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President takes dangerous spin

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, May 5, 1995

Bill Clinton was at his presidential best in the hours immediately following the tragic bombing in Oklahoma City, as he expressed the sympathy of the nation and pledged to hunt down and bring to justice those who committed this brutal and cowardly act.

But the president didn’t stay on the high road for long. By week’s end, his finger-pointing and spin-control had the public focused on everything except the wackos who committed the crime.

Example: Despite mounting evidence that the bombing was a fanatic’s retaliation for what he considered to be the federal government’s “murder” of Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, exactly two years earlier, President Clinton insisted in a major address that the problem was conservative talk radio.

The president had shifted from national leader to politician. Criticizing a politician for finger-pointing and spinning a story for political advantage is like criticizing fish for swimming. The problem is less the president’s decision to politicize the tragedy than the troubling logic of his assessment.

Here’s the problem: The president suggested violence of the Oklahoma City kind is part of a “continuum.” From “loud and angry voices” to “reckless speech” to “purveyors of hatred and division,” you build up to “violence” in the view of the president.

By substituting this “continuum” for the more familiar and discriminating “threshold” approach, where expressions of fear, opposition and even hate are thought by most constitutional scholars and First Amendment observers to be fundamentally different from committing an act of violence, the president used the “guilt by association” tactics of Sen. Joe McCarthv to try to silence his critics on the right.

The president is headed down a dangerous road. Incivility exists on both sides of the aisle — as shown by any election campaign or the recent “starving little children” rhetoric of Democratic leaders who oppose welfare reform.

The decay of courtesy, grace and comity in our public discourse is, sadly, a cultural issue, not a partisan or ideological issue. The president’s ill-advised and churlish effort to pin incivility on the backs of specific groups or one point of view is not supported by the facts and invites refutation that will only intensify the cycle of incivility.

Even more disturbing is the president’s effort to discredit and silence his critics by lumping those who criticize government (an essential ingredient of effective democracy) with those who throw bombs. Presidents should be above that — and when they are not they should be held accountable. The president didn’t lump anti-war protesters with bomb-throwers 25 years ago and he shouldn’t do it today.

That’s where the press comes in. Instead of subjecting the president’s utterances to critical analysis, mainstream media simply repeated them and then used their considerable resources to elaborate rather than investigate, to speculate rather than educate. The conduct of the media has been a far cry from the critical and hard-hitting way CBS’s Edward R. Murrow dealt with the utterances of Sen. Joe McCarthy 40 years ago.

One of the main reasons democracies work is a free press. The special status enjoyed by the media also implies special responsibilities — to be fair, balanced and probing. Those qualities have been missing in media accounts of both Waco and Oklahoma City.

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