In Toxic Talk, Bill Press exposed the ways in which the extreme right-wing media has done an end run around the American voting populace by exerting a disproportionate control over open political debate. In The Obama Hate Machine, Press returns to show how the Right has taken rhetoric to slanderous new levels in attacking the nation's forty-fourth president.
But presidents have always been attacked like this, right? Wrong. As the author shows, while presidents and presidential candidates routinely have been subject to personal attacks, the outright disdain Obama's extremist opponents have for the facts has inspired an insidious brand of character assassination unique in contemporary politics.
Obama was born in Kenya . . . Obama sympathizes with Muslim terrorists . . . Obama is a communist who wants to institute death panels and touch off class warfare...The extent to which these unfounded assertions have taken hold in the American mindset shows just how ruthless, destructive, and all-powerful the right-wing machine―hijacked by extremists in the media and fueled by corporate coffers―has become. The author reveals how corporate interests such as the infamous Koch Brothers continue to steer political coverage away from fact-based dialogue into the realm of hysteria. Bill Press also observes this phenomenon is not limited to the airwaves and provides an "I Hate Obama Book Club" list, calling out the scores of anti-Obama tomes―and even some from the Left―that have helped drag politics even deeper into the mud.
In his characteristic on-the-mark arguments sure to appeal to anyone on the Left or in the Center, Press shows how the peculiar nature of Obama-hating subverts issue-driven debate and threatens not only the outcome of the 2012 election but the future of the American democratic system.
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BILL PRESS is the host of the nationally syndicated radio program The Bill Press Show. He writes a syndicated column for Tribune Media Services, and is the former cohost of MSNBC's Buchanan and Press and CNN's Crossfire and The Spin Room.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
PRESIDENTS UNDER FIRE
Barack Obama, of course, is not the first president to have experienced withering personal attacks. They are as old as the presidency itself. In some ways, they are a tribute to our American experiment. Unlike forced allegiance to a monarch or tyrant, criticism of elected leaders is not only tolerated here; it is considered a necessary function of our democracy. And from the moment the first president took office, U.S. presidents have had to deal with sometimes-nasty attacks. In this day and age, all of us, Democrats, Republicans, and Tea Partiers alike, revere our Founding Fathers. We even put them on a pedestal. But that’s not how they were treated in their own day. Not even Saint George Washington.
It was an open secret that Thomas Jefferson, as our first secretary of state, tried to undermine President Washington’s declared policy of neutrality in the matter of war between France and Great Britain. From his position in the cabinet, Jefferson worked behind the scenes, helping orchestrate Republican opposition to Washington and trying to turn public opinion toward the position of siding with France.
Once Washington left the White House, our first president became an open target of abuse. He was publicly mocked and criticized as being weak and ineffective. Rumors resurfaced that he had enjoyed an affair with a young cleaning woman, whom he called “pretty little Kate, the Washer-woman’s daughter.” The Philadelphia Aurora, the chief Republican newspaper, heavily influenced by Jefferson, described Washington’s farewell address as “the loathings of a sick mind.” Its publisher, Benjamin Franklin Bache, revived charges that Washington had assassinated an unarmed officer during the French and Indian War and accused Washington of offering America nothing better than a “despotic counterfeit of the English Georges.”
Writing in the Aurora, the one and only Thomas Paine even questioned Washington’s leadership of the Revolutionary army, deeming him worse than a sunshine patriot. “You slept away your time in the field till the finances of the country were completely exhausted,” he charged, “and you have but little share in the glory of the event.” Paine demanded that Washington ask himself “whether you are an apostate or an imposter, whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any.”
Ouch! Watching from a distance, Abigail Adams was appalled by the attacks on our first president. It just proved, she wrote her husband, Vice President John Adams, “that the most virtuous and unblemished Characters are liable to the Malice and venom of unprincipald [sic] Wretches.” And, of course, she was afraid of what level of attacks might fall on her husband, who enjoyed nowhere near the popularity of the haloed Washington. She later warned Adams that, as president, he might well find himself “being fastned [sic] up Hand and foot and Tongue to be shot at as our Quincy Lads do at the poor Geese and Turkies.” And, indeed, he was.
Adams was no fool. He knew he would be in for a rough time. As he wrote Abigail of the departing George Washington after his inauguration, “He seemed to enjoy a triumph over me. Methought I heard him think, ‘Ay! I am fairly out and you are fairly in! See which of us will be the happiest!’”
As vice president, Adams had already endured his share of ridicule, some of which he brought on himself. After suggesting to Congress that Washington be called “Your Highness,” rather than the populist “Mr. President,” Adams was henceforth called “The Duke of Braintree,” or simply “His Rotundity.” Privately, Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania dismissed Adams as “a monkey just put into breeches.”
