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Michael Tomasky's Elastic Rules of Decent Political Discourse

Michael Tomasky, the American columnist and blogger for the U.K.'s Guardian, is shocked and dismayed that some conservatives have written venomous things about Ted Kennedy in the days since he died.  Tomasky lets the case against the tweets by Andrew Breitbart speak for itself, on the plausible theory that retrospectives including the terms "villain," "a big ass motherf@#$er," "duplicitous bastard" and "pile of human excrement" harm the eulogist's reputation more than the departed's.

Tomasky was more direct with those who posted "deeply tasteless" comments in response to his own obituary of Kennedy.  "What's the matter with you people?" Tomasky says.  And to those who want to reduce Kennedy's biography to Chappaquiddick, "Shame on you."  He pushes back against comment section critics who thought he was too generous to Kennedy and, a couple of weeks earlier, too stingy in writing Robert Novak's obituary: "All I said then was I disagreed strongly with his politics and thus couldn't offer the man a deeply heartfelt eulogy.  I didn't even mention the homeless guy he hit with his car."

There's a small and a not-so-small problem here.  The small problem is that if you applaud yourself for not mentioning something, and then mention it in the course of applauding yourself, the number of people who will join in commending you for your restraint is likely to drop sharply.  This is particularly so when a liberal criticizes a conservative for hitting a homeless guy with his car, and fails to mention that the accident occurred because of the conservative's brain tumor, which neither he nor his doctors knew about before the auto accident and was diagnosed a couple days after it.  By choosing to leave that part of the story unreported, but including the detail about the pedestrian Novak hit being homeless, Tomasky unfairly leaves the impression that the political menace Novak posed in print and on television was of a piece with the public safety menace he posed behind the wheel.

The bigger problem is that the conduct Tomasky deplores is about as tasteless, and about as representative, as the behavior of those on the Left after Ronald Reagan died in June 2004.  America is now in the midst of a bitter debate over health care reform, but the moment five years ago was politically charged, too, as the campaign to deny George W. Bush a second term was intensifying.  Most Democratic politicians and journalists dutifully said the right things and avoided saying the wrong ones after Reagan's death.  They slogged through "a week of praise for a man they didn't really like," one reporter wrote at the time.

But in a big country, where lots of people are politically engaged and some are politically enraged, message discipline is never universal.  As the news that Reagan was dying reached some anti-war protesters in front of the White House, one said, "We need to clap when he dies."  Another called him "the arch-enemy of the poor people of the world and of the people of the United States," while a third said, "He is a slime; basically, a horrible, horrible person.  People didn't like him.  They despised him."

Some of the Reagan haters had megaphones bigger than those available to street demonstrators.  An article by the playwright and activist Larry Kramer said, "The man who murdered more gay people than anyone in the entire history of the world is dead. . . More people than Hitler even."  The famous New York columnist Jimmy Breslin said Reagan "proudly hurt the boroughs of this city more than anyone before or after him.  [Since this column appeared almost three years after 9/11, this includes Osama bin Laden.]  If you live in Brooklyn, the record shows that Ronald Reagan hated children."

As for the Village Voice obituary by Tom Carson, you had to read it not to believe it.  "He should have died alone - a long, long time ago," it begins, before turning hostile.  The ensuing condolences include:

  • "I think that Reagan, like no other American, deserves the honor of being the first person ever embalmed at Disneyland." 
  • "Ronald Reagan is the man who destroyed America's sense of reality - a paltry target, all in all, given our predilections.  It only took an actor: the real successor to John Wilkes Booth." 
  • "No other chief executive has been so at ease with his own preposterousness."
If Michael Tomasky publicly rebuked his political allies for the way they reacted to Reagan's death, Google hasn't heard about it.  We do know that in 2004 Tomasky was the executive editor of The American Prospect.  Four days after Reagan's death its website published "What Reagan Taught Bush," by David Lytel, who was then running a group called "ReDefeat Bush."  Lytel's distillation of Reagan's politics included:

  • "While overt racism is unseemly, a Republican leader should signal to white-power proponents that he agrees with them: Reagan pioneered insulting the poor and powerless and proved how popular this is with white men." 
  • "Bust unions whenever you can, because those people are a danger to the continued concentration of wealth and power in the hands of trust-fund Republicans." 
Summing up, Lytel says, "In reality, Reagan was the first figurehead president, incapable of answering questions about the policies of his administration that he understood in only the most summary way, and responsible only as the public spokesperson for decisions made by others.  Reagan enhanced the role of the Republican Party as the primary vehicle for the sale of influence to corporate decision-makers eager to undermine the national government, the only institution powerful enough to confront global commercial interests seeking to evade environmental, labor, and other standards of conduct."

What's the matter with you, David Lytel?  Shame on you, Michael Tomasky.

Categories > Journalism

Discussions - 4 Comments

Yea, I can respect an ethic of suspending speaking ill of the dead for a decent interval (within reason, I'm not going to clam up when Castro bites it, but this isn't a case like that). I can respect an ethic of just calling it like you see. Its a big country so we will have well meaning people on both the right and left who folow one or the other of the above ethics. We will also have people who are just jerks.

I can't respect double standards.

At the time of Reagan's death, I collected some "Screeds of the Reagan Haters). This is from my introduction to the set:

Don't miss the one who denies Reagan ended the Cold War by giving the credit instead to a state-department flunky who wrote a paper a few decades ago. (I'm not making this up.) And don't miss the college student who begins two consecutive paragraphs with these two sentences: "The anti-Christ is dead.... I do not intend to dishonor the man...." (Honest, I'm not making this up.) And don't miss the one who cites as evidence of Reagan's insincerity the "testimony" of individuals confined to institutions because of extreme mental problems. (I mean it: I am not making this up.) And don't miss the one who thinks that Reagan "murdered" sodomites because Reagan thought that other people might think his son (Ron Reagan) was a sodomite. (I swear: I am not making this up.) And, don't miss the concluding piece: it really helps, despite its posturing, to put the others into some perspective.

"He should have died alone—a long, long time ago" might not exactly be "nice," but it's not quite as bald-faced a pronouncement as you believe. The allusion is to the David Bowie song (later covered by Nirvana) entitled "The Man Who Sold The World." Good thing you're just a pumped-up indignation machine rather than a literary critic or anything.

Oh, it's a David Bowie quote? Well, that changes everything!

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More Ted Kennedy, Tomasky takes a beating. from Jonny Newton entering the whirlpool on September 1, 2009 6:42 AM

In case you missed it Ted Kennedy is dead. As with the death of all controversial figures this has led to the typical “should we speak ill of the dead” debate. My position is that is perfectly ok to speak ill of the dead, so long as it is d... Read More

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