Legitimacy is the most elemental and elusive of political goods; a gift which only a society can give its leaders, and only the same society can take away.
To deprive a politician of legitimacy is long and serious work. A good deal of the process has always taken place behind the scenes before the evidence comes into view.
Thus, from 1994 onward, a language of generalized insult and contempt was used by Republicans about Bill Clinton in order to deprive him of the claim to be recognized as the legitimate holder of the office of president. Newt Gingrich and the Contract-with-America wing of the party were deliberate in the tactics they deployed. They coolly decided to use the word "sick" to characterize the Clintons and their policies. Instructions regarding which words of contempt to use and when to use them, went out in memorandums and were put into practice on pundit shows and talk radio. This story is told by David Brock, an insider who came to regret the part he played, in his memoir Blinded by the Right.
The delegitimation of Bill Clinton led from the sprawling fruitless Whitewater investigation to the Paula Jones suit to the interrogation of Monica Lewinsky to the impeachment of the president. On the whole this is not an episode Americans look back on with pride. When the Supreme Court in May 1997 decided that Paula Jones's lawsuit against a sitting president could go forward, because there was no reason to suppose it would interfere with his performance of his duties, the judges were oddly unanimous in their indifference to the power of legitimacy.
What Bill Clinton felt at the time is barely possible to imagine; the bitter taste the impeachment left with both Clintons, they have taken great pains to conceal.
We have seen a return this year to the politics of delegitimation by the extreme Republican right. Yet what has been most surprising is the complicity, and then the open participation in that process by the Clinton campaign. Race was always going to be an element in this year's election. But the comparison of the front runner Barack Obama to the marginal candidate Jesse Jackson on the pretext that both had won South Carolina was a shocker when people heard it come out of the mouth of Bill Clinton. Again, the talk, by Hillary Clinton and her operatives after Ohio, of "the commander in chief test" which (it was said) she and John McCain had "passed" but Obama mysteriously could not pass, was a second stroke of the same kind. There was no scientific or political content to the statement. Its significance was gestural. It was an effort to delegitimate Obama, and its truth could only be shown by its success or failure.
Hillary Clinton's recent careless-careful mention of the assassination of Robert Kennedy, in answer to a question about why she would stay in the Democratic race when all the numbers are against her, raised the tactics of delegitimation to a pitch as weird as anything the Clintons can have seen in the years 1997-98.
The most disturbing element of her remark was this: that it chose to treat assassination as just one more political possibility, one of the things that happen in our politics, like hecklers, lobbyists, and forced resignations. The slovenly morale and callousness of such a released fantasy is catching. So when, a few days later, the Fox News contributor Liz Trotta was asked her opinion of Senator Clinton's statement, Trotta said: "some are reading [it] as a suggestion that somebody knock off Osama...Obama. Well...both if we could!" Liz Trotta laughed as she said that. Later, she apologized, as Senator Clinton also has apologized.
Race comes easily and inevitably into discussions of Barack Obama, and never far from race is the thought of violence. It is there when you hear mentally feeble persons say, "I am afraid of this one; so afraid! something makes me afraid!" And race comes into the discussion when you hear clever people say, "He can never win the white vote; the white working class just aren't ready for him."
An unmeasurable but well-recorded condition for the assassination of John F. Kennedy was the campaign of delegitimation that preceded that terrible event. Anti-Castro Cubans hated Kennedy because he had disappointed them at the Bay of Pigs, and seemed to be a warm friend cooling. Many Southern white people hated him for his indications of solidarity with the cause of civil rights. There are other actors and reactions that might be added; but all shared the belief that Kennedy was not a legitimate leader, that he didn't deserve to be given the chance to go on governing. The hatred was especially virulent in the South. Death threats were in the air and Kennedy had been warned against taking the trip to Texas.
When a democratic society fails to honor the contract by which we elect our leaders in peace, and let them govern in peace, and show our approval or disapproval by keeping them or turning them out of office--when the incantation "He is not one of us" dips so far below sanity that we pretend the rules and decencies aren't in force any more--it is more than one person who is harmed. This loose way of talking and thinking of violence hardens us against real responsibility if the violent thing should happen. We are administering shocks to ourselves in advance so as not to be surprised by the actuality. But such preparations are in their very nature corrupt, and corrupting. And they are not less so when used against any person of dignity and estimation, on the public stage, than when they are leveled against an elected official.
William James wrote of the hope of democracy after the Civil War:
"The deadliest enemies of nations are not their foreign foes; they always dwell within their borders. And from these internal enemies civilization is always in need of being saved. The nation blest above all nations is she in whom the civic genius of the people does the saving day by day, by acts without external picturesqueness; by speaking, writing, voting reasonably; by smiting corruption swiftly; by good temper between parties; by the people knowing true men when they see them, and preferring them as leaders to rabid partisans or empty quacks. Such nations have no need of wars to save them."
The original meaning of the phrase "We shall overcome" is too often forgotten. The words didn't mean: "We--black and white people--will win equal rights for black people." They meant rather: "We--human beings--will overcome our savage impulse to settle our differences by violence. In both domestic and foreign arenas of dispute, we will overcome our endless reliance on short-violent-cuts to success."
The acceptance of political violence, apparent in the recent casual chatter of assassination, shows a despair of overcoming that is as monstrous in its way as the acts of violent men themselves.