Are GOP Leaders Obligated to Condemn Doubters of Obama’s Birth and Beliefs?

No.

But NBC’s David Gregory thinks so. Here was his exchange with Republican Speaker John Boehner on “Meet the Press” yesterday:

GREGORY: Mr.  Speaker, I want to pick up on something that my colleague Brian Williams asked you about last–this January, last month.  He asked if you were willing to take on some members of your caucus who don’t believe that the president was actually born in the United States.  And this was a portion of your answer, I want to play it.
….
BOEHNER [January 6]: We’re nothing more than a slice of America.  And then people come with, regardless of party labels, they come with all kinds of beliefs and ideas.  It’s, it’s the, the melting pot of America.  It’s not up to me to tell them what to think.

GREGORY: And, indeed, members of Congress speak publicly and are outspoken and will say what their views are.  And sometimes they have an effect on what people believe around the country.  And there was a–something that caught my eye this week that was on Fox News on the Hannity program, a focus group with voters in Iowa led by Frank Luntz, the Republican strategist, and he had this exchange with them.  I want to show it to you.

WOMAN IN FOCUS GROUP: I believe that Barack Obama’s religious beliefs do govern his foreign policy.

MR. FRANK LUNTZAnd what are his religious beliefs?

WOMAN: I believe that he is a Muslim.

GREGORY: As the speaker of the House, as a leader, do you not think it’s your responsibility to stand up to that kind of ignorance?

BOEHNERDavid, it’s not my job to tell the American people what to think.  Our job in Washington is to listen to the American people.  Having said that, the state of Hawaii has said that he was born there.  That’s good enough for me.  The president says he’s a Christian.  I accept him at his word.

GREGORY: But isn’t that a little bit fast and loose?  I mean, you are the leader in Congress and you’re not standing up to obvious facts and saying, “These are facts.  If you don’t believe that, it’s nonsense.”

BOEHNER: I just outlined the facts as I understand them.  I believe that the president is a citizen.  I believe the president is a Christian. I’ll take him at his word.  But, but…

GREGORY: But that kind of ignorance about whether he’s a Muslim doesn’t concern you?

BOEHNER: Listen, the American people have the right to think what they want to think.  I can’t–it’s not my job to tell them.

GREGORY: Why isn’t it your job to stand up and say, “No, the facts are these”?

BOEHNER: I just did.

Ethicist Bob Stone agrees with Gregory, and also thinks GOP leaders have an ethical obligation to set Glenn Beck straight regarding some of his conspiracy theories, arguing that Boehner and other Republicans are “complicit in the lies if you don’t challenge them.”

This is a novel version of a political party’s ethical obligations, and one that is impossible, unreasonable, and remarkably one-sided. When President Obama publicly misled the public regarding the Arizona anti-immigration law, saying that a man “buying ice cream” could be detained and searched because he looked Hispanic, did Gregory, or “Ethics Bob,” argue that Democrats had an obligation to correct the misrepresentation of “obvious facts”? Sen Kerry was happy to accept the votes of supporters chanting the ridiculous “Bush Lied and People Died,” conveniently ignoring the fact that he was as convinced that Iraq had WMD’s as anyone in the Bush White House. Did Kerry have an obligation to correct the record? I don’t recall the press hectoring Democratic leaders to reprimand the Angry Left’s Truthers, who still claim that President Bush bombed the World Trade Center. Do you? Did Gregory lecture any Democratic leaders that they needed to tell the Palin-haters (and the New York Times) that Alaska’s Living Lightning Rod did absolutely nothing to justify linking her to Jared Loughner’s rampage? I must have missed this episode.

I also missed the “Meet the Press” installment when Gregory told Sen. Lieberman to stop fueling the lie that the 2000 Presidential election had been “stolen” because Gore got the most popular votes, disabusing the many Democrats who don’t comprehend the Electoral College of a cause for righteous indignation. (Do send me the YouTube clip, Bob.)

