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6 March 2000

Smile-a-while (part II): Word of northern aggression

Synopsis: Do southerners get to call northerners "bigots?" The press corps invented an etiquette rule in discussing Pat Robertson’s phone calls.

Who's a Bigot?
Editorial, The Washington Post, 2/24/00

Advising McCain, Rudman Is Happily Back in the Fray
Carey Goldberg, The New York Times, 2/26/00

Unbecoming Bush
Richard Cohen, The Washington Post, 2/24/00

Willie Horton Redux
Anthony Lewis, The New York Times, 2/26/00

Reining In Robin Hood
Mary McGrory, The Washington Post, 3/2/00

Our analysts admire Warren Rudman, the former New Hampshire senator. A social note—we found ourselves seated next to Rudman's sister on our way back from the recent events in that state. We asked her to give our regards to the man who helped enlighten the nation on fiscal matters. (To construct a full seating chart of our star-studded flight, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/3/00.)

But Senator Rudman, for all his virtues, does have a bit of a mouth. He's been known to call folks a few choice ones. Take his 1996 memoir, Combat. Here is part of what Rudman said about the Christian right:

RUDMAN: Politically speaking, the Republican Party is making a terrible mistake if it appears to ally itself with the Christian right. There are some fine, sincere people in its ranks, but there are enough anti-abortion zealots, would-be censors, homophobes, bigots and latter-day Elmer Gantry's to discredit any party that is unwise enough to embrace such a group.

Yikes! "He also called some right-wing leaders' attacks on his friend, Gen. Colin L. Powell, bigoted," writes Carey Goldberg in a recent New York Times profile of Rudman.

Are there "bigoted" people in the Christian right? We advise against the use of that word unless there's no way to avoid it. To be fair, it's hardly surprising that Christian conservatives opposed General Powell for being pro-choice. And "Elmer Gantry" is a term of regional derision, one to which southerners will often take offense. In our view, it's hardly surprising if southern Christian conservatives don't share our view of this solon's many virtues.

But some uptown pundits were simply shocked when Pat Robertson launched those Michigan phone calls—the ones calling Rudman the same naughty name which Rudman had dished in the past. In the calls, Pat saw Warren and raised him one, calling him a "vicious bigot." Any kid on the schoolyard will tell you the rule—what you call me, I can call you. But here was the thoroughly shocked editorial that appeared in the Washington Post:

THE WASHINGTON POST (paragraph 1): The primaries buzz with slurs and insults, and no candidate can claim to be above the fray. But one recent attack seemed especially distasteful. It is leveled at former senator Warren Rudman, one of John McCain's campaign chairmen. In a barrage of recorded phone messages in Michigan, Mr. Rudman has been called "a vicious bigot."

So why was that attack so bad? The scolding scribes instantly clued us:

THE WASHINGTON POST (2): Mr. Rudman has been singled out for this abuse apparently because he clashed with the religious right in 1995. At that time, Christian conservatives were seeking to head off a presidential run by Colin Powell, whose pro-choice views they opposed. Mr. Rudman came to Mr. Powell's defense; he later wrote that opposition to him had involved "a remarkable display of political obtuseness" on the part of the religious groups. He also wrote that, though the Christian Coalition included "some fine, sincere people in their ranks," other members were tainted by "ignorance and bigotry."

(3) For this, Mr. Rudman is now himself labeled a bigot...

And yes! If you call other people "bigots," they are likely to call you that too. Every kid on the playground knows it, but it's news to the folks at the Post. Indeed, a new etiquette rule has gone on display in the wake of the recent Robertson flap. Northerners get to call southerners bigots. When southerners say it back, it's not nice.

By the way, the Post had lightly scrubbed Rudman's remarks, leaving out the "zealots" and the "Elmer Gantrys." Goldberg, more open, fully quoted the Combat passage we've cited. But even he seemed somewhat shocked when Rudman was called the naughty name he had used. Here's the way the Timesman sketched it, right after he quoted Rudman's book:

GOLDBERG: [Rudman] also called some right-wing leaders' attacks on his friend Colin L. Powell bigoted.

