Blasting Franken's “vulgarity,” Wash. Post's Gerson touted McCain's “civility,” ignoring McCain's “vulgarity” and tolerance of it

Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson criticized senatorial candidate Al Franken for what he called Franken's “offensive vulgarity” and wrote: “At its best, politics can offer examples of civility and generosity that challenge selfishness and prejudice -- the tradition so far embraced by both John McCain and Barack Obama.” However, Gerson ignored McCain's previous personal attacks on Sen. Hillary Clinton, including McCain's reported telling of this joke at a 1998 fundraiser: “Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because her father is Janet Reno.”

In a June 18 Washington Post column, citing writings and jokes that are years and even decades old, Michael Gerson criticized comedian and Minnesota Democratic senatorial candidate Al Franken for what he called Franken's “offensive vulgarity.” Gerson wrote: “The objects of Franken's humor -- including political opponents and women -- are not merely mocked but dehumanized. His trashiness is also nastiness.” Gerson later added, “At its best, politics can offer examples of civility and generosity that challenge selfishness and prejudice -- the tradition so far embraced by both John McCain and Barack Obama. At the very least, politics should not actively push our culture toward vulgarity and viciousness. This is not prudery; it is a practical concern for the cooperation and mutual respect necessary in a functioning democracy. And it is hard to believe those causes would be served by a Sen. Franken.” However, in citing McCain as an “example[] of civility and generosity that challenge selfishness and prejudice,” Gerson ignored McCain's previous personal attacks on Sen. Hillary Clinton, including an appearance at a 1998 Republican fundraiser where McCain reportedly made what New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd called a “disgusting jape” : “Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because her father is Janet Reno.” (He reportedly later apologized to President Bill Clinton.)

Media Matters for America has documented that McCain tolerated an attack on Hillary Clinton as well as took a “swipe” at her during the presidential campaign. During a November 2007 campaign event in South Carolina, when a questioner asked McCain, “How do we beat the bitch?” -- presumably referring to Hillary Clinton -- McCain responded that it was an “excellent question” and then pointed to a Rasmussen poll that he said showed him beating Clinton in a head-to-head matchup before saying, “I respect Senator Clinton.” Additionally, an October 18, 2007, Associated Press article reported that while campaigning in South Carolina, McCain “couldn't resist a swipe at Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton.” The article noted that during an appearance at the University of South Carolina Upstate nursing school, “McCain took one look at a ... training mannequin and asked if the dummy's name was Hillary.” The article quoted McCain as saying, “I was very glad to meet the dummy, named 'Hillary.' ”

McCain's campaign has also been linked to personal attacks against Clinton, as Media Matters has noted. Before joining the campaign in early June, McCain's deputy communications director, Michael Goldfarb, regularly engaged in the kind of personal smears that McCain has denounced. In his prior capacity as online editor of The Weekly Standard, from which he is on leave, Goldfarb described Clinton as a “shameless panderer” who “lie[s]” “more than most” politicians and mustered “faux outrage” that came off as “pathetic whining” about her treatment from the media. Goldfarb said of Clinton's “3 a.m.” ad about the economy: "[D]oes anyone think Clinton wouldn't bite off the heads of at least three staffers if her much needed beauty sleep was disturbed by a middle of the night phone call about the economy?"

From Gerson's June 18 Washington Post column:

In the razor-close and nationally important Senate race in Minnesota, Republican incumbent Norm Coleman is presented with a unique political problem. Should he raise in his ads the issue of comedian Al Franken's offensive vulgarity? Or would this risk a backlash against Coleman for coarsening the public conversation? Remember that when Ken Starr detailed Bill Clinton's most repulsive antics -- stained dresses and such -- it was Starr who was accused of sexual obsessiveness.

[...]

“Porn-O-Rama!” is a modern campaign document every voter should read -- the Federalist Papers of lifestyle liberalism. It has the literary sensibilities and moral seriousness of an awkward adolescent nerd publishing an underground newspaper to shock his way into campus popularity. But, in this case, the article was written in 2000 by a 48-year-old man.

Franken's “brand name” includes other highlights. In 2006, after a long monologue about a dog and its vomit, Franken impersonated the deceased Sen. Strom Thurmond as saying: “Yeah, I screwed a woman who was vomiting once.” He once proposed a television sketch about a female CBS reporter being drugged and raped. He has suggested that his next book title might be “I F -- -- -- Hate Those Right-Wing Motherf -- -- -- !” At an event hosted by the Feminist Majority Foundation in 1999, Franken offered this thigh-slapper: “Why don't we focus on what Afghan women can do? They can cook, bear children and pray. As I recall, that was fine for our grandmothers.”

Our popular culture, of course, violates even these expansive boundaries of tastelessness with regularity. We laugh at comedies featuring the C-word and at cartoons of foul-mouthed third-graders. In the cause of relevance and realism, our common life is already decorated with excrement. Why should political discourse be any different?

For at least one reason: Because vulgarity is often the opposite of civility. This is not, of course, always true. I know a brilliant and large-hearted academic with roots in south Philly who uses the F-word with the frequency of “like” or “and.” But the vulgarity of “The Jerry Springer Show” or misogynous rap music -- the cultural equivalents of Franken's political “satire” -- generally expresses contempt and cruelty. Franken is not content to disagree with Karl Rove; he calls him “human filth.” He is not satisfied to criticize Ari Fleischer; Franken terms him a “chimp.” The objects of Franken's humor -- including political opponents and women -- are not merely mocked but dehumanized. His trashiness is also nastiness. Rather than lampooning the emptiness and viciousness of our political discourse -- a proper role for satire -- Franken has powerfully reinforced those failures.

Some institutions must be more than a mirror to our culture, including families, religious communities and government. At its best, politics can offer examples of civility and generosity that challenge selfishness and prejudice -- the tradition so far embraced by both John McCain and Barack Obama. At the very least, politics should not actively push our culture toward vulgarity and viciousness. This is not prudery; it is a practical concern for the cooperation and mutual respect necessary in a functioning democracy. And it is hard to believe those causes would be served by a Sen. Franken.