By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
I’m a traitor. I’m not sure exactly when I first knew this. It may have been when James Watt, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the interior, said there were two kinds of people in the country, Americans and liberals. It may have been when George W. Bush’s father based his entire 1988 presidential campaign on the premise that his opponent with the strange Greek name wasn’t American enough, something for which Bush’s campaign manager offered what was tantamount to deathbed repentance a few years later. It may have been when Rush Limbaugh suggested to 20 million listeners that the Clintons murdered White House aide Vince Foster.
Most likely it was when I was writing about the 1996 election for Rolling Stoneand went to interview Gary Bauer in his Washington, D.C., office. At that time Bauer, who now directs an organization called American Values, was head of the Family Research Council. During my visit he was gracious and forthcoming — we even had a brief philosophical exchange about abortion without acrimony, perhaps because my own pro-choice position is conflicted with caveats — and since I feel confident he knew what Rolling Stonewas, I gave him credit for seeing me at all. As even novice interviewers learn to do, I saved my big question for the end, when the welcome was feeling worn: “Do you think Bill Clinton is evil?” I asked, and he took a longtime to answer before finally conceding that, no, he supposed he couldn’t really call Clinton evil. We both knew he didn’t believe it.
I was watching a late-night debate a few months ago between liberal comedian/writer Al Franken and conservative Crossfireco-host/writer Tucker Carlson, when Carlson complained about the liberal demonization of George W. Bush. Although it sounded odd after 20 years of Watt and Atwater and Limbaugh and Bauer and Coulter, it’s also true that for decades rational, conscientious conservatives have been stung by characterizations of them as greedy, racist warmongers. Carlson also allowed as to how the right similarly demonized Clinton. In case it needs to be said in such combustible times, to compare the theocratic psyches of the president and Osama bin Laden is not to make a moral corollary. While it had about it echoes of Dudley Do-Right denouncing Snidely Whiplash, Bush’s description of bin Laden as an “evildoer” was never so unreasonable; close to 3,000 people were killed in cold blood on American home soil in September 2001 — 3,000 people who rose from bed that morning with no idea this was the day they would die in circumstances that not only defied anything the imagination of horror might conceive but threatened to render irrelevant the legitimate grievances of Muslims and Palestinians in the Middle East. Gazing at the satanic terrain of the concentration camps after World War II, piled high with the rubble of bones that could barely be called corpses, no one shook his head and said, “Yes, but you know, Germany really did get a bad deal on that Treaty of Versailles thing.” Once again, for people on the left to protest the president’s language of good and evil plays into false dichotomies of moral “absolutism” and “relativism” as surely as liberal courts play into false dichotomies of traditionalism and secularism.
But that bin Laden and al Qaeda warrant the appellation of “evil” is exactly what throws the discussion into such stark relief. Once we’ve called Bill Clinton or George Bush evil, the moral glossary is bankrupt; and the more freely the president uses the word, the more precarious the value of moral language becomes. On its face, much of what the president says is not only unobjectionable but echoes some of the most exalted words in American history. When he declares, as he did in last year’s State of the Union, that “the liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity,” it isn’t so far from Jefferson’s contention that it’s God who endows us with unalienable freedom. But when Jefferson wrote his words, the excesses of both the Church of England and American Puritanism were recent memories; as much as anything, at its heart Jefferson’s was a statement of secularism, implicitly disputing whether governments and kings and presidents and even preachers were legitimate intermediaries for God’s wishes. Lincoln, perhaps the most truly spiritual of presidents even though he was attached to no religion, firmly believed the Civil War was God’s test of him and the nation. But unlike George Bush, who seems to believe a policy is God’s will by virtue of its having entered his head, Lincoln ceaselessly wrestled with doubt; as someone once said, Lincoln seemed less concerned that God was on his side than that he was on God’s. “The purposes of the Almighty,” he wrote wearily, “are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail to accurately perceive them in advance . . . we must work earnestly in the best light He gives us, trusting that so working still conduces to the great ends He ordains.” Lincoln’s second inaugural address, the greatest speech ever given by an American president, is haunted by a sorrowful apprehension that the country offended God with the sin of slavery. It wasn’t a call to the country presuming to speak on God’s behalf, but a call to God, speaking for the country: Come back to us.
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