E.J. Dionne on Republican rhetoric and the Ground Zero Mosque controversy
HH: Joined now by Washington Post columnist, E.J. Dionne. E.J., a good end of the summer to you. How are you?
EJD: And to you, too. I’m well, thank you very much.
HH: All right, you wrote a heck of a column today, or actually on Monday, that I want to talk to you about. And in it, first of all, give your general theory about what’s going on in the Republican Party.
EJD: Well, I think that as you know, and it’s one of the reasons I go on your show, is I’ve always had a lot of respect for conservatism as a set of ideas. I think that there are good arguments to be had between left, democratic left and democratic right, that’s small d. And I am very concerned that there is a kind of going off the cliffness right now, there’s a great word for you, on the conservative side. I think that when you have over a third of the Republican, self-identified Republican saying President Obama is a Muslim, you know, that he’s a Muslim socialist who wasn’t even born in this country, if you want to take that whole thing, when you look at some of the other things people are saying, it is sort of beyond the kind of conservatism that, say, Bill Buckley stood for. And I would note that when you’re faced, when Buckley back in the 60s faced this kind of conspiracy-mongering conservatism in the form of the John Birch Society, he condemned it. He said this is not authentic conservatism. And I’m looking for more people like Bill Buckley to say you know, you don’t agree with liberals on taxes or the size of government, we can argue about that. But some of this stuff, I think, is just really crazy, and is not, shouldn’t be part of the mainstream conservative movement.
HH: Now birtherism is crazy, as is the assertion that President Obama is a Muslim. But I have never heard a single high-profile conservative pundit, or analyst, or political figure say either of those things has a shred of credibility. Have you, E.J?
EJD: No, but I have not heard, there have been many times when conservatives have ducked the question. There are so many Republican candidates who have tried to, I wish I could do the quick search for you, but you know this is true, that there are Republican candidates who have ducked the birther question. When Mitch McConnell was on Meet The Press, he said of President Obama being a Muslim, I take him at his word. He didn’t say that’s absurd. And what I’m worried about, as I said in the column, and you know this old term, maybe many of your listeners aren’t old enough. When people on the left didn’t condemn the Communist party, or when they didn’t condemn some of the wackier parts of, or more violent parts of the new left, they were accused of taking a no enemies on the left view, and condemned for it. And I think that there is a lot of playing around with this extreme right to get some votes in this election, and it’s a no enemies on the right view. And I think that liberals and moderates ought to call our conservative friends to account, and say you really need to break from some of this extreme stuff in a very forceful way.
HH: Now E.J., I think that assertion that Mitch McConnell was using a dog whistle is absurd. But let’s say you take that…
EJD: No, but you know, when Hillary Clinton said something very similar, you know, it wasn’t I take him at his word. It was something similar. She got roundly condemned for it. She did the same exact thing. I think there’s a difference. Whether it’s dog whistle or not, it was not the strongest possible statement on a subject that is, I think, just not a real subject.
HH: When MoveOn.org ran General Betray-us ads, do you think Harry Reid denounced them with enough specificity and appropriate outrage?
EJD: Well, the ad said Petraeus, not Betray-us. It was an argument with General Petraeus. If you ask me, I wouldn’t have run that ad. I actually was, I had a very long dialogue in my class at Georgetown, because I had a military student who raised it with all the other students, and took great offense at it. So I don’t know what Harry Reid said, but that’s different. The ad was trying to be clever, and it utterly failed. That’s different from saying our president wasn’t born in our country so is illegitimate, our president holds a religious view, is part of a religious tradition that he isn’t part of. And to say he’s a socialist, I suppose we could argue about that. But I think he is well to the right of socialism.
HH: But MoveOn.org is a very large part of the Democratic Party, and it funds a lot of people, and they give a lot of money away. And as I think you already admitted, E.J., you don’t have a serious, big-time conservative elected official or pundit who’s ever said the president wasn’t born in the United States, or that the president is a Muslim. And they would be run out of the party if they did, absolutely run out.
EJD: I see, no, I mean, again, I wish I had all of the data in front of me, but Rush has said some extraordinary things. Glenn Beck has said some extraordinary things. And I just do not see a forceful repost to some of those things. And again, I’m not talking about, if you want to argue that we liberals want to raise taxes way too high and be confiscatory, all right, let’s have that argument. But some of these things are very personal, and they go to the very loyalty of the president to our country.
HH: But E.J., I think that’s wrong to do. I have listened to Rush a lot over the last twenty years, Glenn Beck much less so, because he hasn’t been around that long. But I have never heard either of them say that the president was not born in the United States, or that the president is a Muslim. I have never heard that. And to imply otherwise, it’s just wrong. That’s kind of slanderous. I mean, if you’re going to say that, you should kind of come up with a specific instance of that, don’t you think?
