Last Monday, the New York Times ran an ad paid for by the pro-Democratic organization MoveOn.org with the headline, “General Petraeus or General Betray us? Cooking the books for the White House.” The ad ran the same day that General Petraeus testified before Congress about Iraq.
According to MoveOn.org’s Web site, “the ad was successful in what it was intended to do: Call the credibility of Petraeus’ testimony into question. It garnered more coverage than any ad that MoveOn.org has run in years. Every time Republicans debated the ad, they helped raise questions around reliability of the General’s report.”
But some Democrats distanced themselves from the ad. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., called it "over the top."
"I don't like any kind of characterizations in our politics that call into question any active duty, distinguished general who I think under any circumstances serves with the best interests of our country," said Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate and a decorated veteran.
White House spokesman Tony Snow called the ad a "boorish, childish, unworthy attack."
Two days after the ad ran, after having testified for hours on end, Petraeus told reporters in Washington: “Needless to say— and to state the obvious—I disagree with the message of those that were exercising the First Amendment right that generations of soldiers have sought to preserve for Americans. Some of it was just flat, completely wrong and the rest was at least more than arguable.”
The target of the attack was the integrity and honesty of Petraeus, a 1974 West Point graduate who has served his country for decades, a professional soldier who this past week conducted himself with professionalism and credibility.
Civility in a civilized world, is it too much to ask? Possibly it is my stage in life (middle aged), but I believe that there should be civility in a civilized country, that we should have a certain amount of respect for people on a personal level, and we should use common courtesy in our interactions with others.
There are a few items to consider here: the person calling the name, the manner in which it was done, the object of the name calling and the context of the situation.
MoveOn.org acknowledged on its website that its language was inflammatory and noted that this was intentional, since “the truth about the mainstream media is that the kind of analyses with which some of us feel more comfortable don’t generate enough attention or news coverage to shift the debate.
“Phrases like ‘General Betray Us’ are ‘sticky’—that is, they get repeated again and again in the media—because they are so memorable.” The manner in which this name calling was done was through a vehicle, the “New York Times” that is delivered into people homes on a daily basis.
It helps to have a bit of background regarding the object of the name-calling: in this instance, Petraeus. Last month, the Wall Street Journal published a wonderful, insightful column by Peggy Noonan that tells the story of Petraeus getting shot on September 21, 1991.
The short version is that Petraeus was accidentally shot in the chest during a live-fire exercise when a soldier tripped on an M-16. Petraeus was taken for emergency surgery to a nearby hospital, where Dr. Bill Frist – the future Senate majority leader – was on duty. The surgery was a success; Petraeus was discharged early after completing 50 pushups.
The context of the name calling is personally driven vs. data driven, with the goal of maligning a professional soldier who has given decades of his life in the service of his country.
Certainly as a free people (thanks to soldiers like Petraeus), we have the right to question the veracity of information supplied by our leaders. But do we have the obligation as members of a civil society to do so without degenerating into name-calling?
We have all been called names, some deserved, some not. We have also all been told that sticks and stones can break our bones, but names can never hurt us.
Those of us with children relive the experience of dealing with name callers as our children grow up. Preschool is fraught with such lessons. Two years ago, one of my children arrived home, upset at having been called a name at school. I listened to her story and, when she finished, I asked her: “So, is what they called you true?”
And her answer was “No.”
I asked, “If I called you a panda, would that make you a panda?” After a quizzical look and some serious contemplation, the answer was “No, just because you called me a panda does not make me a panda.”
This is the approach we still take in our family. Some cases are easier than others, because as often as I repeat the mantra regarding sticks and stones, I know that words matter and have power. However, in the end, we get to determine how we react to the words, which is often more telling than the name calling.