Where the crazy tree blooms

WHERE THE CRAZY TREE BLOOMS…. The estimable Rick Perlstein has a terrific piece in the Washington Post today, providing some historical context for the right-wing rage we’re seeing today. It’s ugly and it’s painful, but it’s not new. Perlstein explained that the “crazy tree blooms in every moment of liberal ascendancy.”

There are quite a few branches. Republicans of the 1950s described the FDR and Truman eras as “20 years of treason.” Nixon, after becoming Ike’s vice president, said Republicans “found in the files a blueprint for socializing America” in the White House. Civil rights leaders were accused of being a Soviet plot. The Civil Rights Act was believed to be intended to “enslave” whites.

A prominent right-wing radio host insisted that JFK was building a political prison in Alaska to detain critics of the administration. As the president noted yesterday, when FDR proposed Social Security, the conservatives of the era not only screamed about “socialism,” but told the public Roosevelt would force Americans to wear dog tags.

So what’s different?

Conservatives have become adept at playing the media for suckers, getting inside the heads of editors and reporters, haunting them with the thought that maybe they are out-of-touch cosmopolitans and that their duty as tribunes of the people’s voices means they should treat Obama’s creation of “death panels” as just another justiciable political claim. If 1963 were 2009, the woman who assaulted Adlai Stevenson would be getting time on cable news to explain herself. That, not the paranoia itself, makes our present moment uniquely disturbing.

It used to be different. You never heard the late Walter Cronkite taking time on the evening news to “debunk” claims that a proposed mental health clinic in Alaska is actually a dumping ground for right-wing critics of the president’s program, or giving the people who made those claims time to explain themselves on the air. The media didn’t adjudicate the ever-present underbrush of American paranoia as a set of “conservative claims” to weigh, horse-race-style, against liberal claims. Back then, a more confident media unequivocally labeled the civic outrage represented by such discourse as “extremist” — out of bounds.

The tree of crazy is an ever-present aspect of America’s flora. Only now, it’s being watered by misguided he-said-she-said reporting and taking over the forest. Latest word is that the enlightened and mild provision in the draft legislation to help elderly people who want living wills — the one hysterics turned into the “death panel” canard — is losing favor, according to the Wall Street Journal, because of “complaints over the provision.”

Good thing our leaders weren’t so cowardly in 1964, or we would never have passed a civil rights bill — because of complaints over the provisions in it that would enslave whites.