Obama faces vile insults like no other president has

No U.S. president in history has been castigated, condemned, insulted and degraded as much as Obama.

I've been thinking lately about the persistently vituperative and insulting attacks on President Barack Obama since 2008. It is, of course, commonplace in American politics for presidents to be lambasted for their policies, their programs, their values and even their personal quirks. Sometimes the tone crosses the line.

John Adams was accused by a political opponent of "swallowing up" every "consideration of the public welfare ... in a continual grasp for power." James Madison was demeaned as "Little Jemmy" because he was short. James Buchanan, who once declared that workers should get by on a dime a day, came to be mocked as "Ten Cent Jimmy."

John Tyler, who assumed the presidency after the death of William Henry Harrison, was ridiculed as "His Accidency." Congressman Abraham Lincoln castigated President James Polk as a "completely bewildered man." Opponents of Woodrow Wilson's reinstitution of the draft in World War I accused him of "committing a sin against humanity." Critics of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal attacked him as an "un-American radical."

Richard Nixon was famously known as "Tricky Dick," and of course he was not "a crook." At the height of the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson was excoriated by his opponents as a "murderer" and a "war criminal."

But no president in our nation's history has ever been castigated, condemned, mocked, insulted, derided and degraded on a scale even close to the constantly ugly attacks on Obama. From the day he assumed office — indeed, even before he assumed office — he was subjected to unprecedented insults in often the most hateful terms.

He has been accused of being a "secret Muslim" and born in Kenya, of being complicit with the Muslim Brotherhood, of wearing a ring bearing a secret verse from the Quran, of having once been a Black Panther, of refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, of seeking to confiscate all guns, of lying about just about everything he has ever said, ranging from Benghazi to the Affordable Care Act to immigration, of faking Osama bin Laden's death and of funding his campaigns with drug money.

It goes on and on and on. Even the president's family is treated by his political enemies with disrespect and disdain.

If one browses even respectable websites, one can readily find bumper stickers, coffee cups and T-shirts for sale with such messages as: "Dump This Turd" (with an image of Obama); "Coward! You Left Them To Die in Benghazi" (with an image of Obama); "Somewhere in Kenya A Village Is Missing Its Idiot" (with an image of Obama); "Islam's Trojan Horse" (with an image of Obama); "Pure Evil" (with an image of Obama); "I'm Not A Racist: I Hate His White Half Too" (with an image of Obama); "He Lies!" (with an image of Obama); and on and on and on.

Now don't get me wrong. Every one of these messages is protected by the First Amendment, and people have a right to express their views, even in harsh, offensive, cruel and moronic ways. We the People do not need to trust or admire our leaders, and we should not treat them with respect if we don't feel they deserve our respect. But the sheer vituperation directed at this president goes beyond any rational opposition and is, quite frankly, mind-boggling.

In part, of course, this might just be a product of our times. Perhaps the quality of our public discourse has sunk so low that any public official must now expect such treatment. Perhaps any president elected in 2008 would have been greeted with similar scorn and disdain. But, to be honest, that seems unlikely.

Of course, there are those who say that this phenomenon is due in part, perhaps in large part, to the fact that Obama is African-American. But surely racism is dead in America today, right?

One fact that might lend some credence to the theory that racism has something to do with the tenor of the attacks on Obama is that only one other president in our history has been the target of similar (though more subdued) personal attacks.

In his day, this president was castigated by the press and his political opponents as a "liar," a "despot," a "usurper," a "thief," a "monster," a "perjurer," an "ignoramus," a "swindler," a "tyrant," a "fiend," a "coward," a "buffoon," a "butcher," a "pirate," a "devil" and a "king." He was charged with being "cunning," "thickheaded," "heartless," "filthy" and "fanatical." He was accused of behaving "like a thief in the night," of being "the miserable tool of traitors and rebels," and of being "adrift on a current of racial fanaticism."

He was labeled by his enemies "Abraham Africanus the First."

But, of course, race had nothing to do with it then either.

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Geoffrey R. Stone is a law professor at the University of Chicago.

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