On Friday, former President Bill Clinton spoke at the Center for American Progress Action Fund to mark the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing and discuss the current spike of anti-government activism. Clinton’s message was clear: Debate and free speech are essential, but leaders must be “responsible” with their words because they fall on the “serious and the delirious alike,” and it only takes one deranged person like Timothy McVeigh to cause massive harm.
Clinton’s speech forced conservatives to make a simple choice: either embrace the opportunity to elevate the debate by responsibly separating themselves from fringe elements, or inflame the debate by shucking responsibility and attacking Clinton. Unsurprisingly, right-wing media figures chose the latter course:
New York Post editorial: “[Clinton drew] implicit parallels between bomber Timothy McVeigh and peaceful — if rambunctious — political dissent like the Tea Party movement. … Like we said: shameless.”
Washington Examiner editorial: “Clinton is again peddling the argument that a new wave of domestic terrorism is coming this time because millions of Tea Partying Americans have during the past year or more taken to the streets to protest. … If Clinton and other liberal Democrats who agree with him truly believe that the words of Tea Partiers and other critics of the Obama presidency will inspire acts of terrorism, it only seems logical to conclude that they would also endorse official suppression of such speech.”
Fox News host Sean Hannity: “[N]ow, Bill Clinton advanced it, the latest one — that, you know, the Tea Party movement, the incendiary rhetoric by the right, et cetera, et cetera, and talk radio and hosts like myself, that somehow we are advocates of — of domestic terrorism like Tim McVeigh?”
Fox News contributor Michelle Malkin: “And Bill Clinton certainly isn’t interested in taking responsibility for horrors under his watch that do not fit the conservatives=violent extremists narrative.”
National Review’s Jonah Goldberg: “Now we have what increasingly appears to be an orchestrated media campaign, led by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama’s think tank, to demonize tens of millions of American taxpayers because they keep invoking the Constitution.”
Fox News host Glenn Beck on his radio show: “[Clinton] talked about control of the Internet. Now, is it, is it just happenstance that we’re setting up for an emergency and control of the Internet when Net neutrality has just been deemed unconstitutional by the courts and Obama says we’ll do it one way or another, we’ll do it through the FCC, we’ll just make the Internet a utility.”
Fox News analyst Mary Katharine Ham on The O’Reilly Factor: “Well, I think that certainly the chances of an al Qaeda or a radical Islamist attack are more present, I think, than a domestic militant threat. And think it’s fine to keep an eye on that kind of thing. I just think that [Clinton] is part of a process where they’re trying to freeze speech in some ways to chill free speech.”
As Media Matters noted, hate radio host Rush Limbaugh also “responded by unleashing a torrent of incendiary rhetoric” and blamed Clinton for the Oklahoma City bombing. If any of these pundits had bothered to actually listen to Clinton’s speech before condemning him, they would have heard him say: “This ‘tea party” movement can be a healthy thing if they’re making us justify every penny of taxes we raised and every dollar of public money we spend.”
They would have also heard Clinton repeatedly stress the importance of free speech and maintaining a “raging debate,” saying, “criticism is part of the lifeblood of democracy. Nobody’s right all the time.” Clinton argued that we have “the longest-lasting democracy in human history” because “there is so much free speech.” But, he added that “a bright line” must be maintained to prevent encouraging people from “taking the law into their own hands in a violent manner.”
Clinton’s point was that there are “deeply, deeply troubled” people who might misinterpret incendiary rhetoric and act violently on it. “For 99 percent of [right-wing talk radio listeners], it was just that: turn on the radio, listen to somebody say something you agree with, vent your anger, go on with your life.” “99 percent of them will never do anything they shouldn’t do,” he said.
Clinton foreshadowed the right wing’s response in his speech. He expressed hope that people wouldn’t “turn everything into politics,” but added, “I guess that’s naïve.”