Conservative Talk Radio Unmasked: the McCain Vendetta
Listening to conservative radio talk show hosts fulminate about Senator John McCain, one would be excused in thinking there was another senator with the same name. Surely the words “liberal,” “RINO” (“Republican In Name Only”), and “socialist” couldn’t be connected to the political heir of Barry Goldwater, a pro-life, pro-gun, pro-Iraq War fiscal penny-pincher whose votes on the U.S. Senate floor tilt rightward approximately 85% of the time! But indeed they are, as the Airwaves Generals of Red Nation, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Rusty Humphreys, Mark Levin, Michael Reagan, Glenn Beck and Laura Ingraham, have launched an ugly and unprecedented verbal assault of hate against the GOP presidential frontrunner. The real ugliness is the rationale behind the attacks, however, a philosophy that is as profoundly unethical as it is un-American. The McCain vendetta has exposed the ethical emptiness of conservative radio as thoroughly as the Clintons’ divisive tactics against Barrack Obama has revealed their ruthlessness.
McCain’s offense is that he is a statesman who believes in the classic construct that politics is a tool for the democratic process to achieve positive results. Rush and the Gang, in contrast, believe that politics is ideological warfare—good against evil—and that only the non-ethical principles of ancient warfare apply. Win at all costs. Show no mercy. Be loyal to your side above all else. Hate your enemy. Never compromise. Never surrender. To these arrogant ideologues,, Senator McCain’s willingness to build bi-partisan alliances and to compromise with Democrats in search of solutions to complex and controversial issues isn’t an admirable trait in the tradition of the great statesman senators of the past—Webster, Clay, Borah, Taft, Mansfield, Dirkson, Humphrey, Baker, Moynihan and many others—but a sign of ideological weakness and disloyalty. “Our mission is to defeat these people!” shouted Limbaugh, in one of his anti-McCain tirades, pronouncing “people” as if it described an army of cannibals, Morlocks, necrophiliacs and Romulans. “Look at him!” proclaimed Sean Hannity on his Fox cable show, viewing a film clip of McCain speaking . “He’s standing with Lieberman!“
It takes no great perception to note that this attitude, too prominent on the part of influential voices on both ends of the U.S. political spectrum, has done deep and festering damage to the nation over the past eight years, and even before. America’s political system was carefully devised to encourage cooperation, accommodation and compromise among civil, selfless and rational individuals; indeed, nothing of much value can occur without these features. But the talk radio conservatives, a depressing group that includes almost no one with actual experience managing diverse people or balancing challenging projects and competing objectives in the real world, only understand the ethics of battle, which is largely no ethics at all. In their pure, utilitarian world, where their objectives are so unassailably desirable that any cruel tactic, lie, or misuse of influence and power is justified, trying to work with one’s critics and adversaries is treason. And there are more than enough hate-filled Democrats and liberals of a similar mind to respond in kind.
The self-righteous talk-show hosts would have their too-trusting listeners believe that their disagreement with McCain is over matters of substance, that opposing him is essential to preserve, as Laura Ingraham puts it, “the soul of the Republican Party.” That “soul” is apparently threatened by McCain’s realistic approach to illegal immigration in contrast to the phony, fanciful, chest-thumping “no amnesty; send ’em all back where they came from” non-position pushed by the extreme Right and cravenly adopted by Mitt Romney as part of his convenient metamorphosis from liberal governor to conservative champion. That “soul” is supposedly endangered by McCain’s resistance to obscene pork-barrel spending by Republicans like Alaska’s Ted Stevens, and his quite reasonable objection to tax cuts during wartime when they are not accompanied by spending restraints. McCain, they say, menaces that “soul” by trying to limit the influence of big money interest groups on political campaigns, an effort the Right Talkers condemn as a First Amendment offense, but really object to because the freedom to corrupt by checkbook gives a partisan edge to GOP fundraising. And most offensive to that “soul” of all, it seems that McCain committed the heresy of stating that committed couples of the same sex should be able to have the same governmental recognition of their union as heterosexual couples. The horror.
But none of these positions make McCain a liberal, any more than these positions should pose a danger to the soul of any party with a soul larger than a raisin. People who require total agreement with and submission to one set of opinions on difficult issues aren’t referred to as Republicans. They are called other names, like bullies, fanatics, and dictators.
Oddly, Rush and the others didn’t find the “soul of the Republican Party” similarly threatened by former House Republican leader Tom DeLay’s slimy reign of corruption, or by Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert’s willingness to ignore the evident misconduct of crooks like Duke Cunningham and Bob Ney, or creeps like Mark Foley, as long as they voted the party line. Nor did the talk show hosts detect damage to the conservative Republican soul by embarrassingly inept Bush appointees like Alberto Gonzalez and Michael Brown, or by Senate leader Bill Frist’s disgraceful attempts to use the power of the national legislature to interfere with Terri Schiavo’s husband’s legal and human right to carry out his wife’s expressed wishes. Nor was that sensitive soul diminished by the sinister vote-buying schemes of Jack Abramoff and Ralph Reed. These and more fiascos of a conservative movement that drowned itself in a wave of greed, hubris, meanness, incompetence and dishonesty aren’t the problem, according to the pronouncements of the Radio Prophets. The problem is that Senator John McCain is willing to work with those evil Democrats. Conservative icon Dick Cheney’s open endorsement of torture doesn’t offend the radio conservatives. It is John McCain’s willingness to work with duly elected representatives of the American people like Ted Kennedy and Russ Feingold that must be punished. Hannity, Limbaugh and Ingraham can excuse Abu Ghraib, but John McCain’s willingness to consider John Kerry’s overtures to be his running mate in 2004 is unforgivable.
Welcome to the values and priorities of conservative talk radio.
The increasingly shrill attacks scream ethical bankruptcy. An honest, courageous and honorable man tries to address serious national issues the only way the democratic system allows, by compromise and consensus, and he is condemned for it. Senator McCain’s position on any issue may be wise or misguided; I happen to believe that he is right more often than not, but that is not the concern of the Ethics Scoreboard. The Scoreboard’s concern is this: media opinion-makers who use hateful words to attack a public servant because he demonstrates independent thought, civility, respect, courage and fairness prove that they do not believe ethical values are as important as brute political power. This attitude was indefensible when the conservative Republicans controlled the government and had the trust of a large segment of the public; it is simply ludicrous now. And it should demonstrate to any member of the conservative talk radio audience who is paying attention that Rush and Laura and Michael and Sean have overstepped their roles and their competence. They have their place: they promote dialogue on national issues and provide provocative commentary, and that’s fine, no matter how much it irritates Democrats. They can be funny and flip and occasionally perceptive. But they are also mostly narrow and close-minded demagogues confined in little rooms with microphones, and they severely overestimate their own expertise and perspective. Anyone who votes according to what a radio talk show host says is, quite simply, a fool.
And the talk show hosts are fools as well. Their ill-motivated vendetta against McCain has exposed their pettiness and the baseness of their values more than ever before. The Scoreboard hopes enough Americans notice.