Thoughts on Yesterday

Perhaps you heard Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, a 50-year veteran of law enforcement, say:

When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.

While I still think we are at a point where there is more unknown than known about yesterday's tragedy, it is already obvious that there is about to unfold a long overdue conversation about the level of discourse in this country. While I hope this senseless crime does not become yet more fodder for some faux left vs. right debate (anyone who would do what happened yesterday is stone cold crazy, period), I welcome the opportunity to participate in serious reflection on our current political climate.

I cannot wait for tomorrow's radio program so that I can offer my thoughts. Please tune in or get the Podcast.

Regular listeners and readers know that in December, I participated in the launch of a new group called No Labels. Part of my motivation in attending the event was the group's Declaration, which reads in part: "We believe hyper-partisanship is destroying our politics and paralyzing our ability to govern." I could not agree more.

Two years ago, I published the following column. These thoughts troubled me then and frighten me now.

Head Strong: Dangerous times again, as hatred flows
Published Sun, Sep. 20, 2009

A first-of-his-kind president is suspected by some of conspiring with anti-Christians. He is treated inhospitably in classrooms and associated with communism on posters. He is accused of awarding government jobs to radicals.
Sound familiar?

The latest issue of Vanity Fair includes a story entitled "A Clash of Camelots," by Sam Kashner. But it is not set in the present. Kashner's subject is the story behind William Manchester's The Death of a President, the definitive account of John F. Kennedy's assassination.

Manchester, Kashner reports, found that in the third year of the Kennedy presidency, "a kind of fever lay over Dallas country. Mad things happened. Huge billboards screamed 'Impeach Earl Warren.' Jewish stores were smeared with crude swastikas. . . . Radical right polemics were distributed in public schools; Kennedy's name was booed in classrooms; corporate junior executives were required to attend radical seminars."

Kashner continues: "A retired major general ran the American flag upside down, deriding it as 'the Democratic flag.' A wanted poster with JFK's face on it was circulated, announcing 'this man is wanted' for - among other things - 'turning the sovereignty of the U.S. over to communist-controlled United Nations' and appointing 'anti-Christians . . . aliens and known communists' to federal offices. And a full-page advertisement had appeared the day of the assassination in the Dallas Morning News accusing Kennedy of making a secret deal with the Communist Party; when it was shown to the president, he was appalled. He turned to Jacqueline, who was visibly upset and said, 'Oh, you know, we're headed into nut country today.' "

No wonder Kennedy was warned not to make the trip. "Evangelist Billy Graham had attempted to reach Kennedy . . . about his own foreboding. The Dallas mood was no secret," Manchester wrote. U.S. Sen. William Fulbright (D., Ark.) told Kennedy that Dallas was "a very dangerous place. I wouldn't go there. Don't you go."

According to Kashner, Manchester determined that the last words Kennedy heard were those of Nellie Connally, wife of Texas Gov. John Connally. "Delighted by the enthusiastic crowd along the motorcade route, she turned around in her seat and said, 'Mr. President, you can't say Dallas doesn't love you.' And then the first shot rang out," Kashner wrote.

It's impossible to read this without wondering about the present.

Protesters marched on Washington carrying signs that read "Bury Obamacare with Kennedy," "Impeach the Muslim Marxist," and "We came unarmed . . . this time." A member of Congress shouted down the president and raked in more than $1.5 million in campaign contributions in the days that followed. Cable TV's hottest personality just called the commander-in-chief a "racist" with a "deep-seated hatred for white people."

Kashner reminds us that some Dallas schoolchildren booed Kennedy's name in classrooms, and others in a fourth-grade class cheered when told of his assassination. Today, some found it objectionable that the president would speak to children about personal responsibility in a school setting on the grounds of potential indoctrination. A swastika was painted on a sign outside the district office of Georgia Congressman David Scott last month. And don't forget the Obama-as-Joker posters - emblazoned with the word "socialism" - that began popping up this summer.

The vast majority of the president's harsh critics are rightfully concerned about the size of government. But there's also little doubt that some of the vehemence directed at the president is racially motivated. It can't be proven, and it can't be quantified. But logic dictates that if the protests are driven entirely by worries over the expanded reach of government and increased federal deficit, there would have been signs of similar agitation during the Bush administration.

After all, it was Bush who erased a healthy surplus during his eight years in office. And it was the Bush administration that initiated the federal bailout of AIG and others. Indeed, if the protesters are concerned about the government's intrusion upon civil liberties, why were they silent about the Patriot Act?

The climate in which George W. Bush governed was similarly vulgar. He and Vice President Dick Cheney were subjected to ridicule and scorn beyond any pale of reasonableness. Still, somehow this feels different.

No matter how it began, or what motivations may exist, we should all be able to agree that the current political climate is unhealthy, counterproductive, and eerily dangerous. And those critics of any administration, the many reasonable Americans with truly patriotic motivations, can always benefit from a reminder that it takes just one unreasonable actor, incited by some illogical notion that he acts in the name of saving the republic, to truly threaten that state.

Contact Michael Smerconish via