EJD: Well, he’s made, I am sitting here searching online. I have written some columns directly criticizing Rush, and I was trying to search around here for things he’s said about race, about Obama. I don’t think you, I don’t think you need me to provide this right now, but I’d be happy to.
HH: I would love to see it, because…
EJD: …I think, to show, to read a whole bunch of things that, you know, that, you know, I don’t want to waste your time right now. But I’d be happy to come back and…
HH: You know, he was falsely accused during the NFL controversy about his getting an ownership by a number of mainstream media journalists and guests on places like MSNBC, of saying things he never said. And I never saw anyone from the media come to his defense from the left, which is what you’re asking for, in essence. You’re asking for people of goodwill, when a slander is made, to come to the defense of people on the other side. And I’m just…
EJD: Well, let me give you an example of something I once did, which is that I, you know, a lot of people said that President Bush was using Christian rhetoric in a way no other president ever had. And I wrote a column which quoted the president of the United States, quoting St. Paul, we are all part of one another, and went on and on. And I said you don’t like it that your president talks like that? I pointed out all the quotes came from Bill Clinton back in 1997. So I have been willing in the past myself to stand up for conservatives I disagree with, you know, Lord knows, I disagreed with President Bush, when I thought there was an unfair attack being made on them. And so I think in this case, there is a need to really break with some of this stuff.
HH: Well, I don’t think there’s a need to break with Rush or Glenn Beck at all. I do believe that Rush has been the target of very outrageous slings and arrows, and you tell me, E.J., are you aware of any single liberal columnist, or any serious left of center commentator or political figure who has ever stood up and said that’s simply not true what you’re accusing Rush of saying, not you, but anyone in general? Has it ever happened in twenty years on the radio?
EJD: Well, I think, you know what, when Rush is gone after these days, it’s usually for stuff he’s actually said, because it’s all taped, it’s all there. You can argue about how it should be interpreted, perhaps, but I don’t think Rush is getting a bad deal here.
HH: Oh, E.J., that NFL episode was outrageous, as is…
EJD: Well, the NFL episode when he talked about Donovan McNabb?
HH: No, the NFL episode when he tried to buy a piece of the St. Louis [Rams], and he was accused of saying all sorts of things that he never even remotely said, even in jest. It was just whole cloth made up, and no one checked the quotes. But let me go to something in your column, E.J., today, because it’s a good column, except when you go over the edge, when you write, “do Republican politicians believe…”
EJD: You see, I sucked you in at the beginning, and then you…
HH: Yeah, you did. But do Republicans, because I believe, as Buckley did, that when extremists get close to your party, you must throw them out. And so I always do. And when nutters call up my show with the birther stuff, I throw them out. I wish the left was even remotely as disciplined as the right is on this. But you write, “Do Republican politicians believe in the elaborate conspiracy theories being spun by Glenn Beck, and parts of the Tea Party? If not, why won’t they say so?” I have no idea what you’re talking about. What specifically are you talking about?
EJD: When people in the Tea Party argue that Barack Obama has a scheme to have the government take over large parts of the economy, let’s take the GM bailout as an interesting example. Obama said he didn’t think it would be good for the country to lose our domestic Detroit-based auto industry. So he put a lot of taxpayer money in there. It was said that he was going to turn this into the thirteenth ward of Chicago, or some patronage dumping ground, it was a socialist scheme to take over industry. Guess what? The bailout has worked. He gave authority to people running those companies to run them like capitalist companies. And the taxpayers may even end up making a profit on what we put in there. And so I saw that as part and parcel of a large argument people are trying to make that Obama really wants to turn us into a kind of Leninist nation. And you’ve seen the signs. You’ve heard what people say. And you know, you can disagree with Obama, but I don’t think there’s any evidence that he is that kind, that he is either a socialist, or has that notion of the use of government.
HH: Oh, the GM deal has not worked. There’s $50 billion that has not been repaid. It’s an unfair competitive advantage that screwed people that were bond holders. But put that all aside. You wrote, though, about that there exist elaborate conspiracy theories being spun by Glenn Beck and parts of the Tea Party, which is a specific. I have, I just don’t, I haven’t seen Glenn Beck say that you know, this GM was a wedge into the economy that was going to lead to the socialization of industry. I’ve heard him criticize the deal. And I think that elaborate conspiracy theories, that’s more like, you know, secret societies, Tri-Lateral Commission, Bilderburger stuff.
