Its personal, not partisan
Weve 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.
By ADAM TANOUS
Express Staff Writer
As Lewis Carroll might have said about this imbroglio of an election
were 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 shouldnt be
surprised by the level of enmity and malevolence flying around the airwaves, courtrooms,
and even dinner tables of America. Like any good feudsay 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 wasnt long before the tapes were released and the Republican presidency
began to unravel, the Democrats would not soon forget that Bork had obstructed the
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
recognizedlargely because of his extensive publicationsas 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. Bushs 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 Gores political
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 Clintons 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.
Weve 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
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
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