Government-bashing in recent years has taken...

"THE STEADY

July 03, 1995|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

"THE STEADY government-bashing in recent years has taken its toll, making government weaker, not stronger, rendering it more contemptible, not less," writes Louis Fisher, a political scientist at the Library of Congress, in the June 22 issue of the New York Review of Books.

He was writing about the Contract with America, but he cites anti-government rhetoric dating back to Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. He believes ultimately all branches of government will be discredited, to the nation's detriment.

As someone who has done his share of government-bashing, my first reaction upon reading that was to feel guilty.

But my second reaction was: "Hey, this is as American as cherry pie!" The nation was born in political calumny, as all know who have actually read the little diatribe we celebrate tomorrow. If the Declaration of Independence had not been an 18th century version of today's attack ad and character assassination, we might still be British.

Most of us memorize the good parts of the Declaration, from the opening "When in the Course of human Events. . ." through "We hold these Truths to be self-evident. . . " to the concluding "mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor."

But two-thirds of the Declaration is an attack on George III as vicious and as negative and as critical as anything heard in Congress or in partisan journalism today. He was called a despot and a tyrant; the Declaration lists 27 separate, specific, heinous charges, each a short paragraph long. This middle part of the Declaration reads more like a criminal indictment than a political document.

And George III wasn't the problem! Parliament was.

But by demonizing the king, Thomas Jefferson and his co-conspirators figured it was easier to terminate their countrymen's allegiance to him, and by terminating that allegiance they figured they made it clear they were no longer linked to the British Empire. Once it was clear they were not just seeking reform within the empire, they could count on military help from France, without which the Revolution probably could not have been won.

So when you hear term limits crazies blast everyone who has served in Congress for more than a dozen years as "corrupt," or when you hear House Republican Whip Tom DeLay call Democratic Whip David Bonior "the mad dog from Macomb"; or Bill Press, chairman of the California Democratic Party, call Gov. Pete Wilson "the biggest hypocrite in the history of California, a man with no principles, no shame and no memory"; or Sen. Robert Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat, and Sen. Bob Dole, the Republican majority leader of the Senate, refer to each other with words like "sleaze" and "liar" -- to recite just a few recent examples -- don't despair.

When it comes to political rhetoric, they, like you, I and the nation, were all born on the Fourth of July.

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