Sticks And Stones

Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) is mad as heck, and he's not going to take it
anymore.

First he appeared on the Senate floor in September to protest
accusations made by President Bush that Senate Democrats are "not
interested in the security of the American people." The vehemence of
Daschle's speech -- in which he whipped off his glasses and proclaimed the
president's words "outrageous" -- was so uncharacteristic of the
normally vanilla senator that many members of the press portrayed the statement
as mere political posturing.

Then at a press briefing on Nov. 20, Daschle took on another political
adversary, telling reporters, "What happens when Rush Limbaugh attacks
those of us in public life is that people aren't satisfied just to listen. They
want to act because they get emotionally invested . . . and the threats to
those of us in public life go up dramatically, on our families and on us, in a
way that's very disconcerting." This time, Daschle's comments were
variously characterized by members of the press as an overreaction, sour grapes
or mental imbalance.

In the interest of full disclosure, I used to work in Daschle's office.
But the dismissive tone of this press coverage is troubling whether you're a
Daschle loyalist or a conservative Republican. Why? Because the issue the
senator is raising relates directly to the nature of political debate in this
country.

Even those who follow politics closely seem to have concluded that
Daschle's outbursts came from out of the blue. Washington
Post
media critic Howard Kurtz scornfully asked in a column,
"Has the senator listened to Rush lately? Sure, he aggressively pokes fun
at Democrats and lionizes Republicans, but mainly about policy." Kurtz
quoted as "evidence" of Limbaugh's innocence some completely
unrelated and relatively innocuous remarks from the provocateur's radio show.

Kurtz and others who have accused Daschle of thin-skinned carping might
want to spend time listening to some choice Limbaugh diatribes and then
take a field trip to the mailroom of Daschle's office in the Hart Senate Office
Building.

During his July 20, 2001, radio show, Limbaugh spent a significant
amount of airtime drawing comparisons between Daschle and Satan. He began by
asking listeners, "How many different versions of Satan, the devil, have
you seen in your life? . . . Is Tom Daschle simply another way to portray the
devil?" In the same segment, Limbaugh tagged Daschle with a moniker that
has become a fan favorite -- "El Diablo." Shortly after the show
aired, mail addressed to "Tom 'The Devil' Daschle" began arriving at
the senator's fifth-floor office.

In November 2001, the conservative lobbying organization American
Renewal unveiled newspaper ads featuring photos of Daschle and Saddam Hussein
placed side by side. The two were dubbed "strange bedfellows" because
"neither man wants America to drill for oil in Alaska's Arctic National
Wildlife Refuge." Envelopes addressed to "Tom 'Saddam' Daschle"
soon appeared in the daily mail.

In February 2002, Daschle publicly questioned aspects of the Bush
administration's strategy in the war on terrorism. In response, a number of
Republicans -- most notably Trent Lott and Dick Cheney -- accused Daschle of
aiding the enemy and of being irresponsibly unpatriotic. This time, letters
addressed to "Tom 'Osama' Daschle" joined the steady stream of mail
arriving in Daschle's office.

Politicians are used to hate mail. It is an unpleasant but
unfortunately standard feature of elective office. But there are two different types of hate mail: obscene missives filled with name-calling, vile accusations and crude suggestions; and letters that make the FBI sit up and take notice. It is this second type of communication that has Daschle so angry.

For it is one matter to disagree with someone on political grounds and criticize
their policy arguments; it is quite another to engage in vitriolic attacks that
contribute not to political debate but to high levels of animosity and hatred
that, in the end, do little more than degrade the quality of our national
debate.

Limbaugh and others have the right to ridicule Daschle to their heart's
content, but if they cared about American democracy they would rethink the
crude tone of their criticisms. Their words, after all, do not vanish into the
ether. They have an effect. The president, in particular, has an extraordinary
bully pulpit from which to make either a negative or a positive impact. In the
aftermath of September 11, for example, Bush's repeated statements calling for
tolerance toward Muslims had a clear result. A November 2001 poll by the Pew
Forum on Religion and Public Life revealed that nearly two-thirds of the
president's core constituents -- conservative Republicans -- felt favorably
toward American Muslims, up 29 percentage points since before the attacks. If
Bush chose to, he could help change "the tone in Washington" that he
so bemoaned during his 2000 campaign.

For now, however, the cycle continues. Daschle recently questioned
whether the war on terrorism can be considered a success, given new evidence
that Osama bin Laden is still alive. Republican Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.)
immediately issued a press release subtly titled, "Foley Questions
Daschle's Patriotism." And on his radio show, Limbaugh has added another
nickname to his grab bag, calling Daschle "Hanoi Tom" and addressing
these remarks to him: "You, sir, are a disgrace to patriotism, you are a
disgrace to this country, you are a disgrace to the Senate."

Mail addressed to "'Hanoi Tom' Daschle" will undoubtedly
begin arriving shortly. In the meantime, no one is advocating some kind of
wishy-washy civility or watered-down political debate. But even Rush Limbaugh
should be able to do better than equating political opponents with Satan -- and
even his listeners should be able to do better than passing off name-calling as
political discourse.

Amy Sullivan is a graduate student in sociology at Princeton
University.

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