On Unanimously Liberal PBS Show, Ex-Newsweek Editor Hypes Conservative 'Fuel on the Garage Floor' in Tucson

On the late-night PBS talk show Charlie Rose on Monday night, the debate about who to blame for the Tucson shootings was a unanimously liberal media panel. NBC anchor Brian Williams and Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein tried to be careful, but recently departed Newsweek editor Jon Meacham wanted to push blame on “hot talk.” As Rose interviewed Williams (from a remote in Tucscon), Meacham jumped in to ask: “Brian, is it your sense that there was anything particular about the climate in Arizona, the political climate, that may have put fuel on the garage floor here?”

Williams claimed “I’m not equipped and haven’t seen enough evidence” to draw lines (although Andrea Mitchell played up the controversy for Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck in a Monday night story). Ezra Klein said “it is very, very hard to draw any connections,” but Meacham was eager to assess blame, that in eras of liberal “change,” like the Sixties or the Obama era there’s more violence:

JON MEACHAM: I disagree I think a bit. The word "assassination" itself has a political connotation. This was an assassination attempt with victims who were in the line of fire. Assassinations happen in times of turmoil and change and almost always -- almost always -- they are carried out by people for whom you cannot draw a causal connection.

In our most recent analogous period beginning in 1963 and ending about 1975, beginning with the death of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and I would argue going through the Kennedys, Dr. King, George Wallace, and the two attempts on President Ford's life, you had enormous social, political, cultural upheaval in which political violence took root and flowered.

You then had a fairly -- a quieter period. Now, to be sure Oklahoma City, besides that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? I see that. But the attacks on individuals is something that did go down in the `90s and the first decade of the new century. And so I think it does have something to do with the way in which we talk about politics and the way in which it`s practiced in not just in the farthest corners of the fringes but also pretty close to the surface.

Klein said "I simply don't agree. I hear what Jon is saying about past periods, but I think when you speak about something like what happens in the civil rights movement with prominent activists being killed, you really can draw that causal connection." This is where Meacham drew parallels between the Sixties and the Obama era:

MEACHAM: I think we do have that evidence. I think we are in a moment not unlike `61, `62, `63. Lee Harvey Oswald, Arthur Lee Bremer, James Earl Ray were not political scientists. These were not men who took a direct ideological stand in order to carry out their crimes.

I just think the atmosphere, and a lot of folks worried about this, particularly last year, remember September in particular when there was some question about whether the president could address schoolchildren in America’s public schools, where the guns were showing up at health care debates. I do think this -- and that reminded -- I think we talked about this. That reminded me of Adlai Stevenson and Lady Bird Johnson getting jostled in Dallas. And I don’t think it is irresponsible to assess the climate with a cold eye without overreacting. But I would not under-react either.

Questioning Obama speaking to school children could lead to violence? Unbelievable. Charlie Rose nudged Ezra Klein to agree with Meacham that conservatives were dangerous, and then Klein obliged:

CHARLIE ROSE: When you sit back and assess our rhetoric, what conclusions do you reach?

KLEIN: I think it has been genuinely worrisome. I think the scariest thing for people in the hours after the attack before we knew more about the alleged murder was realizing what happened could have fit so easily within things people had been saying if they had been taken literally. When Michelle Bachman talks about "armed and dangerous" resistance to the cap and trade bill, or Sharron Angle talks about Second Amendment remedies if this Congress keeps going the way it`s going, or Sarah Palin talks about "don`t retreat, instead reload" this sort of gun-based and violence-based imagery is very scary.

And so there was a nice comment on the blog of James Fallows at the Atlantic, and this person wrote in and said "The governing theory of our rhetoric in this country should be no regrets, which is to say if something happens we shouldn`t have to regret what we said a year ago, a month ago, six months ago." And I don`t think we`ve been living by that rule.

I will say it isn`t just violent imagery. It`s been the relentless increase in what we tell people the stakes are. We talk about death panels and we talk threats to freedom and the most corrupt administration in history. That, to be sure, more than the violence is what worries me because you`re telling people to be a patriot you need to believe that something unusual is happening to this country, and that does imply perhaps more extreme remedies.

This is not a discussion Charlie Rose encouraged during the Bush years, that implying the country was in extremely dire straits under Bush was a dangerous trend of incivility that could lead to violence. Meacham then dragged out the old left-wing historical trope that "the paranoid style" in American politics is uniquely conservative:

I think Ezra has just described very well what Richard Hofstadter in October of 1964 described as "The Paranoid Style of American Politics" in a piece in Harper`s where he talks about exactly the kinds of folks who -- whom I think we see more and more of now who believe that every crisis is existential, there is no room for compromise because everything is apocalyptic -- that was Hofstadter`s word -- so that politics is not the Madisonian working out of differences. It is in fact a Manichean struggle between good and evil. And I am good and you are evil. And so therefore -- and this may be where the daylight is between me and Ezra -- the distinction is how do you react that climate? Do you demonize and do you then take a step? Do you create a climate in which steps then go to violence become more likely?

Conservatives on nights like this really wonder why Rose can't seem to find his phone number for Rich Lowry at National Review, who used to be fairly regular on the show, or Byron York. But it was a one-sided left-wing hootenanny.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis