The defaming of the President, 2008

No one expects political campaigns to be as calm, rational and genteel as academic seminars (although even those aren’t what they used to be), and certainly not as illuminating as the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, but the 2008 election was marked by defamation on as grand a scale as any in our nation’s history. George W. Bush may not be one of our great presidents, but he is not evil or insane. Yet the left wingers in our country, aided by a few right wingers, managed to craft an image of an administration that showed reckless disregard of the Constitution, the rights of both our citizens and foreigners, the requirements of diplomacy and our standing in the world.

Routinely, Bush was likened to Hitler, because he “invaded” Iraq, even though he was saving a people from tyranny, not imposing it. Government surveillance of enemy communications was misconstrued as “spying” on American citizens. Holding enemy combatants was confused with denying them due process rights. Indirect negotiations with Iran and six-party talks with North Korea were treated as nonexistent. These lies are only the tip of the iceberg.

This is defamation, which is “the utterance of a false statement that harms the reputation of another.” There is nothing wrong, of course, with uttering true statements that harm a person’s reputation (unless it is a privileged communication), but the distinction has been lost of late amidst the passion of self expression that has gripped our nation since the turbulent 1960s.

The turning point came with New York Times v. Sullivan (1965), a United States Supreme Court decision which held that even false statements are protected by the First Amendment if the writer or speaker did not know the statements were false at the time they were made. This constitutes malice. But, alas, the climate of allegedly “wide-open, robust debate” credits any statement agreeable to the passions of the media that publicize it.

Of course, it’s fair to say, as old pols have, that “politics ain’t beanbag,” and certainly Bush understands that, as he has been gracious under the verbal assaults and has filed no libel suits. He accepts Harry Truman’s admonition, viz., “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

It would incorrect to rank the recent campaign as the worst in history, for others come to mind, such as what the supporters of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson said about the opposing candidate in 1800, calling the former a tyrant and the latter a libertine. Or the campaign of Andrew Jackson’s supporters against incumbent John Quincy Adams in 1828, smearing that most virtuous of all presidents as immoral. Remember the nuclear blast commercial castigating Barry Goldwater in 1964?

What makes this year’s political defamation particularly galling is that it was uttered and disseminated by people in both party and media politics who make grandiose claims for their superior wisdom and virtue that are not warranted by the facts. No one has captured this pretentiousness better than Thomas Sowell, who has dubbed the advocates of the nanny state at home and appeasement abroad as “the anointed.”

Like the progressives of the late 19th and early 20th century, today’s incarnations see themselves as the better sort of people, whose job it is to lead the unenlightened masses to a promised land of harmony and plenty which is about as likely to arrive as the forever postponed utopia in the old Soviet Union. Neither the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt nor the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson managed to raise the standard of living or bring people out of poverty. Only a free market has shown that it can do that.

Coming from what are purported to be the best colleges and universities in the country, liberal politicians and journalists believe they alone are “objective” in their analysis of the nation’s and the world’s ills. They speak a peculiar language characterized by moral neutrality regarding matters of morals and moral outrage about facts that displease them.

By the evidence of this last campaign, the anointed ones feel no compunction about uttering all manner of lies about those whose offices they covet, for their pie-in-the-sky ends justify any means. There is a far-left organization aptly named By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) that defames all those seeking to end racial preference in public policy.

Many Americans, including me, were disappointed that President Bush did not succeed in Iraq sooner than he did, or that he resorted to government bailouts to deal with an economic crisis. But they have elected a faction that will use our government to ensure defeat abroad and real economic depression at home. For that we can thank, at least in part, a campaign of defamation that reduces the complexity of political issues to a matter of the elite’s personal preferences.