The Magazine

Criminalizing Conservatives

Fall of 2005 will be remembered as a time when it became clear that a strategy of criminalization had been implemented to inflict defeat on conservatives.

Oct 24, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 06 • By JEFFREY BELL and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Don't try selling the idea of coincidence to Kenneth Tomlinson, until recently the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Last May, the New York Times published a lengthy account of Tomlinson's efforts to bring increased balance to public television--i.e., giving a bit more of a hearing to conservatives. He commissioned a modest study to confirm what most everyone already knew, that the practice on shows produced or moderated by Bill Moyers is to interview conservatives and Republicans only when they are in disagreement with the predominant conservative or Republican position on a given issue.

Within days of the Times piece, Democratic congressmen David Obey and John Dingell, ranking minority members on two key committees, wrote a letter to the CPB inspector general, Kenneth Konz, demanding a detailed, elaborate investigation of Tomlinson. Not only did Konz comply, he asked Tomlinson to provide all his emails, which Tomlinson did, and conducted a search of Tomlinson's office files without telling him. A few months later, in September, Konz gave an interview to Bloomberg News in which he confided, concerning an ongoing and incomplete investigation, "Clearly there are indications of possible violations." Konz later said he had been misunderstood, and that it was much too early to come to any conclusions.

Tomlinson's term as CPB chairman expired last month, though he remains a member of the board. But the inspector general's investigation of Tomlinson's conduct as chairman, designed by Obey and Dingell and their liberal staffers, continues with no end in sight.

Meanwhile, a kind of ideological criminalization of active, visible conservatives has become almost second nature to the left and the elite professions, including journalism and teaching, in which they predominate. Did Dick Cheney change his views on regime change in Iraq between 1991 and 2003? Don't ask him why. It's enough to give a one-word explanation of his views: "Halliburton." The unspoken premise is that Cheney changed his position to line his pockets.

And what was the left's central, most deeply felt image of the presidential campaign of 2004? Actively marketed by Dan Rather and CBS News, it was this: John Kerry was a war hero and George W. Bush went AWOL. AWOL is, of course, an acronym: "Absent Without Leave." In the military, being AWOL is a crime subject to court martial, and to lengthy imprisonment. So saying Bush was AWOL was not just an attempt to compare his military service unfavorably with Kerry's, which is fair enough. It was an attempt to criminalize Bush's military career. Though the attempt backfired when it became clear CBS had accepted faked evidence, Democratic and liberal elites were sold on the idea that "war hero" vs. "AWOL" was the key to undermining the widespread respect Bush had achieved by his response to 9/11.

Why are conservative Republicans, who control the executive and legislative branches of government for the first time in living memory, so vulnerable to the phenomenon of criminalization? Is it simple payback for the impeachment of Bill Clinton? Or is it a reflection of some deep malady at the heart of American politics? If criminalization is seen to loom ahead for every conservative who begins successfully to act out his or her beliefs in government or politics, is the project of conservative reform sustainable?

We don't pretend to have all the answers, or a solid answer even to one of these questions. But it's a reasonable bet that the fall of 2005 will be remembered as a time when it became clear that a comprehensive strategy of criminalization had been implemented to inflict defeat on conservatives who seek to govern as conservatives. And it is clear that thinking through a response to this challenge is a task conservatives can no longer postpone.

-Jeffrey Bell and William Kristol