Saturday, May 3, 2014

AMERICA'S FAVORITE PASTIME: LAMBASTING PRESIDENTS

Lyndon Johnson was looking forward to running for a second term when an ABJ (Anybody but Johnson) movement began. Public opposition to him and his policies hounded him to the point that he decided not to run for that second term. Richard Nixon was driven from office by the Watergate scandal. His successor, Gerald Ford, was ridiculed as an incompetent klutz who had “played too much football without a helmet.” Ford was defeated in the next election. Jimmy Carter was roasted as an incompetent and lost his bid for reelection. Ronald Reagan was reviled as a nincompoop, and his second term was mired in the Iran-Contra scandal. George H.W. Bush was so roundly criticized that he lost his bid for reelection. Bill Clinton’s second term was mired in the Lewinsky scandal. George W. Bush is still being blamed for perceived problems in our society.

America’s favorite sport is not football, it’s lambasting presidents. Critics of our presidents have attacked them for many and varied reasons. Sometimes those reasons have been laudable, sometimes not. I have to believe, however, that the vast majority of those criticisms leveled at our presidents were motivated by a sincere desire to advance the best interests of the United States.

We again have a president who is under fire, and it appears that his second term might be mired in a controversy over Benghazi. I have heard a number of persons spring to his defense, not by defending his policies and actions, but by accusing his critics of racism. He’s being criticized just as his predecessors have been criticized, and his critics are guilty of racism? I think not.

Besides, when we are evaluating criticisms of our public officials, the question should not be whether his critics are racists, it should be whether their criticisms are valid. What if a racist shouts, “The building is on fire! Head for the fire escapes!” Would you say “Pay no mind to him, he’s a racist,” and stay in the building?

Now, if the critic were to, say, manufacture a bogus student ID as “evidence” that the president was not a citizen of the United States, you might have reason to suspect that the manufacturer of the fake ID was a racist (and not very smart because the job was so poorly executed. See http://urbanlegends.about.com/od/barackobama/ss/Obama-Student-Id.htm). But you would reject the evidence of the ID because it was forged, not because it was being proffered by a suspected racist.

If there’s one thing I learned from 32 years as a trial lawyer, it’s the fact that valid evidence can be proffered by despicable people. When you reject a criticism out of hand by characterizing the person who voices it as a racist, you are not engaging in critical thinking. In that situation I’d say that one of two things is going on.  Either (1) you are not doing much thinking at all, or (2) You are hoping that your listeners are so gullible that you will be able to get them to reject the criticism without doing much thinking at all. I think the proper term is demagoguery.

We’ve come to a sorry state in this nation when the best we can do for civic discourse is to shout down a proposition, not by examining its validity, but by demonizing its proponent.