Back in 1994, Susan Smith strapped her two sons into her Mazda and let it roll into a lake, drowning them. She had been having an affair, but the man she had been having it with didn’t want her children. Newt Gingrich had this to say about her crime:
“I think the mother killing her two children in South Carolina vividly reminds every American how sick society is getting and how much we have to have change,” he said at the time. “I think people want to change, and the only way you can get change is to vote Republican.”
I recall, at the time, being horrified by this. And what really bothered me was less that Gingrich had said it — after all, he was only one person, albeit a powerful one — than the response. Gingrich had tried to politicize a horrific murder (by a woman who, as it happened, turned out to have been molested by her stepfather, “a former member of the executive committee of the South Carolina Republican Party and a member of the Christian Coalition”. I think his political affiliation is irrelevant; Susan Smith was deeply disturbed, and politics had nothing to do with it. I mention this only to highlight the complete absurdity of blaming liberals for what Susan Smith did.) And what happened?
Some liberals were aghast. But Gingrich himself paid no price for what he said. (I imagine this is one reason he went on doing it.) He was reelected to Congress. Shortly thereafter, he was elected Speaker of the House. Just last year, David Broder wrote:
“If there is any politician of the current generation who has earned the label “visionary,” it is probably the Georgia Republican and former speaker of the House.”
As far as I’m concerned, anyone, of any political party, who blames the actions of someone like Susan Smith on his or her opponents shows that he or she is without shame. In a sane world, politicians who did this would be thrown out of office: their constituents might or might not agree with their political views, but they would be revolted by anyone who said such a thing. If, for some reason, it was important enough to keep their party in the majority that they had to vote for a candidate who said something like that, the voters would nonetheless let their party leaders know, in no uncertain terms, that it was time to find a primary challenger for next time.
And in that world, people would probably say this sort of thing a lot less. Now we have to rely on their consciences alone; if they paid a price for saying genuinely hateful things, their self-interest would line up on the side of basic decency.
We might be getting closer to that world.
It has been six days since Michele Bachmann called for an investigation into the un-American views of members of Congress. During that time, El Tinklenberg, her opponent, has raised $1.3 million. The NRCC has pulled its advertising from her district. And SUSA has her down by three points, though that’s within the margin of error.
Michele Bachmann may yet win. But in her district, she should have won easily. She has paid a serious price for what she said. A few more episodes like this and we might just see politicians thinking twice about vileness as a political tactic.
That would be a wonderful, wonderful thing.