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Heated rhetoric 2010: Same stuff, different president


There's something striking about a particular Obama-as-Hitler graphic that occasionally shows up on protest signs in shots from the Tea Parties. The first time I saw it, I did a double-take. Design-wise, it was a close replica of a popular Bush-as-Hitler graphic that showed up on signs and T-shirts in the anti-war protests during the Bush era.

Was it a coincidence? Or had whoever designed it deliberately photo-shopped Bush out and Obama in? Was it a merchandiser whose new graphic was then swiped? Or maybe a Tea Partier with a sense of humor who saw it during the Bush-Hitler era and thought he'd be a smart aleck and bring it back?

Whatever the case, it was amusing to recently hear former president Bill Clinton warn that Rep. Michele Bachmann's rhetoric before a Tea Party gathering could have "serious consequences." Clinton compared it to the anti-government rhetoric he claimed preceded the Oklahoma City federal building bombing. He suggested that with the Internet, it could motivate "profoundly alienated, disconnected people who bought into the militant anti-government line," or people who were "seriously disturbed" to do something regrettable.

Clinton was objecting to Bachmann's use of the term "gangster government." Articles about Clinton's admonishment were carried in nearly every major newspaper in the country, including The Charlotte Observer. That's ironic considering that a search of Lexis-Nexis shows that Clinton had zip, zilch, nada to say about the rhetoric of the anti-war marchers who took to the streets over the Iraq war during the Bush administration. Or if Clinton did, reporters didn't think enough of it to record it.

For reference, I've collected a whole gallery of Bush-Hitler/Bush-swastika pictures and references from those marches that I periodically post to my WBT website. Particularly popular during the period at anti-war rallies were Bush burnings and lynchings. Protesters carried signs that showed the president being lynched or dolls of the president hanging from a noose. Graphics depicting the president beheaded were popular as well.

The reaction to the Hitler references that have jumped from the anti-war rallies to the Tea Parties is the most ironic. Basically no one cared when the anti-war protesters did it.

Which brings us back to Clinton. When Guido Calabresi, a federal appeals court judge appointed by Clinton to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and former Yale Law School dean, likened Bush's rise to that of Hitler and Mussolini in 2004, Clinton didn't bat an eyelash. He's not on the record anywhere with a condemnation of Calabresi.

The Calabresi affair was treated as a footnote by news editors, who largely ignored the Associated Press' wire story on the matter. Few cared when Sen. Robert Byrd likened Bush to Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering. Or when Sen. Dick Durbin in 2005 likened our supposed mistreatment of Guantánamo Bay prisoners to something "done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags or some mad regime -- Pol Pot or others."

Also popular during the time were plays, books and even a movie depicting Bush's assassination as a positive thing. Those were written off as artistic efforts. Again, nothing from Clinton.

I didn't have much to say during the Bush-Hitler era about the rhetorical tactics of the left because I've never been particularly bothered by heated political rhetoric. I've always believed the country is better off when opposing sides are engaged and yelling at each other. It sure beats apathy or milquetoast rhetoric that fails to capture anyone's imagination -- or their attention.

I began collecting anti-war-era memorabilia more recently after it suddenly became "dangerous" to criticize one's government. I bring this up not as scorekeeping, but as proof that the Republic will probably survive Bachmann's use of the word "gangster" to describe the government. If the use of words like "gangster," which is comparatively tame, pushes a delusional person over the edge, they were going over the edge anyway. It was just a matter of time.

This idea that political pontificators should be held captive by the whims of the loonies among us who might blow something up if they are exposed to heated rhetoric is a bizarre line of reasoning given that we live in a country founded upon revolution. It's akin to arguing that the founding fathers shouldn't have bucked the British because people got hurt and killed in the process. No one says that. They'd look like an idiot.

I'm sure that those who challenged our country's path at every critical juncture, including the abolitionists, suffragettes and those at the lunch counters, heard the same junk about how their rhetoric was dangerous and could embolden fringe nutcases.

It was then what it still is now -- a form of intimidation by those hoping to bully them into shutting up.

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