John Leo
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Political rhetoric, left and right, seems steadily worse. "Kill Bush"

T-shirts and bags were offered for sale last week on the Internet, then quickly removed after protests. In Chicago, a college art show featured a series of mock postage stamps showing Bush with a gun to his head. The unhinged left has long flirted with the theme of killing presidents, from the 1992 Manhattan posters urging the murder of the first President Bush to the "that pig Bush must die" message on a fringe website last week.

Columnist Michelle Malkin offered some acid comments on the "pro-assassination left," citing anti-Bush slogans such as "We support our troops, when they shoot their officers" and "Bush is the disease. Death is the cure."

Such attacks, of course, are not limited to the left. As the Washington Times reports, Judge George Greer is swimming in "a sea of death threats"

since his rulings that resulted in the feeding tube's being removed from Terri Schiavo. Justice Clarence Thomas issued a startling sentence last week: " I think we have been on borrowed time," a reference to the possibility of more violence against judges. Thomas and Justice Anthony Kennedy told a House appropriations subcommittee that they want more police protection in front of the Supreme Court.

This puts angry anti-court commentary in a different light. Surely it is time for Rep. Tom DeLay and his allies to withdraw their inflammatory remarks about judges before some suggestible person decides to act on their statements. Sen. John Cornyn's comments on the judiciary were more ambiguous than the way the media played them. His rambling speech contained several qualifiers, but the core paragraph can be interpreted to mean that judges are bringing violence on themselves. He should explain clearly what he meant.

DeLay has apologized for his statement on the Schiavo rulings (an "act of medical terrorism"); Pat Robertson's "judicial murder" comment calls for the same. And so does the remark by the Rev. Flip Benham, director of Operation Rescue, that the courts have become a tool "in the hands of the devil."

Nazi rhetoric. Most of us, alas, are upset by vicious rhetoric only when it is aimed at our side. The extraordinary Bush-is-a-Nazi rhetoric of the antiwar marches and the presidential campaign drew very little criticism from the responsible left, just as the repeated accusations that President Clinton is a murderer, perhaps a multiple murderer, didn't ruffle many people on the responsible right. The anti-Clinton vitriol has subsided, partly because the Bush family has reached out to Bill Clinton. But the Nazi references to Bush and Republicans rumble right along, showing up in art shows, columns, and letters to the editor. Sen. Robert Byrd recently said that the "nuclear option" to break any Democratic filibuster on judges was reminiscent of Nazi Germany and Mussolini's Italy. Last October, Byrd said that the Bush tactics that got us into Iraq reminded him of Hermann Goering.

During the presidential campaign, comedian Janeane Garofalo referred to the Bush administration as "the 43rd Reich."

Victor Davis Hanson writes that if you type "Bush + Hitler" into a Google search, the result is 1,350,000 hits. Virtually every major figure in the Bush administration has been compared to some Nazi official or other. Bush has been likened to Hannibal Lecter, Ted Bundy, Mussolini, Napoleon, Nero, Caligula, and the Japanese warlords of World War ii. Howard Dean, who says he hates Republicans and considers them evil, recently introduced a Communist theme, charging that Republicans "are essentially the best propaganda machine since Lenin."

We may be into another big anti-Clinton assault, this one aimed at Hillary Rodham Clinton. Last week a breathless item on the Drudge Report said that an anti-Hillary book, out next September, will be the equivalent of the Swift Boat Veterans campaign against John Kerry and may well derail her chances to be president. This is a cringe-making prospect. Do we really need yet another major assault on a prominent politician, or can we spend some time discussing actual issues?

We have reached the point where much political debate consists of insults and name-calling, every attack is likely to be called a "lynching," and tired expressions such as "institutional terrorism," "institutional racism," and "intellectual McCarthyism" are supposed to be taken as real arguments.

Political polarization is an obvious cause. But so is the democratization of the media, particularly the arrival of the Internet and big-time talk radio, which allow all of us to say whatever we like, no matter how crude. Mail to columnists is much more abusive than it was a few years ago. Inarticulate people, many of them celebrities, are finding it hard to make their cases without lapsing into abuse. So political discussion more and more consists of angry feelings instead of rational argument. Our political rhetoric is routinely awful.  Let's work to clean it up.

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John Leo

John Leo is editor of MindingTheCampus.com and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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