Republican Congressman Jim Bridenstine was recently working a crowd of seniors in his Oklahoma district and complaining about President Obama, when a constituent raised her hand and called the president an "enemy combatant" who should be "executed." Congressman Bridenstine responded not by objecting to her statement, but rather by stoking the flames with his own angry anti-Obama rant. A video of the event was posted online, but triggered little attention. Bob ponders the ubiquity of vile, ignorant, and just plain crackpot speech among elected officials, and the extent to which the public, and the media, fail to care.
BOB GARFIELD: A couple of weeks ago, a video surfaced of Republican Congressman Jim Bridenstine complaining about President Obama to a crowd of seniors in his Oklahoma district, one of whom raised her hand.
FEMALE CONSTITUENT: And Obama, he’s not President, as far as I’m concerned. He should be executed as an enemy combatant, really…
BOB GARFIELD: If you didn’t quite get that, “Obama is an enemy combatant,” she said, “shipping Muslims into our country, a criminal who should be executed.” So, did Bridenstine, sworn upholder of the Constitution and Tea Party stalwart, object? Did he say, “Ma’am, Mr. Obama and I have conflicting visions for the future of this country and I will do all in my legislative power to thwart him, but I will not stand here and listen to you espouse violence against the President of the United States – Madam, you should be ashamed of yourself”? No, not that.
REP. JIM BRIDENSTINE: Look, everybody knows the lawlessness of this president. He picks and chooses which laws he’s going to enforce or not enforce. He does it by decree. When he can’t create a law or when he can’t – when he can’t create a law through Congress, then, then he gives it the, the – the – you know, the bureaucracy of the Executive Branch to, to create rules and regulations, an executive order….
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BOB GARFIELD: When the video emerged online, Bridenstine was obliged to explain himself, quote, “A public figure cannot control what people say in open meetings. I obviously did not condone and I do not approve of grossly inappropriate language. It is outrageous that irresponsible parties would attribute another person’s reckless remarks to me.”
No, Congressman, you misunderstand. What they are attributing to you is your disgraceful failure to confront her, your eagerness to further rile up the crowd, your complicity in blind hatred and your sullying of your high office – is all. But fear not, the media are giving you a pass on this one.
As the political center has moved right and the Tea Party to the political fringe, there has been a parallel shift in tolerance for incendiary, vile and just plain crockpot speech. As recently as 2002, all it took was a wistful contemplation of a segregationist Strom Thurmond presidency to torpedo the career of Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott. That was then. A decade later, Newt Gingrich called for the arrest of federal judges, an Alabama Tea Partier reached a congressional nomination runoff, agitating for taking up arms against the IRS, and Michele Bachmann denied the separation of church and state. Far from disqualifying themselves from mainstream political life, it just raked in more campaign money.
Congressman and then presidential aspirant Ron Paul, in 2010, speaking about the Mexican border fence.
REP. RON PAUL: It’s a penalty against the American people too. I think this fence business is designed and may well be used against us and keep us in. In economic turmoil, the people want to leave with their capital and there’s capital controls and there’s people control. So every time you think of a fence keeping all those bad people out, think about those fences maybe being used against us, keeping us in.
BOB GARFIELD: And here’s his son and current GOP presidential hopeful, Senator Rand Paul, in 2011.
SEN. RAND PAUL: With regard to the idea of whether or not you have a right to healthcare, you have to realize what that implies. It’s not an abstraction. I’m a physician. That means you have right to come to my house and conscript me. It means you believe in slavery.
BOB GARFIELD: And let us not forget AM radio demagogue Rush Limbaugh, who makes millions of dollars a year baiting the silent majority.
RUSH LIMBAUGH: What does it say about the college coed Susan(sic) Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex!
BOB GARFIELD: What all these outbursts have in common is that they were all said in public, all recorded and all broadcast, none at any lingering reputational cost to the speaker. This kind of stupidity and poison has become so commonplace the media scarcely raise an eyebrow. The Jim Bridenstine video showed up on left-leaning sites Slate and Talking Points Memo, and the lefter-leaning Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC, and there it languished in obscurity.
Not only did neither the New York Times nor CBS Evening News jump on the story of a US congressman declining to disavow the execution of the president, even the Internet shrugged. Meanwhile, this was going viral.
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WOMAN: [LAUGHS] Oh my God!
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BOB GARFIELD: It’s a baby, experiencing her first rainfall. Some things never stop being cute. Why do other things stop being unacceptable?