One of the most memorable moments in television coverage of American politics came during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. Out on the streets, anti-Vietnam war demonstrations were attacked viciously by law enforcement officials in what later was described in an official report as "a police riot."
Inside the convention hall, tightly controlled by the political machine of the city's notorious Mayor Richard J. Daley, CBS correspondent Dan Rather was attempting to interview a delegate from Georgia who was being removed from the floor by men in suits without ID badges. One of them slugged Rather in the stomach, knocking him to the ground. As the reporter struggled to get his breath back, from the anchor booth, Walter Cronkite exclaimed, "I think we've got a bunch of thugs here, Dan!"
It was an uncharacteristic outburst from America's Most Respected Newsman, indicative of just how terrible the violence was both inside and out and how shocking it was for a journalist to be so blatantly attacked while on the air by operatives acting on behalf of politicians.
As appalling as that 1968 assault was, thuggery is nothing new in politics; it transcends time, ideology and party. But what's even more disturbing in 2010 is how much of the public, especially many of those who count themselves among the conservative adherents of the Tea Party, is willing to ignore bullying behavior -- and even applaud it -- as long as the candidate in question hews to their point of view.
Here in New York State, of course, we have Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino, who combines the boyish charm of J. Edgar Hoover with the sunny quirkiness of Pol Pot. So extreme are Paladino's views, so volatile his temper, that even Rupert Murdoch's right wing New York Post has endorsed Democrat Andrew Cuomo, which is a bit like the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano dissing the Pope and singing the praises of Lutherans.
Doubtless this is in part because Crazy Carl, as he is affectionately known to many, almost came to blows with the Post's state political editor, the redoubtable Fred Dicker, shouting "I'll take you out, buddy!" at Dicker after the journalist asked Paladino for evidence to back up allegations the candidate was making against Cuomo and Paladino claimed the paper was harassing his out-of-wedlock daughter.
The Post had to admit that Paladino is "long on anger and short on answers... undisciplined, unfocused and untrustworthy -- that is, fundamentally unqualified for the office he seeks."
Okay, Paladino will lose, but in other parts of the country, Tea Party-supported candidates with a similar bullying, threatening attitude, or who seem to surround themselves with such people, are more likely to win. Republican Allen West, endorsed by Sarah Palin and John Boehner, is leading in his race against incumbent Democratic Representative Ron Klein in South Florida's 22nd Congressional District.
A retired Army lieutenant colonel, West resigned from the military, according to the progressive website ThinkProgress.org, "while facing a court martial over the brutal interrogation of an Iraqi man: according to his own testimony during a military hearing, West watched four of his men beat the suspect, and West said he personally threatened to kill the man. According to military prosecutors, West followed up on his threat by taking the man outside and firing a 9mm pistol near his head, in order to make the man believe he would be shot."
You can't make this stuff up: Last week, NBC News reported that West has been communing with a notorious Florida motorcycle gang, the Outlaws, which the Justice Department alleges has criminal ties to arson, prostitution, drug running, murder and robbery. And on Monday, West could be heard at a rally urging some bikers -- also with Outlaw connections -- to "escort" out a Klein staffer who was video recording the event. "Threats can be heard on the videotape," said a reporter from NBC's Miami affiliate. "West supporters forced him to get back into his car."
The West campaign responded that "the latest attacks aimed at associating... Allen West with a criminal and racist gang are completely baseless and nothing short of a hatchet job." So what's with the photograph of him glad-handing bikers who according to NBC brag about their association with the Outlaws? And why did West tell a supporter to back off when concern was expressed about "criminal organization members in leather" appearing at West's campaign rallies?
Which brings us to Joe Miller, the Republican and Tea Party candidate for the United States Senate from Alaska. On Sunday, at a Miller town hall, private security guards hired by the campaign -- two of whom were moonlighting, active duty military -- took it upon themselves to detain a reporter pursuing Miller with questions, placed him under citizen's arrest and handcuffed him - then threatened to detain two other reporters who were taking pictures and asking what was going on.
The plainclothes rent-a-cops, complete with Secret Service-type earpieces and Men in Black-style neckties and business suits, come from an Anchorage-based outfit called DropZone Security, which also runs a bail bond service and an Army-Navy surplus store -- with one of those anti-Obama "Joker" posters pasted to its window. One-stop shopping for the vigilante militiaman in your life -- kind of like that joke about the combination veterinarian-taxidermist: either way you get your dog back.
All of this would be funnier if not for the fact that this kind of hooliganism and casual trampling of First Amendment rights from people who claim to embrace the Constitution as holy writ is symptomatic of a deeper problem.
The anger of the electorate is understandable: politicians and politics as usual have given voters much about which to be mad; furious, in fact. But bullying is different. It comes from insecurity and fear, and lashes out with tactics of intimidation. To dismiss it as merely a secondary concern and say "I'll take my chances" as long as the candidates in question agree with you is dangerous. Scuffling with the press and others may seem minor, but it's just the beginning. In states where there is early balloting, already there are allegations of voter harassment, primarily in minority neighborhoods.
The only way to fight back against bullies and thugs is to stand up and tell them to go to hell. To do otherwise is to give an inch and prepare to be taken for the proverbial mile. That way lies madness. And worse.
Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.