Normally, a column that begins with the author’s expression of his feelings about writing the piece shouldn’t be read. And if the feeling expressed is the author’s purported distaste for discussing the subject, the column normally shouldn’t be written.
Thomas Friedman’s column of today is no exception. He begins by claiming that “he hates to write” about his subject — the notion that criticism of President Obama may cause him to be assassinated. By the end of the column, Friedman looks like a fool and a hypocrite for having ignored his alleged instinct.
Pete Wehner amply demonstrates the hypocrisy bit:
I’ve written before about the importance of civility in public discourse and the need for what has been called the “etiquette of democracy.” One question, though: When George W. Bush was being routinely savaged by those on the Left–including prominent Democrats like Ted Kennedy, Al Gore, John Kerry, and Harry Reid–where were those Friedman columns of ringing condemnation? I don’t recall them; perhaps you do.
When there was actually a movie made about the assassination of President Bush (Death of a President), I don’t recall Friedman writing about “creating the same kind of climate here that existed in Israel on the eve of the Rabin assassination.”
When Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker declared that Bush’s “legitimacy is hard to accept,” I don’t recall Mr. Friedman worrying that Bush was having his legitimacy attacked by a concerted campaign from the Left (adding a mild line of criticism against liberals now, in order to gain the patina of fair-mindedness, simply underscores that Friedman was AWOL when it counted).
I should add that when Jonathan Chait of the New Republic published a piece in 2003 that began, “I hate President George W. Bush. There, I said it,” one admirable New York Times columnist did speak out. His name is David Brooks. (“The quintessential new warrior scans the Web for confirmation of the president’s villainy,” Brooks wrote. “The core threat to democracy is not in the White House, it’s the haters themselves.”)
Most of us struggle with the temptation to employ double standards, to cloak political agendas in the language of moral concern and outrage. Some individuals do an admirable job resisting that temptation. Others, like Tom Friedman, do not. He would have a lot more credibility now if he had actually spoken out before.
Beyond the hypocrisy, Friedman’s piece is simply foolish. In a democracy, there will always be enough harshly worded antagonism towards the nation’s leader to permit a column like Friedman’s. For example, Friedman is old enough that he may recall a play about Lyndon Johnson, called “MacBird,” in which Johnson was portrayed as a MacBeth figure who was behind the Kennedy assassination. The play was popular among leftists. Nonetheless, if Johnson had been assassinated only the most foolish partisan would have blamed “MacBird” or the radicals who were fond of chanting “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids have you killed today”?
Lincoln aside, assassinations and attempts at assassination in American have largely been idiosycratic acts, as opposed to ones that arise from political currents. Reagan, for example, was shot (if memory serves) by someone attempting to prove his affection for Jodie Foster. No one believes that the assassination of JFK was random, but people can’t agree upon which conspiracy caused it. One thing is just about universally accepted, though: the initial take of the Tom Friedmans of that era — that the assassination was a product of the culture of right-wing hate in Dallas — was incorrect.
Finally, Friedman isn’t even capable of keeping his story straight within a single column. At one point he says — generously for someone who thinks authoritarian China has a better form of government than we do — “I have no problem with any of the substantive criticism of President Obama from the right or left.” But later he complains about “smears that [Obama] is a closet ‘socialist.'” Yet the claim that some of Obama’s policies are socialist in nature is part of the substantive criticism being leveled by some against Obama.
Friedman does, in fact, have a problem with substantive criticism of Obama and of the liberal policies Obama is pushing. That was the thrust of his column about the relative merit of China’s “enlightened autocracy.” Disgust with the positions and arguments of opponents of the Democrats’ climate change and health care reform bills was Friedman’s stated reason for favoring Chinese style autocracy.
In this respect, Friedman’s mindset may pose a greater danger to this country than anything he tries to describe in his column.