When politics is turned into war, the fallout is ugly

The Baltimore Sun

I haven't read Robert Novak's column in 10 years.

Back in 1998, he made a comment on CNN - what it was is not material here - that I considered beyond the pale. I decided I could henceforth do without his opinions and insights. He impressed me as a distinctly disagreeable man. And that was well before he outed CIA operative Valerie Plame.

When the news broke recently that Mr. Novak had a brain tumor and would retire, I was not made prostrate by grief. What I felt was that whisper of common mortality, that sense of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God one usually feels when tragedy strikes someone who is known to you, but not too closely. I felt sorry for the man and for his loved ones. It did not occur to me to celebrate their misfortune.

In this, I am evidently different from a number of observers who have infested Web sites with exultation over the columnist's diagnosis. To be sure, the majority of bloggers and posters - even those put off by Mr. Novak's often brusque conservatism and abrupt personality - have wished him well. But there has been no shortage of those who were unable to attain that level of grace. One calls Mr. Novak's fate evidence of God. Another calls him a "scumbag." Still another claims this proves "Republicanism" is a mental illness. "LOL," it says.

And then there's the message board of Mr. Novak's home paper, the Chicago Sun-Times, where whoever is in charge of deleting offensive content is surely working overtime to keep up with the invective. I managed to snag two of the messages before the censor got hold of them. One expressed the hope that Mr. Novak "suffers like the victims of his lies." Another said, "May he rest in pain."

There is nothing new here. Similar responses attended the late Tony Snow's battle with colon cancer. And Michael Savage, a barely housebroken radio personality, played a song by the Dead Kennedys when news broke that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy had been diagnosed with brain cancer.

The intention, I imagine, is to debase those with whom one has political disagreements. The authors of this sort of abuse evidently don't realize that what they really debase is themselves - and political discourse as a whole.

Yes, it is fair, even now, to offer a harsh critique of Mr. Novak's politics. But there is something fundamentally indecent about celebrating his grave illness. Osama bin Laden, I might understand; he's a mortal enemy. Robert Novak is just a columnist with whom some of us disagree.

But then the distinction I draw no longer exists in the minds of many, raised as they have been on talk-radio diatribes, accustomed as they are to spewing vitriol from the anonymity of the Internet. For them, disagreement is the very mark of a mortal enemy. For them, there is no such thing as the sort of easy bonhomie among opponents that allowed, say, Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill to share a drink at the end of a long day spent fighting one another in the political trenches.

It is a sweet picture that might as well be painted in sepia tones, so long ago does it seem. Today, there is no bonhomie. Politics is war. In war, one does not drink with enemies. One does not reason with them or seek common ground. One simply hates them. One simply kills them.

That's the mentality you're seeing here - politics as war - and it is not pretty. The thing is, there are truths above politics, and one of them is that you do not laugh at the other guy's tragedy. How estranged are you from your own humanity, how deficient was your home training, when you need to be reminded of that?

Friend or foe, there is only one word any of us should feel compelled to offer Robert Novak right now:


Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears regularly in The Sun. His e-mail is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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