EJD: Well actually, there is a lot of that, and Glenn Beck has talked in those terms. I think that there is a comparison to be made between some of the things he’s said, and some of the old birther stuff. Now I thought I was going to be talking about the mosque, so that’s what I had up on my computer.
HH: Let’s get to that.
EJD: If you want us to figure out a time where we can go back over this again, I’d be happy…
HH: I’d love to.
EJD: …to have some of this stuff in front of me, so that we can debate this in a serious way.
HH: All right, let’s do that. We’ll take a rain check on that. Let’s go the mosque. First of all, about the identification of the president, the wrong identification that the president is a Muslim, how much, if any of that, should lie, for example, at the feet of the New Yorker, which put the president in Islamic gear on their cover?
EJD: You know, I think that, I live the New Yorker. I think it’s a great magazine, and I thought that was tasteless. I thought, you know, it was a remarkable thing they did that. But I don’t think that’s where most of this came from. They thought they were parodying that when they put that up there.
HH: And I have no objection to that parody, although it was tasteless. But I would like to know if you’ve even got one example that remotely approaches that level of parody from someone on the right that the New Yorker used, that should be criticized in the same term as the New Yorker was criticized.
EJD: Well, see, I mean, the signs that you see on rallies, the stuff that you and I have both seen on blog websites, the repeated, there are repeated assertions out there about this, and you know, 34% of self-identified Republicans did not get this idea from the New Yorker magazine. It’s not their standard reading to most of the Republican base.
HH: They didn’t get it from Rush. But they didn’t get it from Rush.
EJD: Well I don’t, you know, I’m not going to say that Rush himself has said that until, because I don’t have the stuff in front of me. But I do think that you’ve had a lot of people on the right, and a lot of people at these demonstrations, saying stuff like that.
HH: I just don’t. I reject that, E.J., but I will put that…
EJD: Well, where did they get this idea? They didn’t get it from the New Yorker.
HH: They get it from crazy birthers, they get it from e-mails, they get it from bizarre websites, and they may be misinterpreting the question, and 18% is not two-thirds. I’d have to look at the Pew things…
EJD: No, but it’s 34. That, I do have in my head. It’s 34% of self-identified Republicans saying that…
HH: See, I’d have to look it up.
EJD: …a majority of Republicans don’t know how to identify him.
HH: I just don’t buy any of that. I think he’s well known as being sort of a Christian of undetermined theological positions, and that it’s fine, because that’s what most of the presidents are like. You know, no one knew Nixon was a Quaker, for goodness sakes.
EJD: Right. No, that is absolutely right. But I think just in terms of Obama, and I wish he did more of this, he gave back in 2006, I think, and you might even agree with some of the speech, one of the best statements of the role of religion in American public life from the point of view of a relatively liberal Christian. And he did, he used to talk about this quite a lot. He hasn’t talked about it as much since he’s been president.
HH: Now let me ask you about Pete Wehner. Do you know Pete?
EJD: I do know Pete.
HH: And Pete’s a wonderful, very smart intellectual who served with George W. Bush, writes now mostly for Commentary magazine and the Ethics And Public Policy Center. He has admonished his friends on the left, and smart people on the left, to be very careful of this mosque issue, because people of goodwill can disagree, and that a lot of forces on the left are turning this into an ideological pyre. And as a result, it’s endangering our position in the world, our position with Islamic states, and it’s okay to be against the mosque at Ground Zero, and it shouldn’t be an automatic attribution, or even close to automatic attribution, of being Islamophobic to oppose the mosque. Do you agree with what Pete has written?
EJD: It depends on how you say it, and what you say. I’ll tell you what, I just want to quote someone whom I do agree with on this. It’s, he said that we certainly do not want to support groups that support terrorism, but there are many American citizens who are Muslims, and they have a right to practice their faith. Having a mosque near the site of the attack can be a very important symbol of how much we value religious freedom in this country. And that was Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, whom I think is somebody you respect a great deal. And he did an interesting thing. He compared it to the historical situation in Ireland, where he said that during the Easter revolution, the Irish were very careful to protect the rights of Protestants in the free state. They did not wish, he went on, to take back their cathedral or close their churches. Instead, they wanted people to see that they believed in freedom of religion. And so I believe that this controversy really does cause us unnecessary problems in the world. We are a country that believes in freedom of religion. Muslims have broad religious rights in this country. Why are we having this controversy over a building, it is not even a mosque, that is two blocks away from the site of the attacks on 9/11, from the Trade Center site? And there’s another mosque right nearby already. And I do find this a very unfortunate fight that we’re having.
HH: Now Cardinal O’Malley has got a position with which I disagree. I believe that this ought to be treated like Manassas, like Valley Forge, like Gettysburg, like Antietam, and have all those land use restrictions.
