Lunacy goes mainstream

Conservatives may be acting crazy, but by yelling louder than anyone else, they're making sure they are heard

Published August 13, 2009 10:13AM (EDT)

Ellen Geiger, 56, who opposes health care reform, yells as she listens to panelists during a health care town hall meeting in Alhambra, Calif, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009.
Ellen Geiger, 56, who opposes health care reform, yells as she listens to panelists during a health care town hall meeting in Alhambra, Calif, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009.

Somebody's going to have to teach the Republican leadership that "bipartisan" isn't a synonym for "weak." That somebody may have to be Barack Obama. The success of his presidency may depend upon it. No professorial lectures, please. It's not possible to reason with people peddling grotesque and preposterous lies, bargain with people who are screaming, or negotiate under threats of violence.

Persons whose behavior would get them thrown out of a Rolling Stones show should be removed by security. Period. President Bush, it will be recalled, almost never appeared before audiences not pre-screened for loyalty. Potential dissenters were prevented from entering and were sometimes arrested.

Democrats shouldn't act that way. At his recent town hall in New Hampshire, Obama calmed the crazies by simply asking questioners to identify themselves. Also, even Sarah Palin's most rapt supporters may have understood that shouting down the president would likely backfire politically.

More broadly, however, Democrats appear once again to have been surprised by the near-hysteria of the GOP's lunatic fringe. It's been building for a generation. Early in Bill Clinton's first term, the evangelist Jerry Falwell devoted his TV show to peddling "The Clinton Chronicles," a crackpot video alleging that the president of the United States was a drug smuggler who had political enemies whacked.

Rush Limbaugh, currently comparing Obama to Hitler, reported that White House aide Vince Foster had been murdered in an apartment owned by Hillary Clinton. Several federal investigations were eventually required to stifle conspiracy theorists. Nor were these absurdities confined to paid programming or the nether regions of the AM radio dial. These "issues" got voluminous coverage on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, among others.

The so-called mainstream media provided little help. Fearful of the dread "liberal bias" charge, establishment reporters not only flogged the fake Whitewater scandal but also lionized figures such as Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck and Michael Savage.

On TV, conflict builds ratings. "Balance" often means equating reasonable views with fantastical lies. Ordinary viewers too often can't tell the difference. Short of an opportunity to chronicle the exploits of the risen Michael Jackson, that's not going to stop.

As Bob Somerby has documented relentlessly at the Daily Howler, the 2000 presidential election was probably decided by the falsehood that Al Gore claimed he invented the Internet; the 2004 contest, by the "Swift Boat" smear against Democratic nominee John Kerry. Time was when journalists and public figures that habitually misrepresented facts were relegated to the fringes. But that time's gone, and it ain't coming back.

Meanwhile, an entire industry devoted to inventing calumnies against Democrats has flourished, while liberal and opinion leaders have gazed thoughtfully into the ambient air. Ironically, given the current rhetoric about Obama the Nazi, its themes have always been broadly fascist, depicting liberal Democrats as the Enemy Within.

Writing about Ann Coulter's "Slander," I once noted that "the 'liberal' sins [she] caricatures -- atheism, cosmopolitanism, sexual license, moral relativism, communism, disloyalty and treason -- are basically identical to the crimes of the Jews as Hitler saw them."

Which brings us back to Palin, empress of the Arctic. In her characteristically fatuous, self-involved way, Alaska's former governor has uttered something so cosmically stupid only true believers could possibly credit her.

"The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care," the former Republican vice-presidential nominee wrote on Facebook. "Such a system is downright evil."

In consequence, millions of Americans do fear that "Obamacare" means euthanizing geezers and handicapped children like stray dogs. Almost needless to say, that fear is based upon a gross and palpable lie, although not of Palin's invention. It appears to be the brainchild of one Betsy McCaughey, the former lieutenant governor of New York and a propagandist for the conservative Hudson Institute. On a July radio program, she claimed that "Congress would make it mandatory -- absolutely require -- that every five years people in Medicare have a required counseling session that will tell them how to end their life sooner."

The fraudulent claim quickly went viral on the Internet. Palin, gullible soul that she is, appears to have swallowed it whole.

But here's the difference: Unlike previous right-wing hoaxes -- the Clinton "death lists," the "Swift Boat" controversy, Obama's birth certificate, etc. -- this hits people where they live. Quite like the Terri Schiavo episode, which Republicans also mistook for a winning issue, this is not about abstract ideology. It's about the most intimate and solemn decisions we all must make. People think about such things harder than about politics, and they bitterly resent being lied to.

© 2009 Gene Lyons. Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Association

By Gene Lyons

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at

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