The other day I picked up a phone message from a woman concerning a charity event for homeless youngsters that I was helping organize in Hollywood. The woman is a liberal, and she said she had found a friend who was willing to volunteer her home for an event we had planned for the children -- then she paused -- "but not if Charlton Heston comes."
Then she paused again. "In fact," she said, "none of my friends' homes will be available if Charlton Heston comes." It was unnecessary for her to say, as she also did under her breath, "They murdered those kids," to alert me to the fact that this was about the Columbine tragedy in Colorado, where two sociopathic teenagers had barged into a high school and ambushed their classmates before turning their weapons on themselves.
Nor did she have to connect the dots and say that the passions that Heston provoked as head of the National Rifle Association, which had thwarted the passage of gun control legislation in the aftermath of these events, was the cause of her friends' determination to shun Charlton Heston and make him a social pariah.
Accustomed as I am to such intolerant reflexes in people who otherwise think of themselves as "liberal," this one caused me to stop and reflect for a moment on what it had revealed. Consider, dear reader, the people you know and call your friends. How many individuals could you name whom these friends would want to bar from a social gathering whose sole purpose was to raise money for homeless kids? O.J. Simpson? Slobodan Milosevic? David Duke?
For myself, I don't have a single conservative friend or acquaintance who would say, "If Barbra Streisand wants to help us raise money for poor kids, I don't want her in my house." (OK, maybe one or two.)
Charlton Heston is no conservative troglodyte. He is a New Deal Democrat, the former chairman of the Hollywood committee for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s march on Washington, a lifelong champion of civil rights and artists' rights (he was a staunch defender of the National Endowment for the Arts) and generally a decent, humane and ecumenical soul.
Of course, such data is irrelevant in this matter, because the ideological hatred liberals bear toward Heston has no real-world referrent in terms of who the man actually is. Even Heston's role as spokesman for the NRA doesn't make their passion any more intelligible to someone outside their ideological bubble. Do the 3 million mainly lower-middle-class and working-class members of the NRA want to see children die? Would the legislation they defeated have indisputably saved those children or others to come?
The fact is that there are 20,000 gun laws already on the books, 17 of which were violated by the Columbine killers. What would one more law accomplish that the other 20,000 could not? Especially one that would merely mandate background checks on buyers at gun shows? Is there any evidence that these shows are the sites of a significant number of criminal purchases or that such legislation would have any effect on armed crimes?
The Brady Bill has been violated on 250,000 occasions, according to police records, but not a single violator has been punished. Is there any correlation at all between stringent registration laws and low gun deaths? Apparently not.
A social scientist named John Lott has just published a study that claims that communities in which citizens are armed have lower incidences of gun violence than communities where guns are relatively absent.
In places where gun violence has actually been reduced, like New York, where the murder rate has been cut by a phenomenal 60 percent, the reason appears to be aggressive police methods, which have come under fire from many of these same liberals who think gun control is the answer. Do the people who hate Chuck Heston adore Rudy Giuliani? Hardly.
I do not intend this as an argument for or against the gun legislation that was proposed and that failed in the wake of Columbine. It is merely a case for sobriety in assessing the issues that make up the dispute. The gun legislation in question may have been worthy or not. The point is that any difference it might make is so insignificant that it could not justify the foam-at-the-mouth response of its proponents or the stigma they have attached to people, like Heston, who disagree with them about it.
Why are liberals so hypocritically bigoted? It's not a question that can be casually dismissed. After all, the conservatives who would shun a Barbra Streisand make no fetish out of "diversity" the way liberals do, nor do they wave the bloody flag of past witch-hunts whenever they come under attack, as liberals are known to do as well.
Moreover, the little auto-da-fi over the possibility that Chuck Heston would materialize at a charity event is no aberrant case. George Stephanopoulos' recent memoir captures a parallel moment at the very center of the political process. Before impeachment irretrievably embittered the atmosphere of the Clinton White House, Stephanopoulos and the president were discussing an open congressional seat and the prospect of an upcoming special election. "It's Nazi time," Clinton remarked to Stephanopoulos, meaning time to get back to campaigning against Republicans.
Two years later, at the outset of another campaign, Clinton told Dick Morris, "You have to understand, Bob Dole is evil, what he wants is evil." This of a war hero who had played the role of consensus builder in his years as Senate majority leader.
Nor is Clinton alone in his rabid hatred of the Republican opposition. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., publicly referred to House Republicans as "Nazis" merely for proposing to keep the expansion of Medicare within the rate of inflation lest the whole system go bankrupt, as a presidential commission indicated it would.
Other Democrats, like Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., referred to Republicans as racist for similar disagreements on budgetary allocations. As in the case of gun control legislation, there is no perceivable connection between the offenses and the demonization of the offenders by liberals.
Outside the KKK-Farrakhan hate fringe (which embraces bigots on the left and right), there is no conservative analog to this liberal paranoia. Perhaps there is a Republican officeholder who every now and then enters the electoral cycle with the war cry "It's commie time," but I certainly haven't met him. The current Clinton security leaks are grave enough to have generated a hundred Joe McCarthys, but not one has yet appeared.
There is simply no analog to the liberal passion of conservative bashing that has unfairly stained the reputations of figures as disparate as Bork, Thomas, Gingrich, Barr, Connerly and now DeLay. Conservatives have not even laid a glove on such obvious targets as Barney Frank and Maxine Waters. They tend to think of their opponents as irresponsible or simply misguided. But they do not treat them as agents of the devil.
But then Republicans are political amateurs. They typically leave a business in the business sector to go fight City Hall over practical matters. They want to restrain the leviathan that is suffocating enterprise. Or, less nobly, they want to harness it to some self-interested goal.
Liberals have a grander design. Their interest in politics is missionary. They see government as a means to social redemption, to change the world. They're not there to tinker with gun control laws. They're there, as Hillary Rodham Clinton put it, "to define what it means to be human in the 21st century." In the nightmares of NRA supporters, this means to do whatever it takes and to trample over any rights necessary to remove all 240 million guns from public possession in the quest for a utopia where violence no longer exists.
The reason liberals are so bigoted lies in a vision that has ancestral roots in the Puritan origins of the American new world. They see themselves as soldiers in the army of the saints -- a vision incomplete without the counter-army of Satan, the dark adversary corrupting the innocent and blocking their progress. People like Charlton Heston stand in the way of their impossible dream. In the fantasies of these liberal Lenins, all the little dead children killed in drive-bys across America could be walking the safe streets of the 'hood if only the Chuck Hestons of this world would disappear.