In the first minutes after I learned of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the thought occurred to me that this would drive General Colin Powell away from a presidential candidacy. Powell, who is as devoted to his wife and family as a man can be, could not proceed without the support of his wife Alma, who for years has lived in fear of her husband being cut down by an assassin’s bullet. Her fear was of course based on Powell’s color and his extraordinary positions of power as National Security Advisor and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. For Israeli security, the best in the world, to allow an armed assassin to get next to the head of state, Alma Powell would have to ask how the first black President could survive. My thought was that Powell, by all accounts on a knife edge in his struggle to decide on the presidency, would now be tipped toward the protection of his wife. It was the right decision, I think, one he might have made in any event, as he began to realize how ill-equipped he is for the presidential arena. I’d briefly thought he could handle it (“The Powell Factor,” Sept.12), but saw him making one error after another beginning with his contretemps involving the Million Man March, a fish out of water. If he felt he had a mission that required him to be President, he would have ploughed ahead. But the pull toward the presidency has always been a vague one for him. He knows there is something important he must do, but it does not require him to be President.
The Rabin assassination is part of the larger story about the current breakdown of civil discourse in the family of man. In my letter yesterday, “The Swing of the Political Pendulum,” I noted a phrase Alexander Hamilton used in the first and most important of the Federalist papers, about “the inducements to moderation” which the Founding Fathers attempted to build into our constitutional architecture. The complete quote is this: “Were there not even inducements to moderation, nothing could be more ill-judged than that intolerant spirit which has, at all times, characterized political parties. For in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.” If you can, read today’s entire column by Thomas L. Friedman in The New York Times. Friedman is the one American journalist who I think really understands the many layers and dimensions of Middle East theopolitics. One point he makes, which we see relates to the Hamilton quote, concerns Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud party leader, and Yigal Amir, the assassin: “Mr. Netanyahu wants us to believe that Mr. Amir is not deranged. He is just your average religious right-wing hard-liner, who listened to the Likud’s verbal attacks on Mr. Rabin, who saw the posters depicting Mr. Rabin as a Nazi SS officer, and just took it all to its logical extreme.”
The First Amendment guarantees the people the right to scream to the high heavens, to say the most outrageous things about the nation’s political leaders and their policies. This is so the political leaders will know when to pay attention to the people. The intent of the First Amendment is not to invite Republicans to call Democrats Communists on the floor of the House or Senate, or for Democrats to call Republicans Nazis. When political leaders use violent icons in the houses of Congress, they should expect their true believers, still wet behind the ears, to do their patriotic duty by getting a gun and knocking off the opposition. In the family unit, the basic unit of political economy, violent behavior between husband and wife is almost inevitably reflected in the behavior of the children.
My recent commentary on the Million Man March, with its offbeat appreciation of Louis Farrakhan, irritated some of my friends and clients, who understandably take Farrakhan as an agent of racism and bigotry. My rationale is really that Farrakhan represents that fraction of the American family that is furthest from the center, so far from the center that he has to shout to be heard. When you hear what he has to say, it sounds anti-Semitic because his rhetoric has to do with criticisms of American Jews. If you listen carefully, he is really complaining to American Jews, not about them. After all, Jews as a social group are almost as far from the center of the Christian white power center as blacks, but instead of making common cause with blacks -- as they did earlier in the century -- have been treating blacks as a subclass. In that sense, Jews have joined white Protestants and Catholics, left and right, in patronizing their black brothers and sisters, treating them as if they were inherently, genetically inferior. In his Million Man March, Farrakhan demonstrated good works and good faith. Yet for his efforts at reaching out to the Jewish Community for reconciliation, he is cast by Jewish leaders in the uniform of Hitler’s Nazis. Jack Kemp, who attempts to mediate with the Anti-Defamation League, is told to mind his own business by Abe Rosenthal of The New York Times, who insists there can be no dialog.
Now we have a similar spectacle in Washington, with President Clinton edging toward conciliation with House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. The left wing of the Democratic Party hurls Nazi epithets at the Gingrich Republicans and the Gingrich Republicans compete with their holier-than-thou kamikaze heroics, casting the Democrats as second-string socialists. The Republicans, returned to power after 40 years in the wilderness, are getting awfully close to demonstrating an inability to govern. Their insistence on putting the debt ceiling gun to the President’s head is a shameful tactic -- the equivalent of a husband threatening his wife with divorce unless she balances the budget, when it is his responsibility to bring home a paycheck that can make it happen. We rarely agree with Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin, but we would second his recommendation that the President veto the debt-limit extension as it is being written by the Republicans, which forces on him that poison pill. This is not the way our political parties should be conducting the people’s business. There is at least some negative stirring in the Religious Right about the GOP idea of encouraging a default on the national debt. The Democratic gains in Tuesday’s scattered state elections bear out the uneasiness in the land.
How many more acts of violence must occur before the anger and outrage at home and abroad are channeled into civil discourse? Where are the inducements to moderation? They really have to start here in the United States, the last, best hope of mankind. If our political and religious leaders can’t communicate in moderate tones, in good faith, toward conciliation and reconciliation, why would we expect more of a 25-year-old Israeli boy who says he heard the voice of God? With the inference of his elders, the boy killed one of the most courageous political leaders of our time -- a man who would walk across a river of blood to talk quietly of peace with his Arab neighbors. If the example can’t be set here, with the best constitutional architecture in the world, why expect it anywhere?