Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.
I doubt if you’ve heard of the late J. Edward Hutchinson, a Republican congressman from Michigan from 1963 to 1977. But for a time back then, he presented me and the rest of the press with a dilemma common in journalism, which has relevance today: How can we describe a politician or public official as dumb or stupid without being unfair, inaccurate or too subjective?
Hutchinson, a stolid old-line conservative, was the ranking, top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee considering the impeachment of President Richard Nixon for the crimes he committed in connection with the Watergate scandal. The Judiciary Committee under Rep. Peter Rodino, D - NJ, was careful to remain bipartisan and 11 Republicans worried about the rule of law and the integrity of the Constitution joined Democrats in voting for impeachment.
I covered those weeks of open and closed-door deliberations as a reporter for the then Knight Newspapers and as a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. During those weeks, Hutchinson said not a word and didn’t ask a single question in all the committee’s open sessions. And as far as I was able to determine he said and asked nothing in the closed meetings when evidence against and for the president was presented.
In short, Hutchinson, who should have been leading the committee Republicans was a cipher which, according to one dictionary, means a zero, a person or thing of no importance. He might as well not have been there. But he was, totally silent, except for voting “no” with ten other Republicans opposed to the first article of impeachment.
My problem, as I wrote in my column, was to explain Hutchinson’s silence. A journalist can call a politician “dynamic” or “forceful” but how to get across the subjective judgment that he/she is just plain dumb, dense, ignorant or stupid?
All I could do at the time was to describe his silence. Much later he was to tell Nixon to resign. But Hutchinson’s conduct on the committee was condemned by the Michigan legislature and he resigned in the face of a primary challenge by David Stockman, who went on to fame as Ronald Reagan’s budget director.
The rules of straight journalism are a lot looser today. The Wall Street Journal scored a breakthrough some years ago with a page one story that named the then-senator from Virginia, Bill Scott, as the dumbest member of Congress. Scott promptly confirmed the story by issuing a denial. Since then, in this age of journalism as entertainment and the wild blue blogosphere, almost anything goes.
So I feel confident that I can, with objectivity and enlightened subjectivity, point out stupidities like those of Rep. Michele Bachmann, R - Minn., a born-again and again Christian who began this session of Congress by calling for a congressional investigation of President Barack Obama and members of Congress who, she said, are “anti-American.”
I think she meant that they were, you should excuse the expression, “liberal.” She said she was “very concerned that Obama has anti-American views.” The president’s suggestion that young people serve in Americorp, she said, was a plot to put young Americans into “re-education camps.”
She was one of the leading Republican liars when she and others picked up Sarah Palin’s claim that the health reforms would create death panels to permit the euthanasia of the elderly. Politifact called it “the lie of the year.” But Bachmann has persisted and defended her racist colleague, Rep. Joe Wilson, R - SC when he shouted “You lie” at the president during his State of the Union speech.
And, as expected Bachmann has joined most Republicans calling for the repeal of the health reforms that are about to become effective and are supported by most Americans who want to give the reforms a chance to work.
Even before the president sealed the deal with BP CEO Tony Hayward to set aside, in escrow, $20 billion to pay for its oil spill damage to people and the environment, Bachmann was against it:
“The president just called for creating a fund that would be administered by outsiders. Which would be more of a redistribution of wealth fund. And not it appears like we’ll be looking at one more gateway for more government control, more money to government.”
The money, of course, is to go to victims of the spill. When the details, including the appointment of Kenneth Feinberg to monitor the claims as he did for New York’s responders to the 9/11 attack, she joined her equally dense Republican colleague, Rep. Joe Barton, of Texas, in calling the escrow account a “shakedown.”
She didn’t join in Barton’s apology to BP, but she hasn’t blamed it for the Gulf of Mexico disaster. It was Obama’s fault. The death panel lies and the misinformation about anything Obama proposes, will fade, but were they based on dumbness, ignorance, stupidity or political venality and the irrational hatred of their president?
Her candidate for President in 2012, she said, is fellow right-winger Rep. Steve King of Iowa who cast the lone vote last year against acknowledging that slaves help build the U.S. Capitol. He has described gay unions as a “purely socialist concept.” More recently he told interviewer G. Gordon Liddy, a Watergate burglar,
“I’m offended by [Attorney General] Eric Holder and the President...The President has demonstrated that he has a default mechanism in him that breaks down...on the side that favors the black person.”
Without foundation or any evidence, he accused Holder of not pursuing a series of cases because those accused were minorities.
I nearly forgot to include among the stupid or dumb death panel liars and nuts, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R - N.C., who seems like a benign grandma until she speaks. On the hate crimes legislation, passed as a result of the beating death of a gay man, Matthew Shepard, Foxx voted against it and said that reports that he was beaten because he was gay was “a hoax that continues to be used as an excuse for passing hate crime bills.”
Shepard’s mother heard that piece of cruelty in the gallery.
In September 2005, Foxx was one of 11 members of Congress to vote against a $51 million aid package, supported by George Bush, for victims of Hurricane Katrina. And she was one of 33 Republicans to vote against an extension of the 1964 Voting Rights Act.
But her fame rests with her opposition to the health care reforms which will make insurance, like the kind Foxx and other lawmakers have, more affordable for an estimated 40 million people who are uninsured.
