Remembering the day when the ‘politics of personal destruction’ began

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Aug 05, 2019

“The growing plague of offense and disrespect in speech and actions must end,” says Archbishop Wilton Gregory in his highly publicized response to President Trump’s remarks about squalor in Baltimore. “I fear that recent public comments by our President and others and the responses they have generated, have deepened division and diminished our national life.”

Who could disagree? Whether you’re a fan or a foe of President Trump, you cannot deny the nasty partisan divisions in America, the ugly tone of public debates that have degenerated into shouting matches and worse.

The problem that I see with Archbishop Gregory’s message lies in the fact that our bishops have (as usual) arrived late on the scene. The “politics of personal destruction” had become a regular feature of our nation’s political discourse long before Donald Trump—and his vociferous critics—arrived on the scene.

When did it all begin? That’s a question worthy of a doctoral dissertation by some aspiring historian (if one hasn’t already been written). But for a quick answer, I’d point to July 31, 1987, after President Reagan nominated Robert Bork for a seat on the Supreme Court. A leading member of the US Senate promptly rose to say:

Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, and schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens.

Unlike Donald Trump, the man who delivered that wild diatribe—the late Ted Kennedy—identified himself as a Catholic and relied heavily on a base of support with Catholic voters. Unlike Trump, who tosses off insults with the insouciance of a TV personality, Kennedy spoke in deadly earnest.

And unlike Trump, Kennedy was not, as I recall, rebuked by any Catholic prelate for that disgraceful speech.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Louise01 - Aug. 13, 2019 11:26 PM ET USA

    Many thanks to Phil Lawler and most of the other commenters for telling it as it is. I expect we will hear often from liberal Archbishop Gregory.

  • Posted by: FrHughM - Aug. 13, 2019 6:40 AM ET USA

    And Justice Kennedy got the job instead. Laying responsibility for the cultural calamity of same-sex "marriage" is not simple but the ecclesial gagging of Christ which this article highlights is surely part of it.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Aug. 06, 2019 8:40 PM ET USA

    Come on Phil. This has been going on right from the beginning of our country in many ways. I’m disappointed this topic found it’s way to Catholic Culture. The battle is between President Trump and Rep Cummings. And quite honestly, things are not so good in Baltimore. Where is all that money going.? Sometimes hard things need to be said to jar us into becoming awake and opening our eyes to the problems. There was nothing abusive about Pres. Trump’s tweeted comments. Move on.

  • Posted by: feedback - Aug. 06, 2019 4:39 AM ET USA

    I thank God each day for Donald Trump's Presidency, and especially when considering the alternative. But I am afraid that in 2024, no pro-life candidate will be willing and able to tackle the relentless vile attacks from almost every side (including Catholic archbishops) as Trump is.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Aug. 05, 2019 10:06 PM ET USA

    Thanks for reminding us of that piece of Catholic history. One could also mention that in Ted's day most bishops were card carrying democrats, and most of the older bishops still appear to be loyal to that party. Or maybe it's that government gravy train.

  • Posted by: RoseMore - Aug. 05, 2019 5:00 PM ET USA

    You're absolutely right.

  • Posted by: gcreel8889204 - Aug. 05, 2019 4:22 PM ET USA

    Amen!

  • Posted by: Philopus - Aug. 05, 2019 11:55 AM ET USA

    As I see it, Republicans have typically just taken most of the vitriol on the chin, being loath to get into the dirt of politics. With Trump the left is experiencing a fighter who throws punches right back – and they can’t stand it. It seems like things have gotten worse but I wonder if it isn't just that the fight is being joined from both sides now.

  • Posted by: MWCooney - Aug. 05, 2019 11:25 AM ET USA

    The disgrace with which Bork was treated by "The Lion of the Senate" can be cited as one of those moments when the "politics of personal destruction" became manifest, but there are earlier moments that would also fit the bill. I do agree, however, that it is the best known occasion when the truly diabolical nature of such calumnies became very evident. Thank you, and please continue sounding off on these topics.