26 Sep

Today’s GOP a political bedlam

I find myself wondering today whether Abraham Lincoln would feel comfortable in the Republican Party of 2009.

By Don Wycliff, Chicago Tribune, September 27, 2009


Last year I had the good fortune to serve as editor of the commemorative publication of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. (Would that the publication’s distribution had been as impressive as the contributions of the writers.) During the course of that assignment, I spent more time reading and thinking about our nation’s first Republican president and his party than I had since grade school, way back in the 1950s.

I find myself wondering today whether Abraham Lincoln would feel comfortable in the Republican Party of 2009. I wonder if Teddy Roosevelt would. Or Everett Dirksen.

For a person like me — who opposes abortion, believes in a balanced budget, thinks government funding for agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts is an affront to the First Amendment and has a substantial libertarian streak — today’s Republican Party is an appalling spectacle, a political bedlam.

At least at the national level, the contemporary party of Lincoln looks to me like a confederacy — and I use the word advisedly — of weak-kneed politicians cowed by a posse of braying broadcast bullies who do what passes for the thinking of a mob of the frightened, the resentful and the bigoted.

And don’t give me that garbage about playing the race card and how the existence of that nincompoop Michael Steele as party chairman proves the party’s bona fides on race. Steele would be an embarrassment to any party that had a capacity for it, but the GOP is no longer such a party. Steele’s chairmanship is as much an act of cynicism as was the selection last year of the manifestly incompetent Sarah Palin as the party’s nominee for vice president.

How did the party of Lincoln allow itself to be taken over by the claque of crazies who now define it? How is it that a black person who in many respects is attracted to Republican ideology finds himself revulsed by the party, which seems to have fallen under the control of people who just can’t for the life of them make peace with the outcome of the Civil War?

I have watched the party’s standard-bearer in last year’s election stand, seemingly tongue-tied, in front of an audience howling the most vile lunacy about the president of the United States, the nation’s first African-American president — that he is not an American citizen, not “one of us”; that he is a Muslim in league with terrorists; that he is out to subvert the Constitution of the United States. I have watched John McCain stand in front of such people and respond as if he were speaking with reasonable people.

At some point, it is incumbent on a statesman and a national hero to say, “What you have said is intolerable and, yes, un-American. And if that is how you propose to conduct our national discourse, you’ll need to leave my town hall and do it elsewhere.”

And then there is the goon squad — Limbaugh, Beck and Hannity — who among them may possess the equivalent of one functional brain, no guts and zero decency. These creatures are willing to be as unprincipled, outrageous and intellectually dishonest as they need to be to keep their pathetic disciples inflamed and their fat paychecks coming.

Amid the most incendiary issue in American public life — race — they toss around lighted verbal matches, virtually inviting a conflagration.

The U.S. increasingly has the feel nowadays of what I’ve heard Dallas was like in the latter half of 1963. Increasingly beleaguered segregationists were becoming ever more extreme in their attitude of massive resistance and their stance of militant defiance toward the federal government. The city seethed with gun-toters and bitter-enders. It felt like a powder keg.

President John F. Kennedy, who died in that Dallas, used to say, quoting Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

I know what the responses of the goon squad will be when some hater, hopped up on their he’s-not-one-of-us, take-back-our-country rants, acts on their veiled suggestions. Or maybe I don’t. I probably underestimate their viciousness.

But I wonder what the John McCains, the Chuck Grassleys and other “good men” of the GOP — the ones who think of themselves as true heirs of the Abe Lincoln-Teddy Roosevelt-Everett Dirksen tradition — will say?

Don Wycliff teaches journalism at Loyola University Chicago.

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