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True Lies

L’Affaire Lott, like Enron, demonstrated the GOP’s brilliant rewriting of history. Social Security is next -- will the Democrats be ready?


So is this the year democrats finally come to terms with how thoroughly sliced and diced they have been by Republicans on the propaganda front? They’re undertaking an American Idol–type talent search for a liberal dyspeptic enough to host a talk-radio show; they’re developing a unified message operation. This is rather like the New York City Marathon runner who realizes as he’s heading into Central Park that he’s five hours off the pace, so he’d better pick it up a little. But hey, it’s never too late to start.

Conservative domination of the discourse, and Democrats’ tremulous fear of answering back in good Old Testament fashion, are among the central political facts of the age. And just when you think an issue comes up that conservatives couldn’t possibly use to their advantage, they manage to.

Even the Lott affair. An outrageous notion has been promoted by the GOP, and accepted by some otherwise intelligent people, that conservatives “won” this one because conservative commentators beat their liberal counterparts to the punch in denouncing Lott; ergo, these conservatives seized the moral high ground; ergo, the right actually gained from this experience. Peggy Noonan, a shameless propagandrix who never misses a trick of this sort, announced that conservative denunciations of Lott herald “a new -- somehow, in terms of the aesthetics of the Republican Party -- a new party being born.”

It’s wonderful that here in the early twenty-first century, conservatives like Noonan, Andrew Sullivan, Bill Kristol, and David “Axis of Evil” Frum have finally caught up with the mid-twentieth by rising as one in opposition to segregation. But beyond that, conservative rebukes of Lott mean . . . what, exactly? Lott wasn’t liberalism’s problem. He was conservatism’s problem. Conservatives should have been first to reprove him. And anyway, conservative disapproval of Lott was by no means universal. Prominent voices like William Safire, Bob Novak, Sean Hannity, and Ann Coulter either mostly ignored his remarks, offered him opportunities to set things right, or attacked liberals for attacking him. In fairness, Sullivan criticized Coulter and Novak; but what sort of code is it that grants Lott’s right-wing critics moral brownie points for agreeing, in late 2002, that segregation was a bad thing? A code written by a conservative infotainment machine that’s brilliant at selectively revisiting history.

They will say anything. To hear conservative pundits tell it, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was virtually the creation of the GOP: After all, it was mostly Democrats, the Dixiecrats, who opposed it, and it never would have passed without courageous leadership from Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen. And since they repeat this so often, the citizen who doesn’t know any better -- how vital to the whole enterprise is Americans’ lack of curiosity about history! -- is left with the blurry impression that it’s the truth.

The real truth goes more like this: A Democratic president, John Kennedy, announced his intention to seek civil-rights legislation. His Democratic successor, Lyndon Johnson, put an astonishing amount of political capital on the line to push it. Granted, it passed with Republican support, but it was a Democratic idea, and it would never have become law without a Democratic administration and massive Democratic majorities in Congress.

Those votes took place in February (House) and June (Senate) 1964. Dirksen did indeed play a crucial role in the Senate’s approval. But the same party whose cheerleaders these days lay claim to his legacy promptly turned around and undid Dirksen’s good work. The month after the Senate passed civil rights, the Republican Party, whose platforms of 1956 and 1960 were pro–civil rights, met in San Francisco in July 1964 and changed its platform to oppose civil rights (somehow, the phrase “San Francisco Republicans” has never caught on). Goldwater carried the South. The racist Dixiecrats or their descendants became Republicans. Year by year, the Dirksens floated away. If he were alive today, he would be either a Democrat or a moderate Republican against whom Karl Rove would have found a right-wing candidate to back in a primary.

And since I mention Goldwater, have you read anywhere recently that the Republican presidential candidate with the worst performance among black voters since Goldwater is . . . George W. Bush? Probably not. Call me cynical, but I suspect the fact of Bush’s hideous performance among blacks -- just under 9 percent of the total black vote -- goes a long way toward explaining the frantic separation from Lott sought by conservative commentators and the White House itself.

The same Republican Party that lays claim to Dirksen promptly turned around and undid his good work.

From this, conservatism emerges enhanced? Only because Democrats permit it. Conservatives may run race through the spin cycle more vigorously and dishonestly than they do most other subjects, but the m.o. works across the board. Last year, during the Enron scandal, the media cast about for political blame and agreed that something called the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 was partially culpable. The GOP’s pamphleteers quickly got out the fact that Democratic senator Chris Dodd was one of its great champions, which then allowed the pundit class to conclude that “Democrats and Republicans are equally responsible.”

Not quite. The act, which limited shareholders’ right to file lawsuits if they had reason to suspect fishy bookkeeping, was in fact a vital plank of the Contract With America. Republicans in both houses backed it to the hilt. Democrats (plus Bernie Sanders) split on it evenly in the House and opposed it in the Senate. Bill Clinton, facing considerable pressure to do otherwise, vetoed it. Dodd played his dubious part, it’s true, and fie on him for doing so. But the larger truth is that were it entirely up to Democrats, this law would never have passed.

But why am I telling you all this? Daschle and Edwards and Lieberman and Hillary should be. A big Social Security– privatization debate looms this year, and unless Democrats put their gloves on, the Noonans of the world will soon have America convinced that Social Security was a Republican idea in the first place.


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