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This Is the Free-Speech Party?

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, October 4, 2005

There are times when I sorely miss boilerplate -- those entirely predictable statements made by politicians that often begin with the word "frankly," then proceed to the phrase "I don't think the American people want," and conclude with a thundering banality that a drowsy dog could see coming. That was especially the case last week when I started reading what Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, had to say about Tom DeLay, her Republican opposite. I fully expected boilerplate, something about innocent until proved guilty. But Pelosi crossed me up. DeLay, as it turned out, was guilty until proved innocent.

"The criminal indictment of Majority Leader Tom DeLay is the latest example that Republicans in Congress are plagued by a culture of corruption at the expense of the American people," Pelosi said -- apparently forgetting to add the boilerplate about the American system of justice. If she had those thoughts, they're not on her Web site and not mentioned anywhere. Instead, the reference to a Republican "culture of corruption" shows that when it comes to a punctilious regard for the legal process, in this instance the Democrats ain't got no culture at all.

This is an example of why the Democratic Party is in such trouble. Democrats are aping what Newt Gingrich once did to them when he was speaker of the House, a leader of the GOP and a self-proclaimed dazzling revolutionary. His incessant cry of "Corruption! Corruption!" helped end Democratic rule of Congress, but it was accompanied -- Democrats seem to forget -- by an idea or two and by emerging Republican majorities in the country as a whole. Stinging press releases alone do not a revolution make.

For prominent Democrats, it seemed it was not enough to forget their manners about DeLay. They then abandoned their party's tradition -- I would say "obligation" -- of defending unpopular speech by piling on William Bennett, the former education secretary, best-selling author and now, inevitably, talk show host.

Responding to a caller who argued that if abortion were outlawed the Social Security trust fund would benefit -- more people, more contributions, was the apparent (idiotic) reasoning -- Bennett said, sure, he understood what the fellow was saying. It was similar to the theory that the low crime rate of recent years was the consequence of high abortion rates: the fewer African American males born, the fewer crimes committed. (Young black males commit a disproportionate share of crime.) This theory has been around for some time. Bennett was not referring to anything new.

But he did add something very important: If implemented, the idea would be "an impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do."

He should have saved his breath. Prominent Democrats -- Harry Reid in the Senate, John Conyers and Rahm Emanuel in the House and, of course, Pelosi -- jumped all over him. Conyers wanted Bennett suspended from his radio show. Emanuel said Bennett's comments "reflect a spirit of hate and division." Pelosi said Bennett was out of the mainstream, and Reid simply asked for an apology.

Actually, it is Reid and the others who should apologize to Bennett. They were condemning and attempting to silence a public intellectual for a reference to a theory. It was not a proposal and not a recommendation -- nothing more than a possible explanation. But the Democrats preferred to pander to an audience that either had heard Bennett's remarks out of context, or merely thought that any time conservatives talk about race, they are being racist. The Democrats' obligation as politicians, as public officials, to see that we all hear the widest and richest diversity of views was suspended in favor of partisan cheap shots. (The spineless White House also refused to defend Bennett.) Because I came of age in the McCarthy era, I have always thought of the Democratic Party as more protective of free speech and unpopular thought than the Republican Party. The GOP was the party of Joe McCarthy, William Jenner and other witch-hunters. Now, though, it is the Democrats who use the pieties of race, ethnicity and gender to stifle debate and smother thought, pretty much what anti-intellectual intellectuals did to Larry Summers, the president of Harvard University, when he had the effrontery to ask some unorthodox questions about gender and mathematical aptitude. He was quickly instructed on how to think.

A little boilerplate would do the Democrats good. It's never bad to remind the American people that an indictment is not equivalent to conviction and speech is not free if it's going to cost you your job. These spitball press releases, these demeaning zingers, only tend to highlight the GOP argument that the Democrats are out of ideas. If so, I have one to offer them: Think.

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