The Politics of Personal Destruction, Capitol Hill-Style

Posted March 19, 2003 at 5:26pm

First it was Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.). Now it’s Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.). Tomorrow it will be someone else. Better choose your words carefully — it could even be you. [IMGCAP(1)]

Within a matter of a few months, Capitol Hill has experienced its second ballyhooed instance of a Member of Congress making allegedly insensitive remarks toward a racial, religious or ethnic group. But what concerns me most about these incidents is the hypersensitivity displayed by self-proclaimed arbiters of political correctness, and in both cases the reaction is more dangerous than the alleged crimes themselves.

Let’s be clear about the specifics in the two cases. Lott was accused of racism because, in paying tribute to retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), he said, “I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president [in 1948], we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”

Moran, on the other hand, was accused of anti-Semitism (or at least insensitivity) for telling a Reston, Va., audience, “If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq we would not be doing this. The leaders of the Jewish community are influential enough that they could change the direction of where this is going and I think they should.”

Personally, I disagree with Lott and Moran. Not only don’t I believe that the country would have been better off had Thurmond been elected president, I believe it would have been worse off. And I don’t believe that the Jewish community is responsible for a war with Iraq. Though Jews back military action more than other liberal, generally Democratic constituencies do, the Jewish community is divided on the issue. And, of course, many non-Jews favor military action.

But the reaction to the comments of the two Members of Congress has been so far over-the-top that it is bound to chill the discussion of issues and create more incentive for the thought police to turn the politically incorrect into political outcasts.

I disagree fundamentally with The Washington Post’s December 12, 2002, editorial arguing that Lott’s statement “wasn’t just some light-hearted compliment; it was a remark of substance.” Instead, I regard it as the sort of sycophantic flattery that I often hear from politicians, not a serious statement of the Mississippi Senator’s views on race, public policy or the 1948 presidential election.

Of course, I can understand that even drivel can offend people, but there is a limit to the outrage the offended ought to expect from a meaningless remark.

Moran’s statement, on the other hand, was intended as a serious observation about Jewish public opinion and influence, and it should be judged that way. I just don’t see anything inherently anti-Semitic about his remarks.

Critics of Moran argue that anti-Semites have in the past used comments about Jewish power and portrayed Jews as a homogeneous group with their own unique interests to arouse anti-Jewish sentiment and provoke anti-Semitic behavior. That’s certainly true. But is that the standard for judging whether Moran’s comments are anti-Semitic or justification for the “piling on” that we’ve seen?

Interestingly, the frenzies about Lott and Moran’s comments didn’t start until other Members of Congress and outside interest groups chimed in to call for their heads. Those who attended the events didn’t make a big deal about the remarks, and Lott had offered the same words of tribute to Thurmond at least a couple of times before.

Critics of the Mississippian have used that last fact as evidence of Lott’s long-time racism, or at least insensitivity. I have a different view, one that is based on years of public speaking.

I find that I’ll reach back into my memory banks from time to time to use a phrase or an image that I’ve used before, especially if it was greeted favorably. So, instead of validating charges of repeated insensitivity or racism, the fact that Lott voiced the same sentiments previously (receiving no negative feedback from the audience) suggests that the Senator had no reason to believe that he was saying something that could be interpreted as offensive.

Clearly, some of the reaction to both Moran and Lott can be traced to the personal baggage that each carries. The Democrat has been dogged by ethics questions over the years, not to mention some strange and aggressive behavior. And Lott has spoken to groups he should have avoided. So in a sense, they made themselves into targets of opportunity for those who deem themselves defenders of all victims.

The epidemic of people being offended has now spread to Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), who recently released a statement attacking Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.) for saying that the internment of Japanese-Americans was appropriate during World War II. I’m sure that it will spread to other groups as well.

The danger with the “I’m offended” standard is that it is so arbitrary, so individual, that almost any controversial comment is likely to offend somebody. This, in turn, creates a frenzy of interest groups and politicians looking to identify with the “victim,” and to outdo each other with calls for apologies or resignations. And it creates a climate in which every sentence must be scripted and an open, free-wheeling discussion of issues is impossible.

It’s easy to talk about diversity, tolerance and free speech when you like the results. But the people who preach those causes often seem the first to cry foul when they feel offended.