While negative political advertising has been around since the beginning of the republic, MoveOn.org seems to have cut some new ground for meanness and ratcheted up the incivility level more than a notch or two, as if it weren’t high enough already. Probably not since Lyndon Johnson’s vicious attempt to portray Barry Goldwater as a threat to nuclear sanity has there been a more controversial attack on a public official than the one implying Gen. David Petraeus has betrayed the nation.
MoveOn’s rhyming of “Petraeus” with “Betray Us” in a newspaper ad compares with the Johnson campaign’s commercial that showed a little girl picking a daisy only to dissolve in an atomic blast. That commercial was so obnoxious and unfair that it was yanked after only one airing amidst a storm of protest. The attack on the top U.S. military commander in Iraq has produced the same kind of outcry not only from Republicans but many of the liberal Democrats the Internet organization is dedicated to helping.
Unfortunately, two of the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination — Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois — saw fit not to vote with the majority in a Senate condemnation of the attack on Petraeus’ integrity. Clinton voted against the resolution and Obama didn’t vote at all. Another declared candidate, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, also voted against the resolution sponsored, of course, by a Republican. Obama said he registered his negative views about the ad the day it appeared.
Once again, the power of the Internet has contributed substantially to the lowering of the political debate in America. With only 17 full-time employees and no central office, MoveOn — and others like it — can rally enough likeminded “members” — allegedly 3 million — to its causes that it can pay for a six-figure, full-page, tasteless advertisement in a national newspaper. One can only wonder why The New York Times decided this ad, with its intemperate language and gratuitous slur on integrity, should be published. One can only suppose the paper needed the money given the fact it isn’t doing much better than any of the rest of the industry despite its high reputation.
And, please, don’t give us any of those lofty First Amendment rationales. Newspapers always have had control of the content of their ads and have reserved the right to deny publication of those deemed inappropriate, libelous or just in poor taste. The Constitution doesn’t sanction the printing of material that impugns without proof the character of an individual, even that of a public figure.
Petraeus, after all, is not a politician. He is a military man assigned to an incredibly difficult task, which, from all indications, he has managed so far to do rather well. His focus, just as those of his predecessors, has been to stabilize the scene so that ultimately there is only a U.S. diplomatic presence in Iraq. He says that may take more years than MoveOn and many Americans believe is acceptable. Fine. But to allege that he has betrayed his country and kowtowed to the White House by preparing a dishonest assessment is itself an act of indecency and should be offensive even to those who oppose this war.
Once again the Internet has provided a platform for those who would take us to new lows in public discourse. Despite the lack of substantive credentials that would lend legitimacy to their influence, the mainly faceless directors of such groups at both ends of the philosophical spectrum somehow manage to further pollute an already poisonous political atmosphere. Who are these people and where do they come from? With what authority do they accuse someone of Petraeus’ stature of being a liar who has betrayed the nation’s best interests?
No one is against legitimate and balanced protest, even zealous disagreement. But where is the adherence to the doctrine of fair comment? The defense offered by the group to justify its imprudence goes a long way to answering that question. “Maybe you thought the language went too far,” MoveOn wrote in an e-mail defending its actions. “But make no mistake, this is much bigger than one ad.”
That is absolutely correct. It goes to the judgment and integrity of the persons who wrote the ad. At stake here is not the end of the war but the reputation of one person. If Petraeus’ reputation can be deemed unimportant in pursuit of a political aim, it is a tragedy for us all. Petraeus will survive. Hopefully, MoveOn won’t.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)