinely offended.

We’ve now come to a point where every policy issue is seen through the prism of personal enmity. Health care initiatives and budget showdowns have become not ideological differences but battles infused with venom. And this is the real problem with anger; it scrambles reason. Though anger may be little more than pride injected with adrenaline, it is still very damaging.

No doubt we have all argued a point not because we believe it but because it is contrary to what the other side is arguing. But politicians are, basically, professional arguers and so should be able to separate out personal feelings from the debate.

So, here we are with two sides and a long history of personal animosity. It is, of course, like any other fight: the more the sides fight, the more they want to fight.

When I was a kid fighting with my brother, my parents often had to put us in separate rooms to end the battles. Perhaps a more apt analogy to the current situation is when the neighborhood dogs went at each other. More than once I saw my dad spray a hose on the two fighting dogs. Who is going to play that role here?

Of course, it has to be the electorate. But the public, unfortunately, tends to enjoy fights. It does make good TV narrative. I have to admit I found the television coverage of the Florida Supreme Court session and the audio release of the U.S. Supreme Court session to be fascinating. Nonetheless, there are real costs to rubber-necking at a brawl. Almost always a few errant punches land where they shouldn’t.


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