On June 1, 1950, Sen. Margaret Chase Smith (R- Maine) delivered the famous Declaration of Conscience speech on the floor of the Senate. In it, she declared that she didn’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.
Yes folks – 1950. A speech that clearly could have been given today right? But, as this article by Julian Zelizer outlines, incivility in the political arena is really nothing new. Here is just one example of the many he lists involving both sides of the aisle spanning a couple of centuries of feisty bickering:
The most infamous incident occurred in 1856 when South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina attacked Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner with his cane, beating him into a bloody state of unconsciousness. Brooks was unhappy with one of Sumner’s speeches against slavery that focused on his uncle, Sen. Andrew Butler.
Whoa! That really makes the Joe Wilson outburst seem completely reasonable! I must laugh a bit at South Carolina being highlighted yet again – that poor state is just not catching break in any century with it’s politicians is it?
At the end of the article, the author gets down to the nuts and bolts of what *I* have always believed to be the real problem:
What distinguishes the Wilson incident is the context. Today, we have a 24-hour instantaneous, sound-bite media that is obsessed with these kinds of stories rather than the substantive issues. Legislators know that these kinds of incidents will surely garner media attention. So if a politician wants to deflect attention from his opponent, this is an effective course of action.
Ah, the media. Of course. The media currently driven not be reporting the news but by ratings. Driven not by getting the story right & informing the public, but by the corporate bottom line. The media which predictably jumped all over the Wilson outburst. As soon as it happened my like minded friends and I were all over twitter about it. We spent, oh, about a good hour having fun being outraged and then just having fun making fun of the thing. *Maybe* an hour. But rather quickly the tweets changed to “Ok, enough about Wilson, you know, Obama gave a pretty good speech there.” and then “Ugh, but you know the Wilson thing will become a Shiny Object to the media & speech will lose focus”
Ah yes, my friends were so right. And then what do the often similarly addle brained politicians do? Well, they see that it’s a hot story and they push it further (and keep their own faces on the tv) by now asking the guy to apologize *again*. And so the story lives on, continuing to be THE big item from the speech.
Sigh…prior to that outburst I thought the Big Items were:
- Obama calling out the folks spreading lies about the bill and calling them just that – Lies!
- His commitment that any reform be deficit neutral – still *really* want to see that part on paper. It’s a noble goal, but I’d love to see how attainable it is without walking down the raising taxes path too deeply.
- The continued emphasis on reforming and regulating the private insurance companies – he never stops stressing the need to eliminate denials of coverage for pre-existing conditions and caps on coverage amounts which pleases me greatly.
- Continued emphasis on the need to break the private company’s stranglehold on the industry by offering a public option. Again, love to see how this will be paid for, but I personally think spending money on that should be a higher priority that some other money spent (bank bailouts come to mind!)
- The letter from Ted Kennedy. That was so very powerful. It should be what reminds everyone that we’ve truly *needed* reform for decades and that doing nothing really is not acceptable and they have GOT to try and work this out.
Instead…well….Oh look – SHINY OBJECT!