Slick Willie Is Back -- and He's After the Tea Party

Paul Greenberg

4/26/2010 9:52:50 PM - Paul Greenberg

Add one more name to the list of politicians past and present who are champions of civility -- for the other guy.

Last week, Bill Clinton gave a series of interviews in which he warned against the kind of rhetoric that demonizes the country's leaders. No doubt the lecture was well received. After all, who could be against civility?

Anybody who wants to be a popular opinionator need only echo popular opinion. It's the surest route to avoid saying anything of substance.

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But the true artist in these matters will use a popular theme to advance his own partisan cause. As when a politician comes out for being civil while leaving the impression the opposition isn't. He demonizes the other side by accusing it of ... demonizing others. Slick.

I can't recall Bill Clinton's ever appealing for civility when it was George W. Bush who was president and target-in-chief. Even though that president was called every name in the book and then some.

Ever see those posters depicting W. in Nazi uniform, complete with a Hitlerian mustache? Somehow those assaults on his character, policies and everything else about the man never aroused the kind of concern in politically correct quarters that is now routinely expressed when Barack Obama is being trashed.

The gifted partisan will address his call for civility mainly to those on the other side of the partisan divide. There is a standard conjugation in these matters: I engage in robust political discourse, you're being manifestly unfair, they lack all civility.

Nevertheless, there is something endearing about Bill Clinton when he turns all boyish innocence, and starts appealing for civility. Some folks are charmed by it. (There's one born every minute.) Maybe he's seen the light. Doesn't he deserve the benefit of the doubt, still again?

But I'd be more trustful if, even while calling for civility, the former president didn't feel it necessary, when discussing Tea Party types, to throw in a comparison to the Oklahoma City bombing: "...we have enough threats against the president, enough threats against Congress that we should be sensitive to it. The 15th anniversary of Oklahoma City -- I'm not trying to draw total parallels, I'm just saying we should be aware of this."

Slick. A partial smear tends to be so much more effective than a whole one. It seems, if only seems, more like a fair and balanced judgment. The nod to fairness ("I'm not trying to draw total parallels...") lends a certain credence to what otherwise would be only bald and unconvincing propaganda.

That's why, when it comes to coloring the news, NPR's more muted approach is so much more effective than Fox's blatant biases, and why the New York Times' most effective editorials appear in the guise of news stories. (Its actual editorials tend to be as dull and unconvincing as they are predictable.)

The most effective partisans throw in an isolated criticism of their own side now and then in order to give the appearance, if only appearance, of fairness. They're really being about as fair as the notorious Fairness Doctrine, which succeeded in gagging broadcasters for decades, reserving the airwaves for respectably liberal opinions.

See the virtual monopoly someone like Walter Cronkite enjoyed for years before cable was unleashed and competing ideas given a chance to be heard.

There are few opinions that can't be attractively packaged and tied with a ribbon of authority by being called News Analysis. At least Fox and MSNBC do not disguise their biases, unlike news outlets like CNN and MSM (Main Stream Media) in general. Their oh-so-objective tone tends to obscure their highly subjective approach to the news.

Maybe those in charge of such networks are so deluded they think they have no prejudices. That's the most effective kind of partisanship -- when partisans can convince themselves they're not.

The Wall Street Journal may have become the most respected paper in the country because it keeps its news and editorial departments so separate that readers may not realize that, if its news coverage has a bias, it's to the left -- in striking contrast to its own editorial positions. Now that's integrity.

The least a partisan can do is admit he is one. It would be a nice change if now and then some prominent partisan would deliver an appeal for civility that isn't really just one more attack ad. Throwing in an occasional Clinton clause -- "I'm not trying to draw total parallels" -- does not fairness make.

Understand, I'm not trying to draw total parallels between Bill Clinton and the kind of smooth operators who use a high-minded appeal to pursue a low end. I'm just saying we should be aware of the possibility. (There. See how it works?)