Mr. Cantor declines to comment

By Dana Milbank
Sunday, April 4, 2010

Eric Cantor has been riding the tiger for a long time.

Eleven years ago, the future House Republican whip was still a young state delegate in Virginia when Jerry Falwell declared that the Antichrist would be a Jew. Jewish leaders and others denounced Falwell's words, but Cantor "was careful to avoid publicly criticizing" the minister, noted Cantor's hometown paper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

When Falwell died in 2007, Cantor went to the House floor to eulogize "a great leader." You don't get to be the No. 2 Republican in the House, and the only Republican Jew in Congress, by taking on extremists in your party.

So it should not have been a surprise last month when Cantor made a statement about the threats against Democratic lawmakers, the spitting or bigoted epithets shouted, and the bricks thrown through office windows. Cantor had harsh words -- for the victims.

After a perfunctory "I do not condone violence," he said it was "reprehensible" to use threats as political weapons, accusing Democrats of actions that "fan the flames." At the same time, he brandished his own political weapon, invoking threats against him because he's Jewish and saying: "A bullet was shot through the window of my campaign office in Richmond this week."

Police determined that the bullet had been fired into the air and that Cantor's office wasn't a target. Still, about the same time, a mentally unstable man in Philadelphia who had posted online hate-filled videos threatening, among others, President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Babe the Pig was moved to make another. The day after Cantor's remarks, the FBI got hold of an anti-Semitic video mentioning "the final Yom Kippur" and threatening Cantor: "you receive my bullets in your office, remember they will be placed in your heads."

News of this, coming a few hours before the first Seder, was met with a predictable political reaction: Right-wingers gloated that the man was an Obama donor. Left-wingers delighted that he had a concealed-carry permit.

The arrest gave Cantor, as the target, a position of moral authority to denounce and defuse the escalating threats, but all he did was issue a written statement that he would have "no further comment." Earlier, when he spoke of the bullet in his office, he said he doesn't publicize threats against him because he doesn't want to "encourage more." Cantor declined to talk for this column, too.

That's a shame, because Cantor is one of the few figures who, during this Passover season, could lead us all out of this wilderness. As Jews, we know better than most the consequences of ignoring and wishing away hate speech. And Cantor is a reasonable man who has the respect of unreasonable people in his party; he could use his influence to calm them.

But so far he's being led by them. He's been silent about -- and his aides have defended -- the lawmakers who incited a mob on the Capitol grounds during the health-care vote by standing on the House balcony, waving banners, pumping fists and leading chants.

He's been quiet about Sarah Palin telling her supporters "Don't Retreat, Instead -- RELOAD" and putting a map on her Facebook page showing Democratic districts in the crosshairs of a rifle scope. Same thing with Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele's plan to put Pelosi on "the firing line" and his colleagues' shouts of "tyranny" and "baby killer."

Such sentiments have to be appalling to Cantor, who is a classic Chamber of Commerce Republican. He's the product of a Richmond prep school and has a master's degree from Columbia. As The Post's Manuel Roig-Franzia reported, his wife is pro-choice and favors gay marriage. When Cantor ran for Congress, his top issue was an education tax credit, and he ran to the left of his primary opponent on issues such as abortion and federal education policy.

Hints of this Cantor occasionally reappear even now. When I went to a town hall meeting he hosted in Richmond in the fall with a Democratic congressman, he recommended his colleagues "stop the revival stuff" with the Tea Party crowd, and he predicted a deal on health-care reform by year's end. But then he returned to Washington.

Cantor knows how to speak out against extreme views. When Virginia Rep. Jim Moran in 2007 blamed the Iraq war on the Israel lobby, Cantor branded the claim "as senseless as it is bigoted."

He was right about that, but it was easy: Moran is a Democrat. A courageous man would hold his friends to the same standard.

The writer will be online to chat with readers at 1 p.m. Monday. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion. His e-mail address is danamilbank@washpost.com.


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