At the Democrats’ convention a few weeks ago, Barack Obama, the keynote speaker, called for civility and restraint in our political discourse. At the just-ended Republican convention, Zell Miller, the GOP keynoter, called for bile, invective, and, well, hate. Political hate. Smear hate.
We have seen nastiness at both parties’ rallies before—many will remember Pat Buchanan’s garbage-truckload of rhetoric at the 1992 Republican convention—but in my time, which goes back to FDR, I can remember no oratory sanctioned by a major party that was more obviously a hate speech than Zell Miller’s.
Senator Miller, a conservative Democrat from Georgia who recently threw his support to President George Bush, again and again smeared Democratic candidate John Kerry and his party’s leadership as unpatriotic and therefore unfit—all the while insisting that he wasn’t questioning anyone’s patriotism, just “their judgment.” His tone was brutal and sneering.
“For more than 20 years, on every one of the great issues of freedom and security, John Kerry has been more wrong, more weak, and more wobbly than any other national figure. . . . As a senator, he voted to weaken our military. And nothing shows that more sadly and more clearly than his vote this year to deny protective armor for our troops in harm’s way, far away.”
I realize politicians of all parties twist history every which way to their benefit, but wasn’t it the Bush administration that sent the troops into Iraq without enough body armor or armor for the sides of their battle vehicles? Casualties rose as a result. Soldiers’ parents went on the open market back home to buy state-of-the-art body vests with ceramic-plate reinforcement, and then shipped them to their sons and daughters in Iraq. Not until early this year did the Pentagon begin to fill the gap. No part of this failure had anything to do with a vote by Senator Kerry.
At no time has President Bush admitted this failure or apologized to the troops. Planners make errors in all wars, but what kind of commander in chief (using a surrogate) blames those failures on others, in this case on the man running against him in an election? Perhaps not a very stand-up commander in chief.
Back to Zell Miller’s bitter speech, the tone-setter for political mastermind Karl Rove’s convention production. Referring to Kerry and the Democrats, the Georgia senator said: “In their warped way of thinking, America is the problem, not the solution. They don’t believe there is any real danger in the world except that which America brings upon itself through our clumsy and misguided foreign policy.”
And about Kerry personally, Miller asked: “This is the man who wants to be the commander in chief of our U.S. armed forces? U.S. forces armed with what? Spitballs? . . . Senator Kerry has made it clear that he would use military force only if approved by the United Nations. Kerry would let Paris decide when America needs defending. . . . This poli- tician wants to be leader of the free world. Free for how long?”
That’s the kind of fear-inducing rhetoric that dictators use to keep their opponents cowed and submissive. Unfortunately it’s merely a ratcheted-up version of the message President George W. Bush has been regularly sending across this nation: If you don’t support the war in Iraq, you’re a bad American. If you view my tax cuts that favor the wealthy as reckless, you’re a bad American. When he needs to have this message magnified to scare enough people into voting him a second term, he of course turns to pit-bull surrogates like Miller and Dick Cheney, his super-hawkish vice president.
Cheney followed Zeller to the podium Wednesday night and his speech, though more muted, nonetheless carried the same message: If you vote for Democrat John Kerry, you’re a weak American and you don’t love your country enough.
Smirking, the vice president mocked Kerry as a man who preferred wars based on “sensitive” conduct. This drew a burst of laughter and cheering from the convention crowd. Cheney has used this routine with success before at partisan gatherings. But Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, has never said that wars can be fought using teatime manners. He did use the word sensitive during the campaign—but in the meaning of being aware of all factors and conditions when making the decision to go to war.
I don’t think I can be described as a flag-waver for Senator Kerry. I have criticized his actions in print many times, primarily on issues about P.O.W.’s left behind in Vietnam—issues on which Democrats and Republicans have failed equally.
This can only be one man’s opinion, that of someone who has lived 70 years, starting in a New England mill town, then college and military service in Cold War Germany, followed by 45 years and counting as a reporter through several wars in Asia and lots of political combat both domestic and foreign. I have come to the conviction, after following closely the actions of both Kerry and Bush, that Senator Kerry is more fit and qualified to be president than the man who presently holds the office. Kerry might not have been my first choice, but he is able and better understands the world through personal experience than President Bush.
Mr. Bush, who seems a convivial and hopeful man, has unfortunately built a government more secretive than any that has preceded it. Yes, there must always be secrets on matters of national security, but not secrets only for the purpose of hiding government mistakes or abuses of power.
The president has also created an ideological government. In my experience, ideology has shown itself to be the enemy of democracy. Democracy requires an openness to all opinions, even those we find noxious. The ideologue says there is only one idea—his. He says that if you don’t accept that idea, you must be demonized, marginalized, or destroyed. The ideologue sees the world through a lens that shows only black vs. white. That makes him partially blind. You have to try to see the whole spectrum to be able to make wise decisions.
President Bush has allowed himself to become captivated by the ideology of a group of radical conservatives—civilians with no military or combat experience, mostly alumni of the Reagan presidency, who now steer the Pentagon and work through the vice president’s office, where one of their number, I. Lewis Libby, serves as Cheney’s chief of staff.
Their worldview is a triumphal one, a belief in the need for a global American empire based on military might. They believe that the only way to preserve American security in this changed world is to build a modern military machine so far-reaching and powerful that it can put down unrest anywhere in the world and conduct multiple major wars simultaneously. This is no conspiracy theory and they are not a secret cabal. Some of you will easily recognize their names—Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, to mention a few. The above description of their goals is taken from their own position papers, some of which can be found on the website of their own Washington think tank, the Project for the New American Century.
Are all these men practitioners of smear tactics and hate speech? Do their words and writings sound like Zell Miller’s convention speech? The answer, most of the time, is no. But their ideology is rigid and they hold power in the Bush administration. Many rational, experienced people find their ideas bellicose and overreaching and dangerous to America’s future. Bush is comfortable with their advice. It is black and white.
Let’s put these ideas on the table and put Kerry’s ideas alongside and let’s debate them. Without hate speech. Without smear tactics. Zell Miller may think he gave an All-American speech the other night. Most of the conventioneers did too. Laura Bush, in her convention speech, likened her husband to Franklin Roosevelt.
Maybe they should all take a deep breath and go back and read some of Franklin Roosevelt’s speeches when he was calling the nation to war—and from the years just before, when he was leading America out of the Great Depression, when so many Americans were out of work. Like myself, there are still many Americans who remember Roosevelt and those speeches. The president might want to think about that.
Research assistance by Matthew Phillp
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 31, 2004