If there is anything that modern conservatives hate more than fair taxation, it’s a fair fight. The moment they encounter an equally aggressive opponent on a level field, the instinct of these bullying boys and girls is to run and hide and whine.
That’s why the Republican leadership, confronted by Paul Begala and James Carville on CNN’s revamped Crossfire , are now loudly whispering about a boycott of the show. Those quiet directives emanating from the offices of the Republican National Committee, the Senate Minority Leader’s office and other outposts of the right-wing establishment in Washington-leaked in order to intimidate the liberal Crossfire hosts and their network bosses-are a disgrace to the American ideal of free debate.
So cowardly are these conservatives that they won’t even voice their complaints on the record. But we know how unhappy they are with the new Crossfire format and hosts because some of them told U.S. News & World Report , on a not-for-attribution basis. “The word is out: ‘Don’t go on; you’ll get screwed'” was the magazine’s quote from a “top Senate aide,” almost surely a reference to a functionary working for Minority Leader Trent Lott. A House G.O.P. staffer chimed in: “It isn’t a total boycott, but the show’s last on our list to do.”
What is it about Messrs. Begala and Carville that brings out the inner wimp among their opponents, who have been perfectly happy to appear on Crossfire for so many years? Could it be their enthusiasm for the battle, as when Mr. Begala confided that he was eager to “kick a little right-wing ass”? Might it be their unwillingness to back down, as when Mr. Carville forced the Republican Party chairman to admit that he opposes campaign-finance reform? Or is it just their insistence on factual discourse, as when Mr. Begala instructed conservative host Tucker Carlson on the vastly greater number of Reagan administration aides indicted and convicted than in the supposedly corrupt Clinton administration?
No doubt all of the above qualities irritate the conservatives who follow party instructions to shun Crossfire . What has shocked them is that the new hosts don’t quite fit TV’s stereotypical 97-pound liberal, ready to be worked over like a talking speedbag. Mr. Carville is a tall, rangy Marine veteran, sports fanatic and jock; Mr. Begala is a born-and-bred Texan who grew up with guns and still likes to hunt. Both have expressed their powerful distaste for the Democratic tendency to wilt under attack.
With no disrespect to their liberal predecessors on Crossfire , it must be said that this pair represents a refreshing departure from tradition. The usual Crossfire host “from the left,” facing the likes of Robert Novak and Pat Buchanan, was neither particularly liberal nor terribly forceful. Michael Kinsley, although indisputably one of the smartest journalists of his generation, accurately described himself as a “wishy-washy moderate” during his Crossfire years, while others lamented his vocal tenor and bespectacled, overly professorial demeanor. Bill Press did somewhat better, but in truth most political talk shows have historically had all the earmarks of a fixed fight.
Which is, of course, exactly what conservatives prefer about the discourse on Fox News Channel, the opinion network where Sean Hannity roughs up poor Alan Colmes every night, and where Morton Kondracke is mistaken for a liberal because he sits next to Fred Barnes. They aren’t content to dominate Fox and most of NBC’s cable programming, where the Wall Street Journal editorial board enjoys its own featured weekly segment and Alan Keyes (a loony even by his own movement’s standards) now appears on his own nightly show.
What makes the sniveling about Crossfire sound even more pitiful is its hypocrisy. If Mr. Carville or Mr. Begala don’t always behave as if they’re hosting a Georgetown dinner party, they are considerably more civilized than many icons of conservative broadcasting, which long ago abandoned the genteel erudition of Bill Buckley. Rush Limbaugh became a Republican hero while mocking the appearance of the Democratic President’s 12-year-old daughter. Ann Coulter only prospered by comparing that same President’s wife to a prostitute on national television. Don Imus has broadcast ugly racist “jokes” for years, but politicians of both parties (and journalists of various persuasions) line up for his show.
Like their counterparts on Capitol Hill, these squawkers long ago learned to parrot the lexicon of abuse recommended by their mentor, Newt Gingrich. During his crusade to take over Congress, Mr. Gingrich regularly instructed his minions to “delegitimize the opposition” by tarring Democrats as traitors, pornographers and criminals.
Mr. Carville, by contrast, was too polite to mention that his April Fool’s Day sparring partner on Crossfire, Republican National Committee chairman Marc Racicot, was until quite recently a lobbyist for Enron. He probably didn’t want to make his guest cry.