EJD: Well, have you been in that neighborhood? There’s all kinds of stuff in that neighborhood that exists now, that is not, doesn’t treat the neighborhood as hallowed ground.
HH: Yes, I was there, like, a month ago. But E.J., of course.
EJD: There is a lot less respectful stuff there than a mosque and a Muslim community center.
HH: But E.J., this ought to be about whether or not people are trying to exploit the site to send a message, and that’s what I would prohibit, not preexisting uses, not existing mosques, not strip clubs, but people who are attempting to exploit proximity to Ground Zero to send a message. I also…
EJD: This imam, I mean, this imam issues a fatwa. You know what his fatwa was after 9/11? His fatwa was that U.S. Muslim military personnel can participate in the Afghan war. He wrote a book, published by Harper, which is Rupert Murdoch’s house, What’s Right With Islam Is What’s Right With The United States. He praised the U.S. Constitution, he embraced religious freedom and pluralism. I mean, we’re talking about somebody who was not trying to use this to make a negative point about America.
HH: E.J., we can’t, number one, judge whether or not the mosque should be there based upon the statements of whoever is going to operate that. That would be very unconstitutional. But I do want to play for you…
EJD: No, no, but I’m saying, I agree, but that’s not the point. People are saying this is an insult. This guy is not trying to do this to insult the victims of 9/11, or to insult the United States of America.
HH: Here is a quote from Imam, the imam involved here, Feisal Rauf.
EJD: Feisal Abdul Rauf.
HH: Rauf. Here is what he had to say in Australia a couple of years ago.
FR: We tend to forget in the West that the United States has more Muslim blood on its hands than al Qaeda has on its hands of innocent non-Muslims. While you may remember that the U.S.-led sanction against Iraq led to the death of over a half a million Iraqi children. This has been documented by the United Nations.
HH: Now I do not believe that statement is a reason not to build the mosque, for the reason I’ve already said. But does that statement concern you at all, E.J?
EJD: Well, I didn’t hear you or anyone playing that statement when the U.S. State Department under President Bush was using him to talk to groups abroad, so that I don’t agree with the statement as he put it at all. But you know, I just find this awfully politically convenient that if this guy was so bad, why wasn’t everybody saying this when he was doing work for our country and our government when President Bush was president?
HH: I didn’t bring it up. I waited and thought maybe you would, because I do not believe you can oppose the mosque based upon those statements. But if you defend the imam based upon what he’s done and said, then you have to take it in the whole. And so on that statement, what do you disagree with him about?
EJD: Well, I don’t, I just, what I disagree with is I don’t like the idea of people saying that our, my country has blood on its hands. I mean, the fact is, the sanctions did have a cost, we have engaged in war. I just don’t think of the country in those terms.
HH: Does it give you any concern about, and again, this does not go to the mosque…
EJD: Well, just does it give me concern about what he’s up to here?
HH: No. No, that’s not my question.
EJD: Oh, I’m sorry.
HH: Does it give you concern about his political theory, not about the mosque, but about his political theory and how he understands the world?
EJD: Well, there were a lot of Americans, a minority, but a significant minority of Americans who opposed the sanctions against Iraq when Saddam was in power, arguing they weren’t really effective in hurting him, and they were hurting other people in Iraq. That is a legitimate argument to make. And that sounds like he was using rather bold language to say that very thing.
HH: And do you…
EJD: And that’s a legitimate, I think that was a legitimate argument we had as a country. There are a lot of, as you know, a lot of conservatives aren’t crazy about sanctions as a general policy, because they worry about its interference with the market, and they wonder if they are effective, and I’ve heard a lot of conservatives argue against sanctions.
HH: But can you understand how such a quote might incline people to view with great suspicion the imam?
EJD: But I don’t think it started with that. People have gone around and tried to find bits and pieces of what he’s said. I’d love to hear the whole context of the talk he gave. But people have found bits and pieces of what he said after this was made an issue. This mosque became, first of all, again, it’s a community center. It’s not a mosque. This became public months ago. And then it got picked up by some of the conservative media, and then people started running with it. And only then did people try to discover rationales for opposing it. So that it does seem to me that if you look, if this guy were the guy that critics of this community center say he was, I really don’t think President Bush’s State Department, and Condoleezza Rice, would have had him out there speaking about religious freedom in America on behalf of our country.
HH: But E.J., I’m trying to get to the principle here, which is whether or not you think there is anything that an imam could say, not this one, let’s put him off the table, that would disqualify them from putting forward this project. Are there some imams that you, E.J., would say they can’t have a mosque here?