Hillary Clinton infamously gave a wavering endorsement of Obama’s Christianity when she opposed him for the nomination: why is correcting Obama’s doubters suddenly Boehner’s responsibility? Republican-hating comedian Bill Maher said on his HBO program just last week that he personally found it hard to believe that Obama is a Christian. Does Gregory really think that Boehner is ethically required to set him straight too? If Speaker Boehner has to confront Glenn Beck, as Bob Stone says, did I miss the earlier post about Nancy Pelosi having an obligation to tell off Keith Olbermann when he said,

“Those fighting health-care reform, not those debating its shape nor its nuance, people who demand the status quo, they are killing 45,000 Americans a year.”

Or when he said of Sen. Scott Brown, in a statement so absurdly hyperbolic and slanderous that it was mocked by Jon Stewart…

“In short, in Scott Brown we have an irresponsible, homophobic, racist, reactionary, ex-nude model, teabagging supporter of violence against woman and against politicians with whom he disagrees. In any other time in our history, this man would have been laughed off the stage as an unqualified and a disaster in the making by the most conservative of conservatives. Instead, the commonwealth of Massachusetts is close to sending this bad joke to the Senate of the United States.”

…did Bob Stone, or Gregory, suggest that Democratic leaders like Harry Reid were cynical and irresponsible to reap the electoral benefits from Olbermann’s followers rather than standing up for a besieged Republican? Please, tell me. I may have missed it. Am I being cynical to think that what is a “poisonous lie” when it unfairly undermines Democrats is just a matter of opinion when it slanders Republicans? Personally, I regard both “Bush Lied…” and the stolen election claim as far more poisonous than either the Birthers’ conspiracy theory, which is just annoying, and doubts about Obama’s religion. But David Gregory doesn’t, and of course, he know best.

If a prominent politician vocally challenges ignorant positions on behalf of his or her party’s supporters, they show exemplary ethics, integrity and civic responsibility. Bill Clinton qualified when he gave a public dressing down of a questioner who posed the theory of Bush Administration complicity in 9/11. Sen. McCain, during his presidential campaign, corrected a supporter who called Obama a Muslim. But correcting and challenging each party’s wackos, not to mention free agents like Beck, is a full time job, and frankly, it’s the press’s job. If the news media hadn’t thoroughly debased its reputation for objectivity, maybe it would be trusted when it lays out the facts about Obama’s Hawaian birth and religious background. The public, however, believes that the news media would say anything to support President Obama…and that is 100% the press’s own doing.

This week’s viewer of “Meet the Press” met the press, all right: they met the press that carries the water for the Democratic Party. If we want to establish an ethical standard in politics where we expect each party’s leaders to oppose the most irresponsible statements and beliefs of friendly talk show ideologues and extremist supporters, I’m up for the experiment, but pretending John Boehner and Republican leaders somehow have absolute ethical responsibilities that no party’s leaders have ever acknowledged before is the epitome of a double standard, and a politically motivated one. It also reeks of the assumption that only Republicans believe nonsense, propaganda, half-truths and conspiracies, because, as we all know and the media clearly believes, conservatives are morons.

The standard is also an impossible standard. I do not trust the media to decide what are “obvious facts,’ and I’m not sure I trust anyone who trusts the media. Next, Gregory and Bob will be demanding that Boehner has an obligation to set Sen. Inhofe straight on the “obvious facts” of global warming, or to tell Republicans that the health care reform act really will lower the deficit, or that the individual mandate is constitutional, or that God is a myth and creationism is a lie. And frankly, all of these issues are a lot more worthy of discussion than the cockamamie birth conspiracy theory and what Obama believes in his heart of hearts about the origins of the cosmos. (You know, it is almost certain that many of our Presidents were far from candid about their religious beliefs, because admitting to being an agnostic in their time was as politically ruinous as admitting to Muslim beliefs would be now. As Boehner says, I take the President at his word, but I don’t really know, and I couldn’t possibly care less.)

In summary, Gregory’s attack on Speaker Boehner was unfair. When there’s a bi-partisan standard in effect, evenly applied, let me know. I won’t be holding my breath.

