I’ve been waiting -- in vain -- for another shoe to drop in the White House’s "war" with Fox News. We’ve seen Jake Tapper of ABC News defend "one of our sister organizations" from White House attack. We’ve seen other journalists calling out the White House for Nixonian tendencies. But as far as I can tell, no Washington journalist has defended Anita Dunn.
Dunn is the White House communications director who announced her resignation yesterday. She had initiated the effort to delegitimize Fox News and was subsequently accused of being a "Maoist" burrowed in the executive branch. The allegation was hatched at Fox, from which it migrated to other right-wing news sources and from there traveled into the mainstream -- surfacing at the end of October in one of Washington's most respected publications.
After airing a video of Dunn citing Mao in a speech to high schoolers (more on that momentarily), Fox's Glenn Beck stated his intention to drive Dunn from her job. Unwilling to overlook a conspiracy so vast, Beck extrapolated from Dunn to find "so many people now in and around this administration and this president [who] seem to love a communist revolutionary dictator."
Beck’s efforts were joined by Limbaugh, Hannity and the Baker Street Irregulars of the web. National Review’s Andy McCarthy was nonplussed by the "Maoists in Obama’s attic."
Michelle Malkin linked Dunn to her "thug lawyer" husband, Robert Bauer, who represents both Obama and the Democratic Party. (Demos ergo Sopranos.) Malkin also highlighted a claim that "Dunn or her partner Squier have widely been speculated" to figure in the corruption saga of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. (If the choice is between Dunn and her former consulting partner Bob Squier, Dunn is the more likely perp, if only because Squier's been dead for ten years.)
Anita Dunn earned her infamy in a speech to students last June in which she referred to Mao Zedong and Mother Teresa as "two of my favorite political philosophers" and used that uncanny pairing to breathe life into an old commencement orator's chestnut: that each must find his "own path" through life. The combination of the brutal dictator and the saintly nun is one bit of evidence that Dunn was being ironic. The fact that Mother Teresa is no one’s idea of a "political philosopher" is another. (Curiously, Dunn has not been accused of anti-abortion fervor despite her embrace of the nun.)
Rhetorical devices, especially easy, cheap ones, are common in speeches to high school graduates. What would be uncommon -- indeed, nearly unbelievable -- is for a savvy, experienced, 21st-Century White House political operative to perform a heartfelt act of "worship" (Beck’s word) of Mao Zedong before an audience in Washington, D.C. I haven’t spoken to Dunn in years, but I’ve known her since 1992 and twice commissioned her husband to write essays (see here and here). When Jesse Jackson was electrifying the Democratic left, making his maiden run for the presidency in 1984, Dunn was working to elect drab, middle-of-the-road John Glenn. The politician to whom Dunn devoted by far the greatest span of time and energy is Bill Bradley, whose signature achievement was a bipartisan tax bill signed by Ronald Reagan.
Dunn has risen through the ranks of a Washington political culture in which Maoism is more rare than unicorns and about as useful to career advancement as a felony murder conviction. One gets to the top of the political consulting game not through loyalty to unconventional ideologies, paradigms or dogma, but by being a smarter, harder-working and slightly more creative conventional thinker than the next guy.
At least dozens of Washington journalists must know that description suits Dunn; she has worked with the Washington press corps for a quarter century. Yet in an Oct. 31 column in the National Journal, Stuart Taylor, Jr. raised an alarm about "the ideologies of appointees" in the Obama administration and cited Dunn as one of two worrisome examples. "This is not to suggest that Dunn approves of mass murder," Stuart wrote, applying a generous dollop of fair and balanced. But then what exactly was Stuart suggesting? Only that Dunn is politically dangerous and morally deformed? He wrote that employing people with "ideologies" like Dunn’s "can have consequences." What ideology does Taylor believe Dunn possesses? He doesn't say; it’s character assassination by insinuation.
Even Andrew Sullivan nibbled at the Mao bait, albeit gingerly. "I’m not buying the Beck idea that there are closet Maoists in the Obama administration," Sullivan blogged. But Dunn, he wrote, exhibits a "morally disgusting double standard" that elevates "far left totalitarianism over far right totalitarianism." How on earth does he know that? That’s an awful lot to presume on the basis of one ironic reference to Mao.
Sullivan perhaps has a legitimate, larger point -- that people shouldn’t joke about mass murderers. But regardless of Sullivan's own feelings, Mao is not equivalent to Hitler in American culture. Nor is he equivalent to the reviled far left totalitarian Pol Pot who, like Hitler, exists beyond the rhetorical pale. An American president quoted Mao’s poetry in toasting the Chinese leader in Beijing. Even today, American tourists bring Mao kitsch home from China. Perhaps one day a more enlightened America will exhibit zero tolerance for Mao. But that day is not here.
Nearly every political journalist is familiar with lawyer Joseph Welch’s famous admonition to Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. Welch’s rebuke of the demagogue from Wisconsin -- "Have you no sense of decency, sir?" -- is a touchstone of the kind of liberalism, broadly defined, that permeates the elite Washington press. Armed with his own decency, Welch defended a young lawyer from McCarthy’s latest, but hardly worst, smear. When McCarthy attacked again, Welch again repelled the bully, driving the great liar into a retreat from which McCarthy never recovered.
Beck and Co.'s attacks on Dunn are no different from McCarthy's smears. Her accusers may lack seats in the Senate, but their effort to destroy her professional reputation is McCarthyism without qualifiers. References to Dunn in National Journal and Andrew Sullivan’s blog suggest the effort is at least partially succeeding. Welch’s admirers in the press are legion. Are his imitators really so few?
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 10 things you need to know today: September 2, 2014
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- The Obama era is over. The presidency continues.
- How American businessmen are ruining American business — and the U.S. economy
- Scottish independence is another financial crisis waiting to happen
- Fall movie guide: All the films you should see in September
- America created the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria? Meet the ISIS 'truthers'
- The 10 best networking tips for people who hate networking
- Russia's giant spy ship was a high-tech disaster waiting to happen
- 11 scientific studies that will restore your faith in humanity
Subscribe to the Week