I read an excellent article from Rick Perlstein in The Washington Post last night. (Perlstein article) In this, Perlstein takes the media to task for its coverage of the crazies in American politics these days. Perlstein offers a bit of interesting non-traditional political history then, discussing the extremist conservative nuttiness in the 1960’s. Only, back then, he says, those stories didn’t make the news. Walter Cronkite didn’t lower himself to debunk the crazy allegations made by extremists in those days (like that a provision in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 allowed for enslaving white people), and Perlstein argues we shouldn’t now either. The “Birthers” and “death panel” arguments shouldn’t get a bit of coverage, and he scolds the media for giving them any time and attention.
This brings me back to what I’ve said before about appeals for rational debate and respect for others. We may be appalled that the “Birthers” get attention — or even that they persist in their craziness. We may get indignant when right-wingers label health care reform “socialism” and/or that our president is a communist/socialist attempting to end capitalism in America. And, we can — and should — be extremely incensed when any political candidate advocates the shooting of the president, even in jest. We can call for reasonableness and bi-partisanship. We can attempt to appeal to the angels of our better natures. But, we must never believe that this hostility and insanity is new to American politics.
In the day or two prior to JFK’s assassination in Dallas in November 1963, a small handful of super-conservatives (Time Magazine called them and other extremist groups of the times “the Ultras,” “far-rightists” promoting “superpatriotism.”) distributed flyers — on car windshields and folded in newspapers — that were extremely inflammatory and hostile to the president. (treason flyer) The president’s face appeared at the top — a front view side-by-side with a profile shot. Beneath the photos ran the headline: “Wanted for Treason.” I shit you not. The flyer claimed that Kennedy was violating the Constitution that he had sworn to uphold, that he had illegally invaded a sovereign state of the Union using federal troops, that he was filling the government and Supreme Court especially with Anti-Christians, and that his actions in regard to national security were WRONG (and presumably dangerous judging from the use of all capital letters). For these crimes of treason, Kennedy was a “wanted man.” Within two days, the president was shot dead in the same city.
As it turns out, his assassin was not one of these Ultras (in fact, Lee Harvey Oswald attempted to assassinate General Edwin Walker — one of the Ultra leaders — as well), and their huff and puff didn’t lead to any actual rebellious activity. Let’s hope things work the same way this time. For all the talk of buying “Obama tags” for license to hunt the president, it may just be talk. We do not know. This is for the future to reveal to us. This we can be certain of, however: the irate, baseless, ignorant political propaganda is not new to our country. There is an element here that, in the face of change, resorts to threats, disruption, allegations of sedition, and willful dishonesty. They are afraid — of you, of me, of Americans. Can you blame them really? 1.3 billion Chinese can’t be wrong.