Howard Kurtz - Bill Clinton and echoes of 1995

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
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:

"We should never forget what drove the bombers, and how they justified their actions to themselves. They took to the ultimate extreme an idea advocated in the months and years before the bombing by an increasingly vocal minority: the belief that the greatest threat to American freedom is our government, and that public servants do not protect our freedoms, but abuse them. On that April 19, the second anniversary of the assault of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, deeply alienated and disconnected Americans decided murder was a blow for liberty. . . .

"Criticism is part of the lifeblood of democracy. No one is right all the time. But we should remember that there is a big difference between criticizing a policy or a politician and demonizing the government that guarantees our freedoms and the public servants who enforce our laws. . . .

"Fifteen years ago, the line was crossed in Oklahoma City. In the current climate, with so many threats against the president, members of Congress and other public servants, we owe it to the victims of Oklahoma City, and those who survived and responded so bravely, not to cross it again."

And here's how Rush responded Monday:

"President Clinton is now trying to shift blame. All this focus on me and the tea parties and talk radio, let's just tell it and identify it for what it is. Just like they're trying to rewrite the economic history of the 1980s, it is an attempt to rewrite the history of the Oklahoma City bombing and the president's role in it and the administration's role in it. They know this is about Waco. They know this is about the U.S. military invading a religious compound. Sixty-seven people died in the fire. We remember watching it. Twenty children, Janet Reno said we have to go in there because children are being abused. Yeah, they really got abused by the U.S. government, and this angered some people who didn't quite like this invasion domestically of military power.

"But Bill Clinton's ties -- I mean, he and his buddies in the press, the Obama administration, they can go out there and try to rewrite history and they can try to make Oklahoma City the result of a modern tea party movement which is really what they're trying to do -- but President Clinton's ties to the domestic terrorism of Oklahoma City are tangible. Talk radio's ties are nonexistent. We had nothing to do with it. There has never, ever been any -- it's ridiculous to even assert this."

It's déjà vu all over again. Two months before Oklahoma City, Limbaugh raised the issue of possible violence in a discussion of property rights and "environmental wackos": "The second violent American revolution is just about -- I got my fingers about a quarter of an inch apart -- is just about that far away. Because these people are sick and tired of a bunch of bureaucrats in Washington driving into town and telling them what they can and can't do with their land."

A lot of people are still sick and tired of Washington bureaucrats. But they need to find peaceful ways of registering their dissent, as the mainstream Tea Party folks have.

In the Washington Examiner, Byron York makes the case that Clinton was acting politically by citing the advice of Dick Morris:

"At a White House meeting. . . . on April 27, [1995,] Morris presented Clinton with a comeback strategy based on his polling. Morris prepared an extensive agenda for the session, a copy of which he would include in the paperback version of his 1999 memoir, Behind the Oval Office. This is how the April 27 agenda began:


"A. Temporary gain: boost in ratings -- here today, gone tomorrow

"B. More permanent gain: Improvements in character/personality attributes -- remedies weakness, incompetence, ineffectiveness found in recent poll

"C. Permanent possible gain: sets up Extremist Issue vs. Republicans

"Later, under the heading 'How to use extremism as issue against Republicans,' Morris told Clinton that 'direct accusations' of extremism wouldn't work because the Republicans were not, in fact, extremists. Rather, Morris recommended what he called the 'ricochet theory.' Clinton would 'stimulate national concern over extremism and terror,' and then, 'when issue is at top of national agenda, suspicion naturally gravitates to Republicans.' "

Okay, but the fact that a political adviser offered political advice doesn't mean the president was thinking just about his poll numbers. Keep in mind that 168 people had just died. Was George W. Bush thinking only about his poll numbers with his aggressive response to 9/11?

Here's what also strikes me as odd. Gun-rights groups used the occasion to stage an armed rally Monday across the river in Alexandria and Arlington. Former Alabama Minutemen leader Mike Vanderboegh said that armed confrontation might be justified if people faced arrest for failing to buy health insurance under the new law. "If I know I'm not going to get a fair trial in federal court. . . . I at least have the right to an unfair gunfight," Vanderboegh said.

And on "Hardball," a Second Amendment leader -- sorry, didn't catch his name -- told Chris Matthews that Obama thinks in an "un-American" way, "hates this country" and "hates the Constitution." (Hmm: Didn't the American military just kill two top al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq, helping make our country safer?)

But here's the thing: Has Obama proposed a single provision having to do with gun control? Has he talked about proposing any gun control? If so, I missed it. So the "restore our freedoms" rhetoric wasn't really about Obama and guns. These people just don't like the president.

