Speaking on Friday about the parallels between the fiery national mood during his presidency and the domestic unrest that grips the country today, former President Bill Clinton hit on a somewhat salient point: the political characters remain the same.
"I love seeing that picture in the [Washington] Post today, with that outline of [Former Majority Leader Dick] Armey with the cowboy hat on," Clinton said. "I remember when he called Hillary a 'socialist.' I remember when Newt Gingrich, shortly after becoming Speaker Elect, said that Hillary and I were the 'enemies of normal.' It didn't bother me a bit. I was planning to get in and mix it up. But what we learned from [the] Oklahoma City [bombing] is not that we should gag each other.... but that the words we use really do matter, because there is this vast echo chamber and they go across space and they fall on the serious and the delirious alike."
In a talk that centered on the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, Clinton, to be sure, was not accusing Armey or Gingrich of inciting violence. Nor, he said, was he "trying to muzzle anybody." His point was that when the economic and social conditions of the country are such that people are inclined to extremist measures, a different type of burden falls on political leaders and media personalities.
"There is a basic line dividing criticism from violence or its advocacy," he said. "And that the closer you get to the line and the more responsibility you have, the more you have to think about the echo chamber in which your words resonate."
In that vein, the 42nd president commented disparagingly about the decision by Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell to declare April Confederate History month while neglecting to mention the issue of slavery. "There is an enormous psychological disorientation today and that is also the way it was in the early '90s," said Clinton, perhaps the most astute Southern Democratic politician of the last century.
McDonnell, of course, is a relative newcomer to the national political landscape. But the fact that Armey (a leading Tea Party figure) and Gingrich (a beloved conservative) are reprising the roles they played during the Clinton years -- albeit outside of elected office -- does provide a sobering reminder about the cyclical nature of politics. What Clinton seemed to be suggesting is that, despite efforts by Barack Obama to change the divisive tone of modern political discourse, there are too many external factors at play. A lagging recession that has people angry and scared is one of them. An opposing political party that is willing to walk close to the line of acceptable rhetoric is another.