I have had occasion, in previous columns, to deplore the decline in simple standards of civility that has recently overtaken debates in Congress. Congress is inevitably a quarrelsome place, and the House of Representatives, consisting of 435 members with wildly differing views on just about everything, has long been a hotbed where they hurl furious charges at each other and outsiders they dislike. The Senate is generally a calmer chamber, though here, too, the rhetoric sometimes gets out of hand.
But, as I say, the situation in this regard has recently deteriorated badly, and it reached a record low earlier this month when Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., rose to criticize President Bush for not agreeing to the amount of money the House Democrats wanted to spend on child health insurance. His point seemed to be that the difference between the Democratic and Republican proposals was chicken feed compared to the cost of the war in Iraq -- which, he suggested, the president also couldn't finance. Here were his exact words, spoken on the floor of the House:
"First of all, I'm amazed that the Republicans are worried that we can't pay for insuring an additional 10 million children. They sure don't care about finding $200 billion to fight the illegal war in Iraq. Where are you going to get that money? You're going to tell us lies like you're telling us today? Is that how you're going to fund the war?
"You don't have money to fund the war or children, but you're going to spend it to blow up innocent people if we can get enough kids to grow old enough for you to send to Iraq to get their heads blown off for the president's amusement."
A Democratic friend of mine, confronted with that statement, first tried to defuse it by calling it "amusing." When I told him I didn't see the humor in it, he offered the defense that it was simply a thoughtless remark tossed off in the heat of debate. But I had seen Stark on television, and the remark wasn't "in the heat of debate." He was out there making a speech, all by himself.
So there we have it: an 18-term Congressman felt perfectly comfortable telling his colleagues and the American people that the president of the United States actually wants to send youngsters to Iraq to get their heads blown off for his amusement.
Does he seriously believe that? I have no idea. A congressman capable of saying such a thing may be equally capable of believing it. On the other hand, he may not believe a word of it. Maybe, in Stark's universe, if you hate somebody enough you can say anything you want to about them, the falser the better.
Certainly Stark qualifies, if any Congressman does, as a crazy liberal. In 2004 his rating by the liberal Americans for Democratic Action was 90 out of a possible 100; his rating by the American Conservative Union was zero. And there is no reason to believe that the voters of his heavily Democratic district on the east side of San Francisco Bay were deeply offended by his statement about President Bush.
For that matter, Democratic politicians in general took it in stride. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (from the other side of San Francisco Bay) conceded only that Stark's statement was "inappropriate." But there was no resolution of condemnation from his fellow Democrats in the House, and no blasts from the liberal media. And Stark himself, after first refusing to comment at all, offered only a grudging statement falling far short of what was called for.
But the very fact that an assertion so appalling -- charging the president of the United States with arranging the decapitation of American soldiers for his "amusement" -- could slip by with so little reaction (aside from the outrage voiced by a few Republican Congressmen) tells us something truly terrible about what some Americans are beginning to think, and say, of their opponents. If enough people start doing that, this country will be in deep trouble indeed.