After eight years of running interference for President Washington against Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, the last thing John Adams needed when he himself assumed the presidency was having to put up with Jefferson as vice president. But that’s what the electoral vote delivered, after a noncontested and practically nonexistent presidential campaign. Still trying to figure out the proper way to choose leaders in the new republic, neither Adams nor Jefferson declared their candidacy or campaigned for the office. Once their new roles were decided, however, the two leaders, from different political parties and with separate agendas, were bound to clash—and did.
At first, heeding his wife Abigail’s advice, Adams held forth an olive branch to Jefferson, offering him cabinet status, a major voice in foreign policy, and designation of him or his ally James Madison as the new American envoy to France. But Jefferson rejected all three, choosing to pursue his Republican party agenda instead.
As Joseph Ellis reports in First Family, Jefferson was, in fact, already in clandestine conversations with the French consul in Philadelphia, urging him to ignore any peace initiatives from the new president—since, according to Jefferson, Adams did not speak for the true interests of the American people. Just imagine! Today, this act would be considered treason.
There followed a rocky four years, during which Adams was constantly fighting rear-guard actions by his disloyal vice president, who was busy plotting with the French, and by his own cabinet (he had mistakenly retained all appointees of Washington, believing the cabinet should be a permanent body). It was all too much for First Lady Abigail Adams, who lamented the steady stream of “Lies, falsehoods, calamities and bitterness” and denounced Philadelphia as “a city that seems devoted to Calamity.”
And it led, inevitably, to the first contested election for president, in 1800, and one of the ugliest presidential campaigns ever.
For the incumbent vice president to challenge the incumbent president for reelection was, in itself, a direct personal attack. It’d be as if Dick Cheney had dared to run against George W. Bush in 2004. Today, that would never happen. It would be considered inappropriate, in bad taste, even treacherous. But back then, the country was new, and people were still feeling their way around the political process.
Even before the campaign, intrigue began. Adams first had to defend himself from a scurrilous attack by fellow Federalist Alexander Hamilton that he had, in effect, begun to lose his mind. Adams’s “ungovernable temper,” matched by his “disgusting egotism” and “distempered jealousy,” Hamilton charged in his Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States, were characteristics that “unfit him for the office of chief magistrate.”
But his strongest challenge came from Vice President Thomas Jefferson and Republicans. Determined to weaken, if not destroy, Adams’s reputation ahead of any actual campaigning, Jefferson commissioned fiery pamphleteer James Callender to wield the political ax.
As I noted in my first book, Spin This!, Callender—who would later turn on Jefferson and charge him with sexual abuse of slave Sally Hemings—published The Prospect Before Us, in which he accused Adams of corruption and secretly attempting to lead the United States into war, which was the exact opposite of what Adams was fighting for. In his private life, charged Callender, Adams was “one of the most egregious fools upon the continent.” Then, in typical Callender style, he vilified the president as “a repulsive pedant,... a gross hypocrite,... a wretch that has neither the science of a magistrate, the politeness of a courtier, nor the courage of a man.”
With that, the stage was set. And once the Adams-Jefferson campaign got under way, neither side held back. Because of his known aversion to any established religion—he was a Deist—Jefferson was accused of being an atheist. Not to mention a Francophile (guilty), a revolutionist, and a man devoid of morals, whose election would deliver the country to licentiousness and debauchery and who, if elected, would immediately order the confiscation of Bibles and the burning of churches. Almost in anticipation of the questions raised about Barack Obama’s birth certificate, Adams supporters called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” George Washington stayed above the fray, but not Martha. She couldn’t resist jumping on the bandwagon, telling a clergyman that Jefferson was “one of the most detestable of mankind.”
The Jefferson camp, meanwhile, responded in kind, accusing President Adams of being unpatriotic because he opposed joining France in another war with Great Britain and, here at home, wanted to maintain a standing army. He was also charged with wanting to turn the presidency into a monarchy and with planning to marry one of his sons to a daughter of George III, thus starting an American dynasty that would reunite the country with Great Britain.
As the great historian Page Smith relates in his magnificent two-volume life of Adams, another rumor more amused than annoyed him. Republicans accused Adams of sending Gen. Charles Pinckney to England in a United States frigate to procure four pretty girls as mistresses, two for the general and two for himself. “I do declare upon my honor,” Adams responded, “if this be true General Pinckney has kept them all for himself and cheated me out of two.”
At the same time, Jefferson’s backers also questioned Adams’s sexuality. Campaign brochures repeated James Callender’s description of Adams as being of “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a wo...
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