It was a bad week for people who deliver opinions for a living.
Montana federal Judge Richard Cebull was busted for emailing an ugly joke about President Obama’s mother. Conservative new media hero Andrew Breitbart died unexpectedly at age 43. Conservative old media icon Rush Limbaugh had to apologize to, of all things, a woman. And Montana gubernatorial candidate Neil Livingstone threatened war against the federal government.
Judge Cebull, apparently a first-time offender, earns the most sympathy in this corner. Recall, for a moment, the raunchiest joke you ever told. Then imagine that joke accompanying you for the rest of your life, all across the nation, everywhere you go, the first thing people think of when you enter the room, the first thing they talk about when you leave.
You have now imagined the rest of Richard Cebull’s life. He has been punished enough.
Mr. Breitbart died too young – too young for a human being, and too young to redeem whatever might have been made of his reputation.
While he was an innovator who worked on the Drudge Report and the Huffington Post before launching several successful web sites of his own, he also had an ugly side that even his friends couldn’t overlook upon his death.
Mr. Breitbart had famously observed the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy by calling him a “special pile of human excrement.” He had a couple of legitimate, if unevenly reported, scoops: He exposed bizarre counseling practices at ACORN and caught former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner exposing himself.
But he is likely to be most remembered for a scoop that wasn’t: A selectively edited tape of federal official Shirley Sherrod that appeared to show she was guilty of racism. She wasn’t, as the full tape revealed. Mr. Breitbart never apologized, and her lawsuit against him is still pending.
Mr. Breitbart was fond of trashing the “mainstream media,” but it is a testament to the dodginess of his own journalism that when news broke on his website of his death, even the conservative radio talkers held back until it was confirmed by traditional news sources. Conservatives may have loved Breitbart, but they knew better than to trust him.
Mr. Limbaugh is another victim of his own reputation, including a long history of labeling women as “feminazis” or members of the National Association of Gals (NAG). That history made it impossible to walk back assertions that a law student testifying about contraception was a “slut” and “prostitute.”
Instead, he tried to explain that he was guilty only of poor word choices. One wonders what words would have passed muster: Tart? Floozy? Succubus?
Mr. Limbaugh’s defenders immediately began polishing their “greatest hits” collection of misogynistic statements from liberals. But the analogies don’t fly. Mr. Limbaugh simply has no equivalent on the left, as the tepid response of GOP presidential candidates to his latest outrage showed.
Most criticism of Judge Cebull’s joke focused on its racism, but its attack on a woman – the mother of the president, no less – made it stand out. Mr. Limbaugh has had four wives, and fewer than a quarter of his listeners are women. Mr. Breitbart once labeled women members of the Code Pink anti-war group as “slutty.”
That made the whole week another blow to Republican efforts to earn the votes of women in an election year in which the one woman candidate for president, Michele Bachmann, struggled in part because of fears that she was too crazy to be president. Last week, U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Me., announced she wouldn’t seek re-election in the toxic atmosphere of Washington, igniting concerns that she wasn’t crazy enough.
Women’s issues were absent from Mr. Livingstone’s appearance last week on the radio talk show “Voice of Montana,” but toxicity was not.
The Republican made predictable attacks on Gov. Brian Schweitzer, calling him an “imperial governor,” and on President Obama, labeling him a “secular socialist” who doesn’t care about “working men and women.”
Mr. Livingstone, a terrorism expert and consultant, also said he would go to “war” with environmentalists and the federal government and make Montana a “battleground” over states’ rights. He stopped short of calling for armed rebellion, as Wyoming seemed to imply when, as Ed Kemmick noted in his City Lights column, it amended a bill to include a look at Wyoming’s need for an aircraft carrier.
But Mr. Livingstone did say that he was prepared as governor to arrest federal officials who tried to enforce federal regulations (as opposed to acts of Congress). They probably would be released within three hours but, he said, “We will have made a statement, and we will go to war with the federal government.”
What statement, exactly? Even as a metaphor, war is a lousy way to talk about relations with the federal government. Mr. Livingstone needs to recall that when a bunch of Southern states tried making war on Washington 150 years ago, they not only lost the war, costing some 600,000 lives in the process, but they also ushered in a rash of constitutional amendments that left the federal government with more power than ever.
Mr. Livingstone also suggested solving the wolf problem by planting wolves in Central Park in New York City and in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. A caller opined that someone who is unable to distinguish between the wisdom of placing wolves in Central Park and placing them in Yellowstone Park probably isn’t smart enough to be an elected official.
Mr. Livingstone, who has written nine books, bristled. He suggested that the caller probably has an “inheritance or soft job where he doesn’t have to make a living.”
Such callers are part of the problem, Mr. Livingstone indicated. But no. The problem is judges, pundits and candidates who fail to weigh their words before discharging them.