Barry Goldwater’s Warning

Shortly after his 1964 monumental presidential loss, the late Sen. Barry Goldwater, icon of the Republican conservative movement, made a self-deprecating speech to the Gridiron Club that still stands as one of the funniest and most important of its kind. While the humor was sharp and caustic, the fact that he could deliver it without bitterness revealed a side of him that, had it been disclosed earlier, might have prevented the disintegration of his campaign and the near-demise of his party.

Goldwater’s campaign often focused as much on the fairness of the media as it did the political issues of the day, and frequently cast him as humorless, doctrinaire, spiteful and a bit of a loose cannon. But actually he was none of the above. The audience of national powerbrokers suddenly saw him as someone who could stand back from this debilitating defeat, reflect on it and understand that it is best if politics, like most things in life, is not taken all too seriously, lest those who practice it become fanatical and overwrought and dangerous.

It is a lesson that seems to have escaped many of those involved in today’s version of the craft on both ends of the ideological spectrum, where what qualifies as humor mainly consists of vitriol, spite and derision spewed in great quantities at high decibels. The airways are chockablock with the anger of babblers from Rush Limbaugh on the right to Al Franken on the left.

They all have at least two things in common. There is an almost total absence in self-effacement or self-deprecation that is the stuff of good dialogue, political or otherwise, and much of it is aimed at the so-called “mainstream” media, the straw men they knock down over and over. The main targets are The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times and the major broadcast networks, all of which are evil and biased. Electronic giants ABC, NBC and CBS are special targets of the right, as are The New York Times and the Post. Fox, the Journal and The Washington Times can’t tell the unvarnished truth, according to those on the left.

So the stock in trade _ and a very lucrative one it is _ of these pseudo-journalists is to attack the media with solid evidence that America’s news-gatherers consistently and dishonestly twist their product to the right or left. Aiding in this unmasking of biased charlatans are, forgive the expression, liberally funded private watchdog groups like the conservative Media Research Center. Such organizations daily amass quotes and video material from their targets that they give to the friendly media.

The other night, in an almost unrelenting barrage of barbed “humor,” the center gave out its annual awards in a hotel ballroom packed with the faithful. The titles and winners of the various “dis-honors” tell it all. Among them were the Really Time to Retire Award, Walter Cronkite; Send Bush to Abu Ghraib Award, PBS’s Bill Moyers; Al Franken Award for Stupidest Analysis, CNN’s Bruce Morton; I’m Not a Political Genius But I Play One on TV Award, liberal syndicated talker Janeane Garofalo. Needless to say, none of the recipients was there.

Dan Rather, who may be among the easier targets given his propensity for mouthing off to presidents and an enormous inaccuracy during the recent presidential campaign that finally forced him out of his CBS anchor job, came in for special treatment time and again. It was like beating a cripple with his own crutch.

The award to Cronkite was a different story. The venerable octogenarian reporter obviously had his tongue planted firmly in his cheek when he said that an Osama bin Laden tape released just before the election might have been the work of White House political genius Karl Rove. If there ever was a more demonstrative signal that those involved in these exercises not only are short on humor but also have little faith in a free press, it was in this slander of a reporter whose print and electronic journalism career has been nothing but distinguished and exemplary.

More depressing, however, is the encouragement that this anti-humor gives to the growth of incivility that has begun to shatter any semblance of equanimity in America’s political institutions.

Goldwater saw it coming when he encouraged those at the dinner 40 years ago, also attended by President Lyndon Johnson, “to eliminate hate and misunderstanding from our daily lives and replace them instead with love and understanding.”

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)