Bill Clinton was president for eight years, and during that time scarcely a day went by when he was not savagely attacked by the far right. Clinton’s detractors called him a liar, a thief, a coward, a moral scumbag and even a murderer. As a rule, his critics refused to give him credit for anything that went right (the economic boom of the 1990’s was just good luck, they said) and blamed him for anything they could — according to many Republicans Clinton was responsible for Vince Foster’s death, for the deteriorating moral fabric of the country and for everything in between.
Clinton, as we now know, made plenty of mistakes, and some of the criticisms of his administration were fair. But most of the charges made against him were completely untrue, and the top Republicans who made them didn’t particularly care whether they were true or not. As soon as the Clintons were out of the White House and no longer setting the nation’s agenda, all of the ongoing investigations into their supposed illegal actions were dropped. The creation of make-believe yet serious-sounding scandals — “White Water,” “Travelgate” and so on — was an entirely politically-motivated attempt by the far right to prevent the president from actually governing successfully.
Now, three years into the Bush administration, the same thing is in danger of happening. This president is a bit better at keeping his hands off White House interns than the last one, and liberals as a rule tend to be less skilled in the politics of destruction. But they are trying. The possibility that senior officials in the Bush administration illegally leaked the identity of a CIA agent to the press ignited a small firestorm a few weeks ago, and Democrats are now attempting to work “scandal” and “White House” into the same sentence as many times as possible. Many of the president’s political opponents also claim that he outright lied about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and doctored the evidence on which he took the country to war. All these allegations are serious and need to be investigated further, but until there is actual proof that Bush is guilty of them he ought, as the leader of the free world, to be given the benefit of the doubt.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t criticize our presidents, because of course we should. Millions of reasonable people disagreed with the policies Clinton stood for, millions more disagree with Bush’s current views, and those people have not only the right, but also the responsibility to speak up in opposition. But the danger comes when people cross the line and make accusations that simply aren’t supported by the facts.
Unfortunately, making such reckless accusations is the only way to get people to pay attention anymore. Telling voters the president has a poor tax policy puts them to sleep, but telling them he’s a criminal makes them take notice. Presidential politics in this country has been reduced to a dreary game of attack and defend. The minute we elect a chief executive, the party out of power begins to sling groundless charges at him, the party in power circles the wagons, and a host of pollsters and pundits watch eagerly to see who comes out on top in four years. Because most Americans don’t have the patience to understand the issues, our selection of the most powerful individual on earth has become a name-calling contest.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Critics of Bush — and there are many here at Yale — have plenty to work with without hurling untrue insults. They can point out that his tax cuts benefitted predominantly the wealthy, they can say he has eroded civil liberties in this country, and they can argue his reckless foreign policy has left us internationally isolated. And they can do all of these things without using the word “scandal,” and without calling Bush a liar. Politics only has to be dirty if we make it that way.
Roger Low is a freshman in Branford College.