Beware the quotation

Posted: Apr 28, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As conscientious followers of politics are doubtless aware, the better sort of American liberal is troubled by the unprecedented vituperation that has stolen into the public discourse. The Clintons refer to it as "The Politics of Personal Destruction" -- well said, Bill and Hillary. They, and concerned citizens like them, recognize that this inflammatory rhetoric comes, in the main, from the right -- or as they put it, "the extreme right."

 Dr. Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, likewise is alarmed by the abusiveness from the right or more generally from Republicans whom he has recently identified as being "evil," "corrupt" and "brain-dead." Well, I would expect nothing better from such people, and it is helpful to the commonweal for Dr. Dean to direct the public's attention to these troubling developments. Allow me to point out that "the right" not only indulges in jarring invective but it also has adopted polemical techniques that are very disturbing. For several years its writers have engaged in discrediting their opponents by quoting them. Yes, they simply hurl back into a person's face things the person has said, without any regard as to how this cruel quoting coarsens our society.

 Actually, I quite inadvertently found myself accused of this cheap trick back in the middle 1990s. A year after I was scorned for publishing stories revealing that Bill Clinton has an eye for the ladies (and other parts of his anatomy for the ladies as well), it became apparent that I was right. Other writers such as David Maraniss had just published the same findings. The Wall Street Journal's David Brooks asked me if I would like to "gloat" about this subsequent vindication.

 Alas, I committed an egregious journalistic excess. I quoted the writers who a year before had insisted on Clinton's near virginal condition and on the "dishonesty" of those of us arguing otherwise. "Dishonesty" was the word Michael Kinsley leveled at us. Joe Klein, now of Time, was equally critical. And after my Journal piece appeared, he told me to my face that I had dealt him "a low blow." My innocent response was something to the effect, "But, Joe, all I did was quote you."

 Today I realize how treacherous it is for writers to remind others of their prior timorousness or imbecility. Kinsley explained how unfair it is sometime ago when he noted that liberals were having their foolish statements thrown back at them because of the advent of so many search engines on the Internet. Search engines make it easy to retrieve a public person's errors.

 Perhaps the foremost villain on the "extreme right" known for discrediting people by quoting them is's James Taranto. Just the other day, he indulged in arrant character assassination against one of those brave souls now opposing the nomination of John Bolton as our United Nations ambassador. Lynne Finney, a former employee of the federal government, has written an affecting letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer notifying her of enormities committed by Bolton against her person in "late 1982 or early 1983." Allegedly Bolton "screamed that I was fired," Finney writes. She has since become a "motivational speaker," and Taranto has published contents of her website, merely to reveal her as a fool.

 On the site she confides that we live in a time of "rapid evolution and intense transformation." "New discoveries in quantum physics, psychology, and spirituality" reveal "wonderful new realities. It's estimated that more than 14 million people have already become enlightened or Self-realized ? Each time someone reaches Self-realization, it affects the collective Mind. Things are heating up. Like popcorn, we are all popping faster and are reaching enlightenment at a rapid rate." From elsewhere on the Web, Taranto quotes sources claiming that Finney now engages in "recovering memories" after her own painful youth. She lives in "a world of miracles."

 Actually the treacherous quoting of innocent liberals has become a staple of the American right. Rush Limbaugh does it every weekday and so does Sean Hannity. Every year the Media Research Center holds a huge dinner in Washington devoted to ridiculing members of the media for things they have said over the past year -- and the Media Research Center uses video tape . MRC spends the year taping network news and then plays select tapes back during its dinner. It gives awards for the stupidest quotations. Naturally, this year Dan Rather won.

 Hundreds of conservatives turn out for the MRC awards dinner every year and have a very jolly time. I must admit I went this year and enjoyed myself immensely. Ann Coulter was on the program as well as Hannity. Midge Decter was the heart of suave hilaritas. But Boone Pickens and Zell Miller stole the show, along with Swift Boat hero John O'Neill, who was superb. All in all, it is a very amusing -- if treacherous -- evening. Curiously, never is it ever reported on by major media. Maybe major media is waiting for Al Franken to put together an amusing dinner. It will be a long wait.