14 Comments

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14 responses to “Are GOP Leaders Obligated to Condemn Doubters of Obama’s Birth and Beliefs?

  1. Wow. Let me be clear and brief: Political leaders have a responsibility to conduct their affairs with civility and honesty. That includes disavowing lies or smears spread by their supporters.

    To take just a couple of Ethics Alarms examples, Dems should have, and too few did, disavow statements that Bush lied about WMD in Iraq. They should have, and many did, reject the absurdity that Palin was responsible for the Tucson massacre. As far as saying that a man buying ice cream could be stopped under the Arizona immigration law, that seems arguable to me. Just as some are stopped for “driving while black,” it seems possible, even likely, that some will be stopped for buying ice cream while Hispanic.

    “Bush stole the election” is damaging to our society in the same way that “Obama is a Kenyan” is: it undercuts the legitimacy of our government and society. All political leaders should loudly reject it. (Incidentally, Al Gore did reject it from the instant of the Supreme Court’s decision.)

  2. But the media never made those demands of the Democrats, Bob. Gore sat silently smiling when, for example, David Letterman suggested that he really “won.” And what are lies? I’ve argued here with both “Truthers” and “Birthers,” and the ones I’ve contended with aren’t lying: they believe it. There is no way Obama’s true faith can be determined with the certainty required to call skeptics “liars,” either. The standard you state at the otset is correct, but that’s an abstract: who decides what misrepresentation or misunderstanding—or alleged misunderstanding—triggers the obligation? David Gregory? I think not.

    • The demands should be made of Democrats as well as Republicans. As far as who decides, you do, I do, David Gregory does, we each make up our own mind and express our own opinion.

    • tgt

      While lies are a big deal, untruths are nearly as important. If it’s not fact, and you know it, it is an ethical imperative to correct it.

      • Tim LeVier

        ^ When you have the opportunity, authority, and obligation to correct it.

      • I agree. But I don’t see why this falls only to Boehner or other Republicans. As Tim says, this isn’t part of his responsibility. If the official position of the party was the Birther line, it would be. All Birthers are not Republicans.

  3. Curmudgeon

    Truth? Lie? My father, a pretty good lawyer (former attorney-general of his native state) gave me this definition of a lie when I was an adolescent:

    “A lie is a deliberate attempt to deceive someone who has a right to know the truth.” Succinct, yes? Examples:

    Quarterback in huddle says to left end, “Go out for a long pass, but actually, we’re going over right tackle.”

    It is a deliberate attempt to deceive the other team, but is it a lie? Certainly not, other team has no right to know the truth.

    Armed robber with gun takes my wallet, says, “You got any more money?” I tell him, “No, that’s all I have.”, not telling him about the $50 bill hidden in my shoe. Is it a lie? No, it is a deliberate attempt to deceive, and he has no right to know the truth.

    Also note the word “deliberate” in Dad’s definition, i.e., one cannot lie by accident.

    What is an Ethicist’s take on the definition, and how might apply (or not) to politics?

  4. I trust you—I don’t trust Gregory, whose fervor against Boehner on two issues of no special timeliness can only be explained by bias. If he had Pelosi and Boehner, side by side, and aksed each to confront their side’s loonies, I would withdraw my objections.

  5. Tim LeVier

    Here I go, stepping in the middle of a dog fight, but I do it willingly.

    David Gregory’s line of questioning was worthless. Do I want the Speaker of the House to go out of his way to seek and correct people? Never.

    The speaker gave the viewer his beliefs and that puts him at odds with the “birther” community. Additionally, DG didn’t ask the speaker to correct any specific individual that he has direct interaction with and he didn’t point to a specific instance when he attended or supported a “birther” event.

    If Obama has a “birther” problem, then Obama needs to fix it. Otherwise, he’s doing just fine. He got elected and he holds the power. I doubt Obama needs John Boehner to fight his battles.

    Additionally, the Speaker of the House sets the Legislative agenda, not the GOP’s messaging agenda. Unless “Denouncing “Birthers” becomes a bill up for a vote in the House, I don’t think it falls within his job description.

