Good natured ribbing of the President is an American tradition. Gerald “Ford was a very athletic guy,” but Chevy Chase portrayed him as a clutz. (1) Despite his ascendancy to the highest office in the land, Jimmy Carter was characterized as a simple peanut farmer. George W. Bush may have had degrees from Yale and Harvard, but he developed a reputation for a having less than stellar intellectual abilities.
In what would become “a benchmark of…an essential presidential image-making skill: an ability to laugh at oneself,” Ford eventually appeared on Saturday Night Live. (2) Carter took it one step further and embraced his image as an everyman, “dressing informally and adopting a folksy speaking style.” (3) Bush pulled a page from the same playbook as “he liked to lower expectations by pretending he was just an average guy.” The recovering alcoholic won the election in part by becoming the candidate with whom the electorate most wanted to share a beer.
It is hard to imagine a world where Barack Obama could respond to his caricatures in a similar way. What is the good natured way for responding to calls for you to be sent “back to Kenya” when you have never lived there? (4) Could either “half” of the President find a way to embrace a picture of him “sitting on a stump as a witch doctor?” (5) He did try his hand at a birther joke by asking a seven year old born in Hawaii if he had a birth certificate. (6) Unfortunately, Conservatives mistook this self-deprecating humor as proof that their own birther jokes were perfectly acceptable. (7)
This venomous attitude is not limited to criticism of the President. The espousers of the ideology that told those who disagreed with a president of their party that this was “America - love it or leave it,” have now decided that we only have a Democrat in the White House because the electorate is made up of “low information voters.” In their view “libtards” are all “takers” who only vote to protect their substantial payments from the government. (8) Apology tours. Fast and Furious. IRS scandal. Benghazi. Socialism. Michelle is telling us what to eat. Vacations. Golfing. New World Order. The end of freedom as we know it. The sky is falling. Lions. Tigers. Bears. Oh My.
It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.
On Friday morning “authorities believe” that Paul Ciancia shot and killed TSA officer Gerardo Hernandez, depriving a family of a “wonderful husband, father, brother, son and friend.” (9) First reports said that a note was found at the scene that contained “threatening language directed at the TSA and anti-government rants.” (10) While the investigation is not advanced enough to draw conclusions about what exactly drove Ciancia over the edge, it is not hard to imagine that a culture of persistent negativity had something to do with it. It has happened before in recent history.
I cringe when some Liberals make the accusation that Obama is rejected so thoroughly from the right because he is the first African-American president. Certainly there are some for whom race is their motivating factor, but one only has to go back to the Clinton presidency to realize that the hatred seems to exist because of the (D) after a President’s name regardless of the color of his skin. Rush Limbaugh propagated an aura of “America Held Hostage” during this period. (11) Independent counsels spent over $70 million investigating various allegations against the President. (12) He became the first president since 1868 to be impeached. Like Andrew Johnson, he was acquitted by the Senate.
As the federal building in Oklahoma City was still smoldering, the immediate suspicion fell on Arab terrorists. However, now all but the most ardent supporter of right wing conspiracy theories realizes that this terror was home grown. (13) Certainly, the mad man who planted the bomb bears all responsibility for his actions. However, this does not mean that talk show hosts and attention seeking politicians should not ask themselves how their constant barrage of negativity contributed to a mind set where Timothy “McVeigh, angered by the Waco tragedy, decided to enact retribution to those he felt responsible.” (14)
Unfortunately, Hernandez is also not the first person to be killed simply because he worked for the federal government. After shooting five people at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, California, Buford O. Furrow Jr. killed letter carrier Joseph Ileto. The white supremacist “told investigators he targeted Ileto because the victim was a nonwhite federal employee.” (15)
A healthy amount of scepticism is necessary for a democracy to function, but taken to an extreme it can become counterproductive or even dangerous. While the government must never step in to limit debate, this does not absolve citizens of their personal responsibility. No matter what ones’ ideology, in the end we are all Americans. We will all sink or swim together.
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