SOLOMON: Today's Rhetoric Echoes Past Blather
Some media commentators have contrasted this year's dreary campaign rhetoric with the olden days, when presidential contenders spoke more like true visionaries. But memory lane should not take us on a detour that avoids the shabby side of political icons.Pundits have chided Bob Dole for lacking the qualities that endeared Ronald Reagan to millions of Americans during the 1980s. Such nostalgia has caused Republican officials in Illinois to start holding annual "Lincoln-Reagan Day" dinners. At this rate, California motorists will find the motto "Land of Reagan" on their license plates -- made by prison labor, of course, with each plate bearing the logo of a chain instead of a union bug.It's telling that so many journalists seem to yearn for the Reaganesque. If Abe Lincoln was the Great Emancipator, the grim truth is that Ron Reagan was the Great Prevaricator. He was also a font of sugared homilies.The formula has long been bipartisan. Forty years ago, Lyndon Johnson gave fair warning: "You senators and reporters -- you better saddle your horses and put on your spurs if you're going to keep up with Johnson on the flag, mother and corruption."Inevitably, each spoonful of saccharine helps the vile medicine go down. Campaigning in August 1964 as an incumbent president, LBJ reassured the electorate: "Our one desire -- our one determination -- is that the people of Southeast Asia be left in peace to work out their own destinies in their own way."In modern American politics, the gold-tongue standard was set by John F. Kennedy. News media still encourage us to revere his soaring cadences. Rarely does anyone have the ill grace to mention that JFK littered his path to the White House with easy bromides and falsehoods."I realize that it will always be a cardinal tenet of American foreign policy not to intervene in the internal affairs of other nations -- and that this is particularly true in Latin America," Kennedy asserted. The claim was politically astute but historically absurd.Before he won the presidency in 1960, Kennedy charged that the Soviet Union led the arms race: "Most important of all -- and most tragically ironic -- our nation could have afforded, and can afford now, the steps necessary to close the missile gap." And Kennedy warned that the Soviets "may well be pulling ahead of us in numbers of long-range jet bombers with a nuclear bomb capacity."The "missile gap" and the "bomber gap" were calculated fantasies. In fact, the U.S. military had a huge advantage in each category.Does it matter that Kennedy often wove distortions into the stunning brocade of his oratory? Well, it doesn't matter much in mainstream media. Several decades later, JFK's outsized reputation for eloquence continues to stand in our light. What he said seems to matter much less than how he said it.Likewise, news media are apt to recall Dwight Eisenhower as a president who spoke in moderate tones. Yet, he was quite willing to go along with demagoguery when it suited his purposes.Eisenhower pandered to the witch hunters of the McCarthy Era. "To work for the U.S. government is a privilege, not a right," he declared a few weeks before the 1952 election. "And it is the prerogative of the government to set the strictest test upon the loyalty and the patriotism of those entrusted with our nation's safety."Although Sen. Joseph McCarthy gets the blame for the era that bears his name, it might be more accurately called the Truman Era. With the rationale of pre-empting the rabid Republican right (does this sound familiar?), the incumbent Democratic president signed into law various "loyalty" programs in 1947. Harry Truman put his signature -- and his rhetoric -- behind measures to shred civil liberties.Since then, politicians eyeing the White House have rarely failed to invoke the "Give 'em Hell" Truman spirit. They're eager to do so because of his enduring media image as a feisty leader with integrity.In these final days of the 1996 campaign, Clinton and Dole deserve condemnation for their fast-talking evasions. The sins of predecessors do not excuse their own. But we should not succumb to nostalgia for a wondrous past that never existed. **********************************************Politics '96: The Power of Babble By Norman Solomon DOWN TO THE WIRE "If you're not a citizen of the United States, and you can't vote in America, you shouldn't be able to influence elections in America with your money." -- Bob DoleIn other words: Only citizens should be allowed to buy influence with their checkbooks. On the other hand, I don't want to be taken too literally, since I'm very pleased to have a sugar daddy named Alfonso Fanjul, a Cuban immigrant who's not a U.S. citizen. His Flo-Sun Sugar Co. gave $234,000 to the Republican National Committee, which was very sweet of him.***"If you're here lawfully, you ought to be able to contribute to the candidate of your choice." -- Jack KempIn other words: I haven't had a chance to work this out with Bob, but by now, our campaign is in so much disarray that it hardly matters.***"We are fortunate, really, all the voters in this country are fortunate in that there is a clear difference, so that people have a real choice. And what remains is for people to understand the choice, understand the practical consequences of it." -- Bill ClintonIn other words: I'm delighted that I've been able to move so far right and still persuade so many people that I'm significantly better than Dole.***"I want to take poverty out of politics. I want poor people to be treated like other people. And to do that, we've got to take it out of politics. And to do that, we have to develop community- and neighborhood-based programs to treat people like individuals and families like individual families with dignity." -- Bill ClintonIn other words: Like some guy said, the law in its majestic wisdom forbids the rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges or steal bread.