But last July Foxx said, “There are no Americans who don’t have health care.” Echoing Bush’s assertion that people can always go to emergency rooms, she added, “Everybody in this country has access to health care. We do have 7.5 million Americans who want to purchase health insurance who cannot afford it.”
And in a floor speech, she took the death panels lie to this absurd conclusion:
“I believe we have more to fear from the potential of that bill passing than we do from any terrorist right now in any country...The [health reform bill] will put seniors in a position of being put to death by their government.”
Unfortunately, one of the dimmer lights in the U.S. Senate, Charles Grassley, R - Iowa, joined in that stupidity. The Institute of Medicine says that 18,000 to 22,000 deaths, including some of Foxx’s constituents, are recorded each year among those who are uninsured. Does Foxx care?
That question leads me to wonder why even smart politicians are so dumb as to fail to see the folly and danger to constituents in their own words. Case in point: Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, head of the Republican Governors’ Association and a longtime leader among more sensible Republicans.
He has ambitions for the presidency in 2012, but that was before he took a most sanguine view of the Gulf oil disaster that threatens the seafood-rich coastal waters of his state. With the oil heading toward Mississippi, Barbour likened it to the gasoline sheen found around ski boats. He said, “We don’t wash our face in it but it doesn’t stop us from jumping off the boat to ski.”
Before oil clumps started coming ashore, prompting his belated call for help from the federal government, Barbour said the spill was nowhere near the size of the one from the Exxon Valdez when, in fact, it’s many time larger.
He said, “It’s just possible that what happens here will be manageable and of moderate and even minimal impact.” Speaking of impact, it should be pointed out that BP gave the Republican Governors’ Association $10,000 a few years ago, part of $51,350 it got from oil companies which contribute heavily to the state’s tax base.
Even as dead fish washed ashore, while other Gulf Coast governors struggled for ways to keep the oil away, Barbour encouraged potential visitors to “come on down to play golf, enjoy the beach, catch a fish.”
Other Barbourisms: “If a small animal got coated enough with it (oil), it could smother it. But if you got enough toothpaste on you, you couldn’t breathe.” The oil, he said, is “weathered, emulsified, caramel colored mousse, like the food mousse. Once it gets to this stage it’s not poisonous.”
But Bob Cesca of Huffington Post pointed on June 26, to what he called “a new level of stupid” from Barbour, when the governor said, of the $20 billion BP was placing in escrow, “It bothers me to talk about causing an escrow account to be made, which will make it less likely that they’ll make the income that they need to pay us.” It took Jon Stewart to point out the absurdity: Said Cesca,
“Paraphrasing Stewart, Governor Barbour appears to be suggesting that if BP sets aside $20 billion to be paid to victims of the oil spill, it won’t have enough money to pay out to victims of the oil spill. In other words, Barbour is against compensating victims because he supports compensating victims.”
Barbour is no stranger to lost causes. Not far from the Confederate flag he keeps in his office signed by Mississippi’s Jefferson Davis, Barbour has a large portrait of the University Greys, a Confederate rifle company that suffered 100 percent casualties at Gettysburg.
And when Republican Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia left any mention of slavery out of his declaration of Confederate History Month, Barbour defended him, saying, “there’s no need to mention slavery,” even though it was a central cause of the Civil War - uh, pardon me, The War between the States.
I tried to find Democrats on the various lists of stupid members of Congress, but the only one I found was an anonymous site that listed, former Rep. Cynthia McKinney, of Georgia, the first black woman to represent the state. She served six terms before she was defeated when Republicans crossed over to vote for her Democratic primary rival.
She may have been a firebrand and a conspiracy theorist, questioning who was behind 9/11 and she was quirky, but she was not stupid. She opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ran for president for the Green Party.
It might be amusing to point to the foibles, the inanities and absurd statements of these mostly right-wing Republican figures. Indeed there have been more that I have not included. But their ignorance, stupidities and the venality that seems to accompany their hatred and opposition to everything their president says or does cannot help but hurt the nation, its institution and ordinary people.
What is the excuse for the Senate’s Republicans, who make a pretty good living off the taxpayers, to deny extended unemployment benefits to 1.4 million workers who have been without jobs for more than a year? Their kids, who are getting free breakfasts, are told by one Missouri legislator (a Republican) that they should have breakfast with their parents and not sponge on the government or get a job with McDonald’s to get free meals.
Republicans say they worry that the unemployment costs would increase the federal deficit which their votes during the Bush years helped create. The real reason, as expressed by George Will, was a hoary old Republican argument that was made against Social Security, that unemployment compensation will discourage people from looking for work.
At the same time, Will and his conservative cohorts criticize Obama for the lack of jobs. Go figure.
I believe there is something else at work here: There is plenty of evidence that Republicans, since 1992, have attempted to reverse elections that Democrats –and moderate liberals –have won. So Republicans, during the Newt Gingrich years and later, with the Starr and other pointless investigations, sought – with some success – to destroy and discredit Bill Clinton’s presidency. Unfortunately, Clinton did not help himself.
And in 2000 and 2004, Republican corporate money and right-wing activists undermined and reversed Democratic chances. At best, in the eyes of many Americans, the outcome of those elections remains questionable.
Now, yet again, the Republican mission, as enunciated by their gods, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, is to bring about the failure of the Obama presidency and the reversal of the people’s will. Where is the party of Lincoln in this effort?
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson: Chinese Features