But that is a far cry from making him an anti-religious bigot, Mr. Rudman said, and...he has found many rallying to his defense. In Manhattan recently, he said, "I was stopped 8 or 10 times between 52nd and Sixth, and 50th and Park, and everybody said almost the same thing, quote: 'You Senator Rudman?' I said, 'Right.' 'Hey, don't let that idiot bother you.'"

There he goes again! In Rudman's telling, if the bigots try to call names back, that just shows that they're "idiots," too.

Our analysts tried to puzzle the rules that governed the endless name-calling. But they emitted their usual low, mordant chuckles when Richard Cohen jumped into the fray. Here was Cohen, in the Post, on the same day as his paper's editorial:

COHEN: In telephone messages to voters, Robertson singled out...former senator Warren Rudman as a "vicious bigot."

This is an odd description of the affable Rudman, and it is based—as is often the case with Robertson—on nothing much. In his memoir, the former New Hampshire senator characterized the Christian Coalition, Robertson's organization, as intolerant and focused on abortion—although he added that he was not referring to all conservative Christians. In a message Robertson left on Michigan answering machines, Rudman's characterization was made pithier: "zealots, homophobes, and would-be censors." By coincidence, Robertson just happens to be a zealot, homophobe and would-be censor. This shoe fits perfectly.

See that? Insults against southerners are "nothing much." And who, dear reader, plays censor here? Cohen, calling Rudman "affable," scrubs up the things Rudman said. Cohen never tells readers that Rudman yelled "bigot," and spins down the tone of the things Rudman said. Most remarkably: in the highlighted passage, Cohen plainly pretends that Robertson invented the language used in the Michigan phone calls. Cohen baldly deceives his readers about what Rudman originally said.

Do southerners get to call northerners bigots? Not in some parts of DC. It's an insult that only can travel one way in the minds of our shocked correspondents. For ourselves, we'd prefer that the boys not call names at all—that they stick to our beloved substance and issues. In 1995, it was perfectly understandable that Christian conservatives would oppose Colin Powell for being pro-choice. There was no need to call any names from the start—we're pretty sure that's what Mom would have said.


Et tu, Tony? Two days later, in the New York Times, Anthony Lewis did somewhat better. He at least was willing to say that Robertson's language had come from Rudman's book:

LEWIS: [In Michigan] an honorable man's campaign stooped to conquer—and surrogates did the dirty work.

On the eve of the Michigan primary, Pat Robertson had automated telephone calls made to thousands of voters attacking Senator McCain's national chairman, former senator Warren R. Rudman of New Hampshire. He called Senator Rudman a "vicious bigot" for having written that some in the Christian right are "anti-abortion zealots, homophobes, and would-be censors."

Unlike Cohen, Lewis doesn't pretend that The Rev made up Rudman's language. But he doesn't tell readers the full extent of what Rudman said in his book. The fact that Rudman called other folk "bigots" keeps disappearing from these scribes' outraged work. Man! When northerners call them southerners "bigots," it heads down the memory hole!

More strikingly, Lewis asserts that Bush's campaign "stooped to conquer" in Robertson's phone calls, although he offers no evidence—none at all—that the Bush campaign was involved in the calls. (They have flatly said that they were not. Lewis presents no contrary evidence.) But then, Lewis also uses half his column to retell the story of the 1988 Willie Horton ad wars. He then says: "Of course Governor Bush cannot be blamed" for that conduct. Why then does he laboriously describe it? We're sad to say it, but this column presents a textbook display of guilt-by-association. But wait a minute! Isn't that the sort of thing them snake-handlers do—you know, them zealots who live way down south?


Easy to be hard: Mary McGrory let the crackers have it in her column last week in the Post:

MCGRORY: Bush went to Bob Jones University—as McCain never lets him forget—where anti-Catholicism is in the curriculum and interracial dating is forbidden. Bush said not one word about these matters while on the premises. By contrast McCain went to Virginia Beach, the bigots' lair, and let them have it.

Which "bigots" is McGrory describing? Presumably Robertson, and apparently Falwell. How many others besides? McGrory makes no effort to say who she means, or to defend her claim that she's dealing with bigots. So do some enlightened pundits handle the breed from the south.