Jewish World Review August 20, 2004/ 3 Elul 5764

Marianne M. Jennings

Marianne M. Jennings
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Personal attacks | Listen my children, and you shall hear of the distinction between vicious and feisty, personal attack and rapier commentary. A recent note from one Kellen McCallister came barreling through my e-mail with the following, "You are going to wait as long for this (free market health care reforms) as you are for your daughter, Claire, to stop drooling on herself." Not satisfied with that ad hominem, this charmer added another, "your Forrest Gump of a daughter." The note writer rationalized that such dictum was not his/her usual way, but, after all, my vicious and personal-attack writing deserved such.

Liberals and Democrats dwell only in nuance. The obvious eludes them. An attack on my drooling, a habit I have when deep sleep befalls my weary mortal shell, would be personal, but arguably defensible. The subtle suggestion that mental prowess and drooling are mutually exclusive is not clever, but good enough for a McCallister novice. But, attacking a helpless child without a dog in this commentary fight is the libs' and Dems' modus operandi.

The McCallister comment came at the same time Sen. John McCain was harrumphing about the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads. Demands for both apologies and Bush denunciations abounded as Republicans wrung their hands and offered this affront to logic, "How come you guys didn't have to apologize for Michael Moore?" The Swifties' ads got lumped into "personal attacks." This assessment is just plain wrong and dangerous.

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The Swifties ratcheted up the campaign, but their ads are neither beyond the pale nor personal. The Democrat's nominee for president, Mr. Kerry, has offered us a one-line resume, i.e., "I served in Vietnam!" There aren't many impersonal avenues for response. Mr. Kerry offers his life, albeit only 4 months, as his platform. That segment cannot be immune from democracy's vetting. These veterans have a story to tell. Voters must determine whether to believe a man who has spent his life seeking the presidency or men who suffer the usual attacks from Dems for challenging Kerry's record as exaggerated and his war protests as defamatory.

The Republic will survive such rhetoric and battles over truth. Political campaigns have always been thus. The worry is commentary dismissed and squelched using "Personal attack!" The "personal attack umbrella" should not provide shelter. Sometimes truth's rain pours and often it damages. Criticism of flawed reasoning, factual corrections, or good ol' feisty commentary is not a "personal attack."

The McCallister frenzy about Claire is indeed a personal attack. Apart from it being just poor form to pick on the helpless, the remarks do not advance the quest for truth or offer insight. Similar comments that fall into this category were Hillary Clinton ankle jokes, the Linda Tripp and Michael Caine twin jokes, Monica Lewinsky weight opinings, and Paula Jones' trailer park trashing. One supposes such remarks discredit these folks, but the rotund; folks from poverty, non-beauty queens, and those without a well-turned ankle have changed the world (insert your own examples here lest I be accused of personal attacks).

I edged close to the line in writing about Mrs. Clinton's numerous hairstyle changes and Mr. Kerry's Botox and barber. However, my thoughts were not mockery. These references illuminate insecurity in both. A 50-year-old woman who changes hairstyles as frequently as Kerry changes positions and a man obsessed with his appearance are the stuff of despots and Howard Hughes, not good leaders. Saying Michael Moore is "slovenly in logic" is different from calling him a "slob." Suggesting caricature references in literature and film to Mr. Moore, as I did, was a profile of prone-to-exaggeration-types who are starved for attention. Personal? Maybe. But the context was one of dismissing his films for their sensationalism and inaccuracies, two traits found in the literary and film characters.

There is also a difference between attack-the-source and rapier wit on conduct. For example, in response to Mr. Kerry's pledge to rally world leaders to take over in Iraq, I could simply express doubt, or I could highlight the ridiculous nature of his claim via, "How? By offering them free Heinz ketchup for life?"

I could write a dull paragraph about former Clinton National Security Advisor, Sandy Berger, squirreling away National Archives documents in his socks. Or, I could simply say that I've had stoned freshmen offer better excuses than Berger's "Shucks, I'm just disheveled." The observation is personal because Sandy Berger was the brains and brawn in the Great National Archives 9-11 Documents Heist. The remark stings, but truth exposed has zip.

The classic "It's nothing personal" has been reversed for political discourse. This silly follow-up in postmodern society has been used to rationalize many a double-cross. The crowd that rationalized adultery on the grounds that they fell in love with someone else, "Nothing personal, dear," now want the political arena to be all-personal, all the time.

New Jersey's Governor McGreevey should no longer be governor because his desires and actions put the state at risk, susceptible to blackmail. "That's his personal life," is tossed about to defend him. What a delightful way to avoid accountability, discussion, and commentary. Gay is not the issue — McGreevey's judgment is. Yes, judgment is personal.

The left will not grasp the distinction between truth's zing and vicious attack, between analysis and commentary and physical ridicule. Their feigned ignorance on these distinctions has worked. Infantile McCallisters see themselves as the high road. Sad commentary indeed.

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JWR contributor Marianne M. Jennings is a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University. Send your comments by clicking here.

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© 2004, Marianne M. Jennings