For one, brief shining moment last week, I thought Nancy Pelosi must be the bravest American politician of the century, standing up to her own nutball constituency in the interest of American political politesse. After all, when she tearfully told a press conference that the partisan bombast should be dialed down several notches lest it turn bloody — "I saw this myself in the late '70s in San Francisco, this kind of rhetoric . . . it created an environment in which violence took place" — she had to be talking about left-wing violence, right?
Because when you talk about political murder and mayhem in San Francisco 30 years ago, the trigger was almost always pulled or the cyanide Kool-Aid poured by a leftist. There were the revolutionary nihilists of the Symbionese Liberation Army, assassinating an Oakland school superintendent, kidnapping Patty Hearst and finally shotgunning an innocent bystander during a bank robbery.
There were the cop-killing drug dealers of the Black Panthers, who began murdering their own sympathizers to keep them quiet. And of course the Black Liberation Army, a Panther offshoot that bombed a church where a policeman's funeral was being held. We think it was the BLA, anyway; in San Francisco those days, you couldn't tell your bombers without a scorecard. The Weather Underground, the New World Liberation Front, the Revolutionary Army, they were all blowing something up on practically a weekly basis.
And who can forget Jim Jones and his communal cult that ended in an orgy of murder and mass suicide in 1978? Well, most Democrats can; otherwise, they have to explain why people like Rosalynn Carter, Walter Mondale and Jerry Brown were such enthusiastic supporters of Jones until his infamous Kool-Aid party.
But no, Pelosi wasn't thinking of any of those examples. Shortly after she quelled her theatrical sniffles, her spinmasters clarified that she was referring only to the 1978 murders of liberal politicians George Moscone and Harvey Milk by a conservative rival, Dan White, dramatized in last year's film Milk.
Now that's the Pelosi I know: conveniently ignoring the corpses of literally hundreds of victims of organized left-wing violence while using two murders committed by an unbalanced (and, to be sure, evil) individual to make it sound like the San Francisco of the 1970s was a hellhole of right-wing terrorism. How silly of me to think she might, however briefly, have lapsed into intellectual honesty.
Unfortunately, Pelosi is alone in neither her equation of conservative politics with bloodlust nor her willingness to shade the truth to make her case. Lately, the favorite talking point of America's chattering classes has been that to oppose President Obama's economic policies is to court presidential assassination. MSNBC's Chris Matthews and the New York Times' Frank Rich have even gone so far as to say that it's happened before.
Rich compared the anti-Obama tea-party rallies to "the walk-up to the Kennedy assassination, [when] there was all this hate talk about Kennedy." Matthews chimed in that "the mood we're in right now" reminded of him of when "Jack Kennedy was killed in an open car in Dallas."
Neither Rich nor Matthews offered a plausible explanation of how right-wing hate could have triggered the death of Kennedy, killed by a Marxist who six weeks before the assassination was begging for visas from Cuba and the Soviet Union. There's no need. The idea that conservatives (especially Christian conservatives) are a homicidal mob eternally poised on the verge of bloodshed is an article of faith on the left.
Rich in particular has practically made a career of predicting mass murder by the right. He wrote column after column warning that Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of The Christ would touch off worldwide slaughter: "Its real tinder-box effect could be abroad, where anti-Semitism has metastasized since 9/11."
Five years later, we're still waiting for the first riot, just as we're still looking for the anti-Asian bloodshed that was certain to follow the 2001 film Pearl Harbor, which indelicately suggested the guys dropping the bombs that day were Japanese. Or the angry white male who was, we were repeatedly assured, behind the Washington Beltway sniper murders of 2002. (Actual killers: a pair of black Muslims.)
The unavoidable fact is that there is a rich history of violence on the fringes of both sides of the American political spectrum. The right, as liberals are fond of pointing out, has Timothy McVeigh and James Earl Ray. The left has the Puerto Rican nationalists who opened fire on the floor of Congress, animal-rights nuts and eco-terrorists. If Nancy Pelosi really sees trouble coming, she needs to look in both directions.