Howard Kurtz - Bill Clinton and echoes of 1995
Tuesday, April 20, 2010; 7:57 AM
The political finger-pointing over the Oklahoma City tragedy began even before all the victims had been buried.
It was 15 years ago, but I remember it vividly: The shock and horror over what was then the worst act of domestic terrorism in American history. The depressing reality that the suspects were American citizens. And the blame game that quickly followed.
I wrote this lead for a front-page Washington Post story:
"President Clinton yesterday denounced the 'loud and angry voices' that inflame the public debate and called on the American people to speak out against 'the purveyors of hatred and division.'
"Addressing last week's bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, Clinton said the nation's airwaves are too often used 'to keep some people as paranoid as possible and the rest of us all torn up and upset with each other. They spread hate, they leave the impression that, by their very words, that violence is acceptable. . . . It is time we all stood up and spoke against that kind of reckless speech and behavior,' he said in Minneapolis."
Rush Limbaugh, who everyone knew was a target of Clinton's broadside, accused liberals of trying to foment a "national hysteria" against the conservative movement: "Make no mistake about it: Liberals intend to use this tragedy for their own political gain." He blamed "many in the mainstream media" for "irresponsible attempts to categorize and demonize those who had nothing to do with this."
Now they're at it again.
The 42nd president is out there saying that the current climate reminds him of the period before the Oklahoma bombing. Limbaugh is accusing him (and Barack Obama) of libeling radio talk-show hosts. And the debate has broadened to include Sarah Palin and her "reload" rhetoric, as well as the Tea Party.
My feelings about this now are as mixed as they were in 1995. Inflammatory rhetoric can be dangerous. There is no shortage of nuts out there. And yet if we tar with too broad a brush, we unfairly taint those who stridently criticize the administration in power as being somehow responsible for violence. Why did that pilot, ticked off at the Internal Revenue Service, fly his plane into the IRS building in Austin? Is it fair to blame an incident like that on cable or radio talk shows?
There is no question that the Murrah Building bombing helped revive Clinton's political fortunes. He was down in the polls after the GOP takeover of Congress. The day before, he was reduced to proclaiming that the president was still "relevant." Clinton's skillful handling of that moment of national grief sparked the beginning of a turnaround. I don't believe he attacked those who "spread hate" just to score political points, but the benefits of going after right-wing talkers can't have escaped the White House.
Such assignation of blame has long been embedded in our political culture. Richard Nixon won on a law-and-order platform after the left's anti-Vietnam excesses in 1968. Shortly after the 1992 L.A. riots, George H.W. Bush blamed the failure of Great Society programs and Democrats blamed the GOP's inattention to urban problems.
Now Clinton has taken to the New York Times op-ed page to offer a lesson: