"American Experience" on PBS broadcast its latest in a series of documentaries on U.S. Presidents. It was another good offering, this time on Bill Clinton.
Two thoughts came to mind while watching:
1. Dick Morris sure is impressed with himself. He was about the only self-serving expert to be interviewed in the four-hour program. And that includes a great many members of the Clinton Administration, who obviously had a stake in an historical look back.
2. What happened during the Clinton years to start the cycle of absolute hatred between the two sides of politics?
It's the second issue that deserves the most attention. For whatever reason, Clinton turned into a polarizing figure in record time. It's almost as if our politics got off the tracks right there.
Yes, Clinton was a man of huge appetites, with a tendency toward self-destruction. I'll never understand the relationship between Bill and Hillary along those lines. He took some steps in office that worked, and some that didn't. That happens in the Presidential business; you just have to hope that you win more than you lose.
But, jeesh, somewhere in there we went over the line of rationality. Clinton was no longer the political opposition, he was the enemy. The level of rhetoric went over the top.
And where has that led us? When Democrats lost the White House in 2000, they obviously remembered what had happened in the previous eight years. So ... George Bush wasn't merely wrong, he was an idiot. The man couldn't even put a sentence together, went the argument. There are still those who can't understand how John Kerry lost to "that man" in 2004.
Then things flipped again in 2008, when Barack Obama won. It was the right's turn to attack again, and they have answered the call. That has carried over to the 2012 campaign, with a couple of new wrinkles raising the stakes.
First, the rise of the Tea Party crowd has led to Republican candidates raising their rhetorical levels of disagreement to new heights. Obama isn't just wrong on issues, he's declaring war against our religious institutions, values, etc. I'm not sure how you win a general election that way, but that's an issue for down the road.
Then there's the case of the superpacks. Philosophically, it's hard to quarrel too much with the idea that the use of money is covered under free speech. But its consequences aren't exactly constructive.
In other words, if one of Newt Gingrich's rich pals wants to spend $10 million funding nasty television advertisements that rip the other candidates to shreds, he's welcome to do so. That doesn't make it a good idea. We all could make a long, long list of better things that could be done with that $10 million, but except for those in television ad sales, we probably agree that it's not helping the level of political discourse.
It's tough to guess where elements of the media fit in to all of this. From the right, people like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity keep raising the stakes of what idiocy comes from the other side. On the other side, Keith Olbermann and Ed Schulz just reverse the arguments. They all have a stake at raising their voices louder and nastier, in an effort to keep their viewers energized. It's just tough to know how genuine it all is.
A great many people don't vote in this country. There are a number of reasons for that, such as difficult registration laws and inconvenient voting hours (why aren't we voting on the weekend, anyway?). There's also a feeling among some that there isn't much difference between the candidates in practical terms, so why bother?
But you'd have to think that some people are getting turned off by the entire process. Too often, after hearing a political ad or speech, those people must feel the urge to take a very hot shower and wash away the stain.
It would be nice to see someone take the high road once in a while. But I'm not holding my breath.