We Are All Rhetoricians Now

A Google News search on “heated rhetoric” yields 3,650 results; “harsh rhetoric” turns up 1,490, “rhetoric” 22,300. Just about everyone seems to think that we are living in an era of vituperation. Steve Hayward provides a useful corrective to that amnesiac perspective. Hayward notes Chris Matthews’ silly yearning for the days when “Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill…managed to temper their philosophical divide with a public, and sometimes personal, cordiality.” Right. Either Matthews is too young to have lived through the Reagan administration or he has an unusually poor memory. Hayward writes:

[H]ere’s a public comment from O’Neill about Reagan that seems not to be in Matthews’s archive:

“The evil is in the White House at the present time. And that evil is a man who has no care and no concern for the working class of America and the future generations of America, and who likes to ride a horse. He’s cold. He’s mean. He’s got ice water for blood.”

That’s just a warm up. Democratic Congressman William Clay of Missouri charged that Reagan was “trying to replace the Bill of Rights with fascist precepts lifted verbatim from Mein Kampf.” Who can forget the desperate Jimmy Carter charging that Reagan was engaging in “stirrings of hate” in the 1980s campaign. Los Angeles Times cartoonist Paul Conrad drew a panel depicting Reagan plotting a fascist putsch in a darkened Munich beer hall. Harry Stein (nowadays a conservative convert) wrote in Esquire that the voters who supported Reagan were like the “good Germans” in “Hitler’s Germany.” In The Nation, Alan Wolfe wrote: “[T]he United States has embarked on a course so deeply reactionary, so negative and mean-spirited, so chauvinistic and self-deceptive that our times may soon rival the McCarthy era.”

Then, as now, the most vicious rhetorical flourishes were all coming from Democrats. That seems to be a constant through our history, going back to the days when Abraham Lincoln was an illiterate gorilla. Sarah Palin should take comfort from the fact that the Democrats haven’t said much of anything about her (gender differences accounted for, of course) that they didn’t also say about Lincoln.

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