EJD: That’s an interesting, you went to law school, didn’t you?
EJD: I mean, that’s a very interesting question, because as a general principle, I don’t like the government interfering with the decision of any religious group, including religious groups I oppose, or disagree with, on a matter like this. Can I see circumstances in which I would think something is inappropriate? I’m sure I can think of some circumstance where a particular form of religious expression might seem inappropriate. But I don’t think that the purpose of this is in any way to be inappropriate. President Bush was as strong as anyone in supporting the rights of Muslims in the United States. President Bush gave a great speech at the Muslim center here in Washington, where he specifically criticized those who were going to hold 9/11 against all Muslims. And I think, you know, I think that a lot of conservatives should go reread that speech.
HH: Well, wait a minute. I have not heard any conservative of any stature, E.J., ever make the case that all Muslims are. That’s a straw man. No, over and over again, when people want to call this program, and they get past my screeners…
EJD: Then why are you against building it there then, because if it’s, it is, what is wrong with building this two blocks away from the site of 9/11, if it’s not about Islam?
HH: A) I don’t think it’s two blocks away. I think it’s sacred space for the same reason I oppose Disney at Manassas, and a history museum outside of Valley Forge, and a casino outside of Gettysburg. I don’t like to exploit cemeteries where Americans died defending their fellow Americans, as firefighters, et cetera, did. So I’ve written about it, E.J. But don’t answer a question with a question here, because this is important. If you say that there are some people whose purposes would be inappropriate, and I believe obviously, you’re not going to stand by and see Abdul Rahman acolytes ought to be allowed to have a mosque there. Doesn’t that mean that it’s a case by case situation? You’re not Islamophobic. But if you would oppose some uses by some Muslims there, then it’s not a question of Islamophobia, is it?
EJD: There are two things here in answer to that question. Number one, are there some people who have doubts about this, or maybe a significant number of people who have doubts about this, who are not Islamophobic? Yes. There are people who oppose this for essentially the reasons you have tried to outline. But I think it’s actually destructive, I think this whole controversy has hurt us as a country a lot more than it has helped us, because if this guy could go around the world and say I wanted to build this religious center, this community center, near 9/11 because I identify with the United States, and I identify with a peaceful brand of Islam, and I’ve got broad support in the country, and that shows how much, how deep the reverence is for religious freedom in the United States, I think that would do General Petraeus in Afghanistan a lot more good than having the world watch us have this controversy, which to a lot of people who may be neutral about us, or potentially hostile to us, it just doesn’t show our best side to the world. So I think that’s unfortunate.
HH: Let me conclude, then, let me conclude with Pete Wehner’s charge back against the left, though. Those who throw around the charge of Islamophobia recklessly, and for political uses against people who have legitimate concerns and legitimate reasons to oppose this, is not the left partially responsible for the damage, or if not, a majority responsible for the damage in doing so? Part two, ought not this to be abandoned by the imam?
EJD: Part one is the left didn’t start this fight, and when you run around the blogs, there is Islamophobia. I’m saying there are people of good faith who oppose this, and I’m not going to make a blanket accusation against everybody. But yes, you and I can both see Islamophobia out there as well. And I think that is a bad thing, and there’s nothing wrong with the left or the right condemning Islamophobia. President Bush condemned Islamophobia.
HH: But is the false charge of Islamophobia dangerous to the United States?
EJD: No, I think what’s dangerous to the United States is when you have a controversy of this sort that makes it easy for our enemies around the world to say see, they don’t really mean what they say about religious freedom. And I don’t think that’s good for us. And I think it’s an unnecessary fight that is hurting us more than it’s helping us with the rest of the world.
HH: Now, and the last question, we disagree about that, but what about the imam? Should he abandon this project?
EJD: I don’t think it would be a good thing now. I think that what it would be would be caving to pressure created, I still think, and again, we could go around and around about this, people looking for a kind of political issue. And so at the moment when religious freedom is at stake, I agree with what my colleague, Richard Cohen wrote today, essentially, that to abandon it now would be giving into a kind of pressure that I think would, again, undercut us as a country, and undercut our completely legitimate claim that we are a nation that believes in religious freedom.
HH: I believe that we are a nation that believes in religious freedom, and this has nothing to do with that.
EJD: I know. I do, too.
HH: But E.J., I don’t read Richard Cohen. I read E.J. But I’ll go and read that now. I look forward to when you want to continue the conversation about Rush or Glenn Beck on specific charges…
EJD: I’ll find a few things, and I will tell you what I was talking about in more detail.
HH: All right, I look forward to it. E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, always a pleasure. Thank you, E.J.
EJD: Good to be with you. Take care. Bye.
End of interview.