Edwards calls attention to divisive political dialogue

Claws were bared and tongues were wagging last week as a “catfight” took center stage in the presidential race.

The confrontation began Tuesday when Elizabeth Edwards, wife of Democratic candidate John Edwards, confronted conservative provocateur Ann Coulter on the MSNBC program “Hardball.” Portraying herself as incensed over Coulter’s personal attacks against her husband, Edwards demanded that the blond bomb-thrower stop “debas(ing) the political dialogue.”

Coulter accused the Edwardses of attacking her as a stunt to bring attention and money to their campaign.

It is tempting to write off this dustup as a blip on the political radar. But analysts say this prime-time showdown reflects broader forces – especially talk radio, 24/7 cable news and the Internet – that have reshaped American culture and politics in the past 20 years.

“Politics has always been a brawl,” said Carter Wrenn, a Republican political consultant in Raleigh whose clients have included former Sen. Jesse Helms. “But how we brawl, where we brawl and who we brawl with has changed.”

Wrenn said the personal invective that Elizabeth Edwards decried might be lamentable but it is hardly new. In the election of 1864, for example, Democratic candidate George B. McClellan called President Lincoln “nothing more than a well-meaning baboon.” During the heated elections of 1824 and 1828, Andrew Jackson called John Quincy Adams a “pimp,” while Adams maintained that Jackson was “a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and hardly could spell his own name.”

Although personal attacks are as old as America, their nature has been transformed in recent decades. Experts trace this to 1987, when the Federal Communications Commission repealed the Fairness Doctrine, which had required broadcasters to provide equal time to opposing views.

This ruling opened the door for conservative talk radio. In the early 1990s, Rush Limbaugh began commanding a large national audience through his mix of satire and politics. As the decade progressed, other strident voices took to the airwaves, using fierce language to demonize their opponents. In 1996, Fox News Channel and MSNBC brought talk radio’s shock and awe to 24/7 cable news, eventually forcing CNN, which had been founded in 1980, to follow suit.

Before long, Limbaugh had plenty of company as divisive figures such as Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Keith Olbermann became household names by shouting into their mass media megaphones. Their need for controversial guests, in turn, created a new class of high-profile provocateurs including Ann Coulter and Al Franken, who crafted lucrative careers by being outrageous.

“The media has always been more interested in conflict than consensus,” observed Andrew J. Taylor, chairman of the political science department at North Carolina State University. “These figures helped them draw attention in an increasingly crowded field.”

The final wave in this political maelstrom was the Internet, which began extending its reach significantly in the late 1990s. While providing heretofore unimaginable access to information, the Web did two other things: It added sound and fury to the national conversation through highly partisan sites, enabling average citizens to become part of the conversation.

“American politics has always had a nasty side,” said Gil Troy, a professor of American history at McGill University, “but there’s a sense that it has a darker edge, has become more venomous, because it’s pumped out 24/7. Now it’s all nastiness, all the time.”

Troy said this toxic combination of entertainment and politics, combined with the media’s desperate competition for viewers and readers, has turned much of politics into theater. Instead of dry policy debates, Americans are bombarded with withering personal attacks.

While political figures such as President Bush and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi remain targets of abuse, partisan political commentators and their fans are just as apt to attack their ideological counterparts.

“People have always used foils in politics,” Troy said. “Through their excesses, Limbaugh, O’Reilly and Coulter provide liberals with made-to-order caricatures of what they consider the worst aspects of the Republicans; Franken and Olbermann are the perfect liberal foils for Republicans. They feed off each other, sadly distorting our politics.”

That, he said, provides the context for the Edwards/Coulter imbroglio that unfolded last week.

This “catfight” – as it was called across the Web – became the topic du jour, debated by talking heads and discussed with John and Elizabeth Edwards, who appeared as guests on ABC, NBC, CBS and cable outlets.

“This was a win, win, win for all the parties involved,” said N.C. State’s Taylor. “It helps Ann Coulter seem important, which will help her sell books, and it works nicely for the Edwards campaign because he shows his bona fides as a liberal – as the person the right considers important enough to attack and as the strong figure willing to fight back. Finally, it works for the media, that gets a juicy story to report.”

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