Faces have changed, but vitriol remains

The level of divisiveness that so dogged the Bush administration has already engulfed his successor. The viciousness that characterized so many of George W. Bush's critics on the left has now infected the right.

In terms of the level of political discourse, the country is right back where we were a year ago.

For years, Bush endured the unquenchable bitterness of many opponents. Former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney claimed the administration knew in advance about the Sept. 11 attacks and failed to act.

Then the "9/11 was an inside job" crowd was drowned out by the more mainstream assertion that "Bush lied" about the reasons behind the invasion of Iraq. Or was it that he was coerced into evildoing by Dick Cheney, the Vader-esque puppeteer calling the shots from behind the curtain? The hate-Bush movement was on display nightly each time Keith Olbermann would launch a caustic rants.

Eventually, the constant ridiculing of Bush and Cheney created a climate of political paralysis in Washington -- a condition that has unfortunately survived the transfer of power. Talk about a taste of its own medicine.

The presidential campaign that fostered Internet lore about President Obama -- that he once attended a madrasa and wouldn't place his hand over his heart during the national anthem -- has given way to an administration plagued by questions about the president's birth certificate and allegations of racism.

Typical is the now-infamous June 30 town hall event hosted by Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del. An audience member drew wild applause when she stood up toting an American flag and demanded to know "why are you people ignoring (Obama's) birth certificate?"

"I don't want this flag to change!" she yelped over the frenzy she'd whipped up. "I want my country back!"

That the same woman had elsewhere predicted that humans would soon make contact with aliens hasn't caught on as swiftly as her YouTube moment.

Why? Because for an emerging segment of Americans, the messenger's credibility or lack thereof is irrelevant to the end goal: Demonize the president.

Forget that candidate Obama released what has been independently deemed an authentic certification of birth. Or that Hawaii's Health Department has repeatedly verified that it has the president's vital records on file. Or that the Honolulu Advertiser ran Obama's birth announcement almost 48 years ago.

The facts will always fail to assuage a minority in the electorate that traffic in hate and vitriol. What Olbermann did to Bush, Lou Dobbs has now directed toward Obama. He provided a ready forum for the birthers, even while trying to say he personally believes the president to be a U.S. citizen.

Rush Limbaugh wasn't afraid to call Judge Sonia Sotomayor a reverse racist and a hack. And on Fox News, Glenn Beck just called the president himself a racist.

This pundit polarization accomplishes one thing -- ratings. In July, nine of the top 10 cable news shows were on Fox News. Meanwhile, MSNBC has surpassed CNN in several ratings demographics. Television viewers -- and radio listeners -- seem to have an insatiable appetite for reinforcement. And so those perpetuating the cycle of partisanship get rewarded while the environment they create causes the political process to suffer.

The constant cross talk of cheap shots represents a startling decline in decorum. Gone in some quarters is a basic level of respect for the office of the presidency.

None of this is intended to argue for watering down legitimate political debate and disagreement. It's perfectly appropriate to disagree in a substantive way with the president, to object to his policies, and even to use ridicule to make a political point.

But there's a line, and labeling the president a racist is crossing it. The name-calling, disrespect for the office, and constant antagonism cheapen the country's level of discourse.

Unfortunately, the spin cycle we've worked ourselves into shows no sign of slowing down.

Smerconish writes a weekly column for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may contact him via the Web at