The politics of nastiness

Has our discourse become too coarse?

Both sides have invoked Hitler and Nazism to demonize opponents—wrongly, but with the difference that when such comments come from the insane left, Democrats must immediately condemn them, but Republicans who use them escape condemnation because the slurs come from “the base” when they should just be considered … baseless.

Which brings us to Gov. Jim Gibbons trying to tar his main primary opponent, moderate Republican-turned-right-wing-bower-and-scraper Brian Sandoval. In 2002, while running for attorney general, Sandoval told the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s editorial board he would defend any Legislative action, including one requiring Jews to wear a Star of David.

Eight years later, this inspired the brains behind Gibbons—that’s a straight line waiting for a punch line—to suggest Sandoval might be anti-Semitic. While all’s fair in love, war and politics, this outraged not just Jewish leaders, but anyone else with sense. Therefore Gibbons was not outraged, but he was apologetic.

The recent Republican Senate debate took a different turn. Moderator Heidi Harris, a right-wing talk-show host on a radio station that once carried Dodgers games (none does now—an issue more important than any Senate race), tried to inspire discussion by writing on a whiteboard, “Harry Reid Sucks.”

If such silliness upsets you enough to gripe on the Las Vegas Sun website, commenters on political stories are now required to log in from Facebook: “We hope and believe that this accountability will cut down on the meanness and name calling that occurs when commenters are granted anonymity,” the Sun’s site says. “We still hope readers will voice their opinions—whatever they may be—but we want to make sure they take responsibility for them, as well.” That would be refreshing, though, historically, many have hidden behind pen names or friends to attack their opponents.

Confession being good for the soul, I post on forums under my name and ask others why they won’t do the same, and also post under assumed names, making me a hypocrite—which I can admit, even if too many Republicans won’t admit it about themselves. But hypocrisy and anonymity exist separately.

My point is: Many on both sides of the aisle often plead for a return to that golden age of political discourse, when wise men said wise things.

The Founding Fathers, for example, never stooped to discussions of personal lives, except when Thomas Jefferson’s enemies openly speculated that he fathered several children with a slave, and accused George Washington and John Adams of being monarchists. Alexander Hamilton, assessing presidential candidates in 1800, deemed Jefferson a “contemptible hypocrite,” but was even rougher on Aaron Burr, who later became so angry at Hamilton that he killed him in a duel.

Did matters improve? In 1828, John Quincy Adams’ campaign described Andrew Jackson as a homicidal bigamist; Jackson’s campaign countered that, as minister to Russia, Adams had been a pimp for the czar.

Nevada has been no better. During the Civil War, William Stewart, later the state’s first U.S. senator, complained that one of his opponents thought a black man should vote, and he didn’t use a nicety such as “black.”

Former U.S. Sen. Pat McCarran was known as anti-Semitic. McCarran’s biggest critic, Sun publisher Hank Greenspun, accused him of senility. Greenspun also called Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin “the queer that made Milwaukee famous” and said, since McCarthy questioned people’s sexuality, he deserved it, whether or not it was true.

Some accusations backfire. Nevada’s greatest governor, Grant Sawyer, faced a tough primary. Opponent George Franklin claimed Sawyer let five brothels operate near a school when he was Elko’s district attorney. Sawyer’s political life flashed before his eyes, but in those pre-Internet and pre-cable days of 1958, he had time to respond, and accused Franklin of “unmitigated lies: In truth, there are eight houses of prostitution.” That may have won him the primary.

Perhaps, like Sawyer, we can laugh off such stupidity or outfox those guilty of it. Perhaps when we criticize such coarseness, we should look in the mirror and ponder the words Shakespeare gave to Cassius: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars … but in ourselves.”