The letters to the editor section of newspapers for the past decade or more has been emblematic of the general slide in public discourse. Online comments are another matter entirely. In many ways it’s become the unfettered trash bin of human interaction.
Supporters of President Obama seem to believe political criticism is worse today than ever. I tend to disagree. I didn’t referee an opinion page during the Clinton or George W. Bush years but I read the ones published — and withheld by editors — at the time. It was harsh stuff. Clinton’s attackers accused him of everything from petty theft to the murder of administration official Vince Foster. Bush’s critics viewed him as everything from Hitler to Dopey from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” I also like to remind people that President Franklin Roosevelt was branded a “socialist” by the letter writers and conservative pundits of that time.
Little has changed, apparently.
For the past five years, though, I’ve cut, trimmed, whistled foul and elected not to publish letters for the Times-News. I tend to err on the side of allowing members of the public to speak their minds in our “Open Forum.” There are boundaries. And even though I edit much of the more objectionable stuff out, consistent letter writers still try to slip one past the goalie.
Every so often something slips past.
Supporters of the president also believe they see racial motives in some of the criticism. It’s a point I hear often and I have given leeway to those who wish to make that charge. I can only say that as an editor only overt racial overtones are omitted when it comes to criticizing the president — and I truly see that kind of thing rarely. On policy or substance matters the president remains fair game, as is any public leader. Is it always fair or completely accurate? No, then again, neither are the claims the politicians make about each other. If politicians can’t engage with any common sense how can anyone logically expect their supporters to be any better?
Bottom line, I can’t read between the lines on letters to determine what someone’s motives might or could be or what is truly in a person’s heart. I can say that some of it is knee-jerk partisan politics — which is really something I’ve grown weary of over the past 20 years. No matter the issue, if Democrats are for it, then Republicans are vociferously against it — and vice-versa. Could be something one party supported a matter of a year or two ago, now they are solidly opposed just because of party affiliation.
For example, I simply can’t understand why war under one party’s administration differs from war under that of the other. I can’t fathom why both sides can’t look at the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction proposal and work out an agreement. I am dumfounded that when an American outpost is targeted in a foreign nation and an ambassodor killed and dragged through the streets that both partisan camps worry about how it will play politically and craft responses meant to damage each other.
Then again, I’m neither Republican nor Democrat. I root for a better nation, global harmony, heroism and intriguing stories about people accomplishing amazing feats. I fear I am in the minority.