Meanwhile, Washington Monthly's Steve Benen says GOP bigwigs need to speak up:

"In some ways, the silence troubles me nearly as much as the extremism itself. I want desperately to hear Republican Party officials and leaders make clear that they find overheated madness to be offensive and wrong.

"But they don't, because they can't -- Republicans are counting on rage to win elections and fill their campaign coffers."

Time's Joe Klein, meanwhile, said this week on the "Chris Matthews Show": "I looked up the definition of sedition, which is conduct or language inciting rebellion against the authority of the state. And a lot of these statements, especially the ones coming from people like Glenn Beck and to a certain extent Sarah Palin, rub right up close to being seditious."

That's a helluva strong word.

Weak Tea?

Andrew Sullivan analyzes the Tea Party movement but isn't ready to sign up:

"One has to grasp that part of the tea-party anger is pent up from the Bush years. Most of the rational tea-partiers accept that the GOP has been as bad -- if not worse -- than the Democrats on spending, borrowing and the size and scope of government in recent years. They repressed this anger during the Bush years out of partisan loyalty. Now, they're taking it all out on the newbie. It's both fair and also unfair.

"It's fair because Obama is a liberal who believes government can and should help the poor and disadvantaged and has proven it by providing access to insurance for the working poor. But it's unfair because Obama's fiscal and governing record is massively distorted by the impact of the bank meltdown, the steep revenue-killing recession, and the stimulus.

"Until its last months, the Bush administration could claim no such excuses for its awful debt-management. The big Bush jumps in discretionary spending, the big leap in entitlements under the unfunded Medicare D program, the long nation-building wars put off-budget, and the huge claims for executive power dominant in the first term: All these are far more damning to my mind than Obama's pragmatism in grappling with an economic collapse or even the health-care reform, which at least formally claims to reduce the deficit and pay for itself (unlike Bush's Medicare-D). . . .

"And this is why, despite my own deep suspicion of big government, I remain unmoved by the tea-partiers. Their partisanship and cultural hostility to Obama are far more intense, it seems to me, than their genuine proposals to reduce spending and taxation. And this is largely because they have no genuine proposals to reduce spending and taxation. They seem very protective of Medicare and Social Security -- and their older age bracket underlines this."

Sure: Cut that big bad government! But keep your hands off my Medicare.

Kagan and the Right

A conservative Harvard law professor -- who was solicitor general during the Reagan administration -- steps up to defend former Harvard Law dean Elena Kagan. Charles Fried writes in the New Republic that, for example, "when our alumnus Antonin Scalia, reached his twentieth anniversary on the Supreme Court, she arranged a gala celebratory dinner, at which she warmly introduced him to the assembly of faculty and students. . . .

"Does this all mean that she is some kind of crypto-Republican who would shift the Court to the right? And what does her behavior as dean tell us about her ideology? My clear answers are no and nothing. I do not doubt that her heart beats on the left. After all, she clerked for Abner Mikva and Thurgood Marshall, two of the most liberal judges to sit on their respective courts, and she calls Marshall her legal hero.

"No, what it all tells us is that she came to Harvard Law School at a critical time in its history and determined that it was her job to make the biggest, richest, and most famous law school in the world also the best. And that she would do it by recruiting excellent teachers from across the ideological spectrum. That she would make students with every point of view feel as if they were part of an intellectual and professional enterprise."

Pulitzer Post-Mortem

I wrote Monday about Sheri Fink, the ProPublica reporter (and doctor) who won a Pulitzer for a New York Times Magazine article on deaths at a New Orleans hospital during Katrina. She has asked me to clarify something.

I said that Fink "wants to change what she sees as a dysfunctional medical system. 'This may be a vain hope or an idealistic hope,' she says, 'but I hope that could help prevent some of the horrific experiences that were had in New Orleans.' "

What I meant was that she hoped her article would lead to changes in a medical system that is "vulnerable to disasters," as she told me -- which was, of course, the focus of her piece. Fink says the wording could be read as suggesting that she's trying to change a dysfunctional (my word) medical system as opposed to one that doesn't function well during disasters. I'm happy to make that clear.

Right-Wing Television

The Huffington Post had reported that "a new conservative-leaning network is set to launch this summer, featuring a partnership with Comcast and promotion from one of Hollywood's most outspoken Republicans."

Comcast, which is buying NBC, teaming up with the RightNetwork?

The report spread across the blogs, but then came this update:

"Comcast tells Politico that Crooks & Liars' headline -- 'Comcast partners with teabaggers to bring new right-wing broadcast network online' -- is misleading. Comcast tells me that it has received RightNetwork's pitch but has not made an official decision to partner up with them. 'We are not a partner, we don't have an investment with them and we don't have any plans to distribute the network at this time.' "

Kinda embarrassing.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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