Mudslinger Who Created Willie Horton Politics Decries Lack of Civility In Politics

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • David Sirota Newspaper columnist, radio host (AM760), bestselling author

That could have been one of The Onion's fake headlines - or it could have been the headline on all the real news stories about George H. W. Bush decrying a lack of civility in politics at the end of last week. Instead, what we mostly saw was the typical kind of revisionism that has become mundane in the American Idiocracy - in this case, reportage that largely strips away any and all historical context from the sententious declarations of celebrity newsmakers.

Bush, of course, is not wrong: There is a lot of unnecessary ugliness being thrown at President Obama, "people ought to be civil," as he said, and it's true that we should "worry about yelling at people and this yelling mentality" that has taken over our politics. He's also not wrong that cable news has a lot to do with the problem - our television discourse has, for the most part, devolved into a giant screaming match between operatives and journalists in the New York/DC corridor whose whole job it is to yell at each other (and sadly, that increasingly goes not just for Fox, CNN and the networks, but also for some of the left-leaning shows on MSNBC). And I'll even go out on a limb and say that he's not even wrong in suggesting that a portion of the progressive media seems unhealthily obsessed with continuing to blame every problem on George W. Bush - even the problems continued by the Obama administration.*

However, the origins of incivility in politics can be traced right back to Bush, the man now complaining about it. This is the guy who made Lee Atwater a national force and the guy who backed what is history's single most powerful symbol of incivility - The Willie Horton ad:

Bush also gave us the racialized ad insisting that Michael Dukakis wanted to, quite literally, unleash violent criminals on America's suburban neighborhoods (notice the menacing black guy in the revolving door looking at the camera), and an ad asserting that Dukakis, the military vet, was effectively trying to destroy the military.

So Bush deciding to whine about incivility in politics without simultaneously deciding to offer up an apology for his own behavior is a little much (I mean, I know we're supposed to see him as a quaint elder statesman and all - but sorry, just because you are supposed to be a cute old man doesn't mean all your history just goes away). His attempt to use his criticism to specifically smear the Left - well, that's just laughable.

It's certainly true that, as I said, progressive media has, in some cases in the Obama era, been overly obsessed with George W. Bush. It's true that progressive media sometimes overly demonizes Republicans for sins that Democrats are also committing. And it's even true that some of the criticism of the right - for instance, Glenn Beck's criticism of Anita Dunn portraying Mao Zedong in a favorable light - isn't unwarranted.*

But for Bush to lecture people on those facts without acknowledging his own pivotal role in creating the culture he decries is ridiculous - and the fact that his statements were reported by the Beltway media with almost none of that context is just irresponsible.

* On this point, let me explain: IMHO, Beck is right - Dunn calling Mao one of her "favorite philosophers," even ironically, is no better than her calling Hitler one of her "favorite philosophers." Mao was a brutal dictator who killed millions of people. I think it's perfectly fine to quote him - but to bill him (again, even in jest) in a positive light is straight-up culturally insensitive (and sorry, Anita - it's unconvincing to try to defend yourself by equating quoting Mao, as Atwater did, to calling Mao one's "favorite philosopher," as you did). That said, Beck is really absurdly wrong to suggest that Dunn's insensitivity means she is an ideological Maoist. That's just crazy. Oh, and I don't remember Beck apologizing for suggesting Hitler was one of politics' "best minds."