By MARSHA MERCER
“They always blame America first,” Jeane Kirkpatrick said in 1984, describing Democrats.
With those five words at the Republican National Convention, Kirkpatrick, the United Nations representative, gave the GOP a shorthand way to express a cultural divide. Democrats were all too eager to find fault with the country, while Republicans were patriotic and true.
Like all slogans, the phrase over-simplified reality, but it worked.
Today, Republicans describe the us-versus-them divide in two words: Blame Obama. The idea is that a president who is not “like us” – born where? -- is leading “our” country in the wrong direction.
A headline on the Opinion page of Thursday’s Wall Street Journal read, “Blame Obama. Why Not?”
Don’t get me wrong. Democrats blamed President George W. Bush. Presidents can rely on hearing two things: “Hail to the Chief” and criticism.
In retirement, Theodore Roosevelt wrote in the Kansas City Star of May 7, 1918: “To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public."
But Roosevelt didn’t stop there. He set a higher standard for presidential criticism, and this is where it gets interesting.
“Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or anyone else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else,” TR wrote.
Nothing but the truth about the president? Is that even possible? In the early 20th century, truth in politics evidently seemed absolute, knowable and certain. A century later, truth is like beauty or pornography: It’s in the eye of the beholder.
Obama has been criticized for failing to make good on his campaign promises – and for delivering on them. Opponents attack from all sides. He reached too far to overhaul the nation’s health-care system -- and not far enough to achieve a public option. He overspent on economic stimulus -- but created too few jobs. He bailed out the banks – but wants to re-regulate the financial industry. He failed to act to curb illegal immigration – and caused Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant law.
Rush Limbaugh even blamed Obama for South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s disappearance last June to Argentina while claiming to be on the Appalachian Trail. Don’t ask; it was silly.
The latest Blame Obama attacks are the BP oil spill, a.k.a. “Obama’s Katrina” and the successful, but just barely, capture of the alleged would-be Times Square bomber. Details of both events are still unfolding, but the Blame Obama game is going full throttle.
In the case of Faisal Shahzad, critics say Obama nearly let the suspect slip out of the country -- and that authorities read him his Miranda rights too soon.
In the oil spill incident, Michael Brown, who did a heck of a job as FEMA director during Hurricane Katrina, has surfaced to blast Obama for what Brown claims is a slow response. Republican congressional leaders are calling for an investigation of the administration’s response -- not that the probe would have anything to do with the midterm elections. Some say Obama dragged his feet responding to the spill on purpose -- to torpedo his own policy of expanding off-shore drilling.
The White House vigorously denies any delay and has posted a lengthy spill response timeline on the White House blog. It depicts a struggle to keep up with a gathering storm that began with a search-and-rescue mission and became an environmental disaster.
Facts form the truth, but which facts? In our hyper-wired age, other people’s ideas and interpretations of facts bombard us. The meaner and nastier the spin, the more authority it claims. We seem determined to believe the worst about each other.
It wasn’t always so. Here’s another quaint idea from Roosevelt: “The average American knows not only that he himself intends to do what is right, but that his average fellow countryman has the same intention and the same power to make his intention effective.”
If we all believed that our fellow countrymen shared our good intentions and had the same power to make them real, we wouldn’t need to divide ourselves with tired slogans like Blame America First or Blame Obama.
(c)2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.