Before health vote, a weekend of ugly discourse

By Jocelyn Noveck

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, March 23 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

A protester is removed by a security officer as President Barack Obama speaks about health care reform at the Patriot Center at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., last Friday.

Charles Dharapak, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

NEW YORK — Remember how shocking it was six months ago when Rep. Joe Wilson shouted "You lie!" to the president?

Suddenly, that outburst seems positively genteel.

From the "N-word" and anti-gay slurs being leveled at congressmen by protesters right outside the Capitol, to a shout of "baby killer!" within the chamber itself, to veiled and not-so-veiled threats online, the weekend saw an explosion of stunningly ugly discourse.

What is going on? Is our political culture sinking ever lower?

Actually, say political historians, not necessarily, though it surely may seem so. In reality, they say, such a descent into incivility happens periodically at times of significant political change.

The difference is that now we hear about every shocking outburst again and again, on 24-hour cable news, on YouTube, on Twitter — where there were a few random threats of violence over the weekend — and on blogs too numerous to count.

"This stuff is always out there," says Steven Cohen, professor of public administration at Columbia University. "It's just that now, we can't get away from it. That's what's new. With the Web's insatiable appetite for conflict, everything becomes magnified, even if it's often an expression of a fringe minority."

Everyone knows that the health care debate has stoked emotions on both sides like few issues in our political history. Still, even hardened observers were shocked by some of this weekend's developments.

First there were the racist slurs shouted by protesters at black congressmen outside the Capitol on Saturday, only feet from the actual debate inside.

Rep. Andre Carson, D-Ind., said that as he left the Cannon House Office Building with Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., 70, a leader of the civil rights era, they were taunted with chants of "the N-word, the N-word, 15 times."

A spokeswoman for Democratic Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., said a protester spit on Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., who is also black.

"I heard people saying things today that I have not heard since March 15, 1960, when I was marching to try to get off the back of the bus," Clyburn told reporters.

"It was like going into a time machine," Carson said of his experience.

That's an important point, Cohen notes; the same kind of vitriolic language was used after civil rights measures were passed, and also when Franklin Roosevelt was trying to implement the New Deal. "It was at least as intense back then," Cohen says.

Also targeted this weekend was Rep. Barney Frank, the openly gay congressman from Massachusetts. Protesters used common anti-gay slurs against him.

"Yes, they called me faggot, homo, several times," Frank said in a telephone interview Monday. "It doesn't hurt me, but it was sad to see this level of vituperation." He also said he was stunned to see, inside the chamber on Sunday, Republican lawmakers cheer protesters who stood up in the House gallery and shouted, "Kill the bill."

"I've never seen that before — Republicans on their feet applauding, cheering as the people were physically resisting the ushers," Frank said. Disruptions from the gallery are banned. "To see the Republican leadership praising this group is very disturbing."

House Minority Leader John Boehner, speaking Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," called the racial and anti-gay remarks to Democratic members of Congress "reprehensible." He added: "Let's not let a few isolated incidents get in the way of the fact that millions of Americans are scared to death" of the health care bill.

Finally, many were taken aback to hear a congressman — Rep. Randy Neugebauer of Texas, it later turned out — shout "Baby killer!" during the House debate. This, in a forum where members refer to each other routinely with the terms "gentlemen" and "gentlelady."

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