WASHINGTON -- While pundits debate whether the tone in Washington will change in the aftermath of the tragic shooting in Arizona, the dean of the U.S. House of Representatives predicts that the respite in vitriol will be short lived.
Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who has served in the House since 1955, is the chamber's longest continuously serving member. In an interview with The Huffington Post on Tuesday, he compared the current political climate to that of the early 1960s, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
"They sort of go in peaks and valleys," Dingell said. "If you'll remember that just before Kennedy was shot, they were using the same kind of rhetoric, and two weeks before, they attacked Lyndon Johnson when he visited Dallas. A little later, Kennedy was shot, and all of a sudden, they said, 'My, this is terrible, we can't do this sort of thing again.' It's as if we're seeing the same type of temporary reform occurring here today."
"One always hopes that these things will be of lasting character," he added, "but there's every reason to assume, given the behavior of these people on the other side, this will be of temporary duration, and we will be hearing the same thing."
In his book Before the Storm, which analyzes the influence of former Arizona senator and presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, historian Rick Perlstein wrote about the climate surrounding Kennedy's trip to Dallas:
Kennedy's press secretary, Pierre Salinger, was spooked. He had received a letter on November 19 from a Dallas woman: "Don't let the President come down here. I'm worried about him. I think something terrible will happen to him." Salinger answered the letter personally: "I appreciate your concern for the president, but it would be a sad day for this country if there were any city in the United States he could not visit without fear of violence. I am confident the people of Dallas will greet him warmly." [...]
Extremists were distributing in the street a "WANTED FOR TREASON" handbill produced by General Walker's Dallas business partner, with face-forward and profile "mug shots" of the President. The Dallas Morning News editorialized: "If the speech is about boating you will be among the warmest of admirers. If it is about Cuber [sic], civil rights, taxes, or Vietnam, there will sure as shootin' be some who heave to and let go with a broadside of grapeshot in the presidential rigging." [...]
The newspaper hit the streets as H.L. Hunt, whose son had helped bankroll the ad, took to the radio in full-throated bray to predict that Kennedy's next move after passing the civil rights bill would be revoking the right to bear arms. "In dictatorships," he said, "no firearms are permitted, because they would then have the weapons with which to rise up against their oppressors."
Dingell said that since he has been in office, the number of death threats he has received have jumped significantly and now occasionally involve his wife.
"There's less goodwill, more bad will, more nastiness, more threats," he said. "The occurrence of threats in election time in my own case has gone up, and while I certainly expect threats to me, I find it a matter of deep resentment on my part that the death threats are now being heard by my wife."
Dingell has been outspoken in his condemnation of right-wing rhetoric in the days following the shooting in Tucson that targeted Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). In a Jan. 12 speech on the House floor, he said, "Over the years, I have witnessed horrendous events -- the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy. I have seen firsthand the anger brought on by landmark, life changing legislation. The rage during the civil rights debates was unlike anything I had seen, until now. ... What is different today is not the anger and apprehension felt by some in this country, but the inciting speech, dare I say encouragement, given by well-established folks in the seemingly mainstream political parties."