by Glenn Greenwald
Several people objected in comments, emails and other places to my argument yesterday that what Rep. Joe Wilson did -- though dumb and juvenile -- was hardly some grave threat to the Republic or even a substantial deviation from standard right-wing political behavior. Some argued that Obama's race has caused the Right's hostility towards him to be both unique and unprecedentedly intense. That some people react with particular animus towards the first black President is obvious. But there is nothing new about the character of the American Right or their concerted efforts to destroy the legitimacy of Obama's presidency.
To see that, just look at what that movement's leading figures said and did during the Clinton years. In 1994, Jesse Helms, then-Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, claimed that "just about every military man" believes Clinton is unqualified to be Commander-in-Chief and then warned/threatened him not to venture onto military bases in the South: "Mr. Clinton better watch out if he comes down here. He better have a bodyguard." The Wall St. Journal called for a Special Prosecutor to investigate the possible "murder" of Vince Foster. Clinton was relentlessly accused by leading right-wing voices of being a murderer, a serial rapist, and a drug trafficker. Tens of millions of dollars and barrels of media ink were expended investigating "Whitewater," a "scandal" which, to this day, virtually nobody can even define. When Clinton tried to kill Osama bin Laden, they accused him of "wagging the dog" -- trying to distract the country from the truly important matters at hand (his sex scandal). And, of course, the GOP ultimately impeached him over that sex scandal -- in the process issuing a lengthy legal brief with footnotes detailing his sex acts (cigars and sex talk), publicly speculating about (and demanding examinations of) the unique "distinguishing" spots on his penis, and using leading right-wing organs to disseminate innuendo that he had an abandoned, out-of-wedlock child. More intense and constant attacks on a President's "legitimacy" are difficult to imagine.
This is why I have very mixed feelings about the protests of conservatives such as David Frum or Andrew Sullivan that the conservative movement has been supposedly "hijacked" by extremists and crazies. On the one hand, this is true. But when was it different? Rush Limbaugh didn't just magically appear in the last twelve months. He -- along with people like James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Bill Kristol and Jesse Helms -- have been leaders of that party for decades. Republicans spent the 1990s wallowing in Ken Starr's sex report, "Angry White Male" militias, black U.N. helicopters, Vince Foster's murder, Clinton's Mena drug runway, Monica's semen-stained dress, Hillary's lesbianism, "wag the dog" theories, and all sorts of efforts to personally humiliate Clinton and destroy the legitimacy of his presidency using the most paranoid, reality-detached, and scurrilous attacks. And the crazed conspiracy-mongers in that movement became even more prominent during the Bush years. Frum himself -- now parading around as the Serious Adult conservative -- wrote, along with uber-extremist Richard Perle, one of the most deranged and reality-detached books of the last two decades, and before that, celebrated George W. Bush, his former boss, as "The Right Man."
It's also why I am extremely unpersuaded by the prevailing media narrative that the Right is suddenly enthralled to its rambunctions and extremist elements and is treating Obama in some sort of unique or unprecedented way. Other than the fact that Obama's race intensifies the hatred in some precincts, nothing that the Right is doing now is new. This is who they are and what they do -- and that's been true for many years, for decades.