    If the “birthers” became a blight on the GOP (that is, enough of a blight that they could not simply be ignored) then “Denouncing Birthers” should be the job of the GOP party officials.

  6. Boehner tells the American people what to believe every single day: what to think of the health care initiative, what to think of the stimulus package, etc. That is, at one level, his job as a politician, and I do not begrudge him that. But he presents his opinions as facts (the “job-killing health care bill”) and facts as opinions (“I take the President at his word”). The former is conventional politics; the latter is self-conscious (and self-serving) equivocation.

    More to the point, even if I were to grant all the examples you cite (which I don’t), are you really arguing that Boehner shouldn’t do the right thing because Kerry or Pelosi or Reid didn’t? That’s a reasonable enough political argument, but hardly a convincing one in ethical terms.

    • I didn’t say that—I was very careful not to say that. I said that Gregory was insisting that Boehner had an obligation to do the sort or general correction of mistaken but perhaps beneficial belief that the no other political leader has seen as his duty, and that no other news anchor has dared to demand of Democrats, and that’s unfair. I’d love Boehner or any leader or either party to confront the Truthers and the Birthers. If Boehner did so with the Birthers, I’d applaud him. But he did what he was obligated to do–he said that he believed the President was a Christian and was born here.

      And excuse me: President Obama’s belief are in no way “facts” and can never be so. I can guess, suremise, conclude, assess, and take his word regarding what his beliefs are, but Obama himself is the only person who knows what the fact of his belief are. There is nothing at all inappropriate or provocative with “I take him at his word” unless you presuppose he doesn’t. I think Obama secretly worships the Flying Spaghetti Monster but is embarrassed to admit it. That’s my true opinion. Can you prove I am wrong? What’s the FACT of his belief? All we can possibly know is what he says, and thugh good Democrat Bill Maher doubts him, I don’t, not that I think it’s worth thinking about.

      And I repeat; why this issue and not evolution or quantum theory? Who the hell is David Gregory to declare this new obligation in the public square?

  7. Pingback: An opposing opinion from EthicsAlarms: Republican leaders don’t have a responsibility to speak out against Glenn Beck and the birthers « Ethics Bob

  8. I’m coming in late on this debate! Let me say this. NO elected official has the power or the right to tell anyone what they should think. Their job is leadership- one citizen selected by many to represent them in government. It’s not to stand on a mountain and tell them what they MUST think. It is for this reason that Jesus warned us about false prophets. We try to elect Solons, not Caesars.

    As to the “birther” movement… the reason that some people think or suspect that Obama may be ineligible for office is fuelled not by blind political whim, but by Obama’s own actions. As its leading advocates have all pointed out, he could end the entire controversy with one phone call to Hawaii or California. It would also be the constitutional thing to do. That he has not only failed to do so, but actively resisted every attempt to make his legal certificate public and has sponsored an active defamation campaign against those who question him, is what keeps this whole thing going. And the longer this goes unresolved, the greater the potential danger to America’s political stability.

    As you point out, Jack, this immense and blatant double standard by the Lamestream Media (as some call it!) only intensifies the distrust for traditional news sources that’s already rampant among the citizenry. And who can blame them? As has often been pointed out by rightwing commentators, the Media mortgaged all that was left of its credibility on Obama’s election in the hopes that this would result in a permanent political structure from which they would benefit. In John Boehner, they see the potential destruction of their ambitions. Expect more of this sort of thing in the future. They have nothing left to lose.

    • I can’t concur that Obama is complicit in perpetrating a slanderous claim that is absurd on its face… and that has no point or consequence. It is as much an effort to delegitimize a duly elected leader as the Democrats’ dishonest claim that Gore “won” the 2000 election. Bush could have produced and flogged all the news agency hand recounts that proved otherwise (despite counters who were dying to prove the slander was right—which is why the results were seiously under-reported) but it would have done no good,and would have dignified the undignifiable. Same here, though this worse. If I were Obama, I would similarly tell the sleptics to go to Hell.

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