A few weeks ago I read the latest volume in Robert Caro's epic four-part biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power. The depth of insight about Johnson's life and Caro's theme on the use of power is so impressive that other historical biographies now feel more tedious by comparison. In The Passage of Power, he describes an event I'd never heard of that stuck with me: The Adolphus Hotel incident.
Four days before the 1960 election, Johnson was greeted by an angry, booing crowd of several hundred Republicans outside his campaign event at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas. The mob had come from a Nixon gathering and were lead by ultra-conservative Texas Congressman Bruce Alger. Their signs called LBJ a traitor and accused him of selling out to the "yankee socialist" JFK.
Johnson decided to walk through the hotel lobby with his wife, Lady Bird. He acted above the insults as he slowly pushed his way through a crowd that hissed, booed and spat at them. He was quoted in papers saying, "I only hope the day never comes when a man cannot walk his lady across the street in Dallas."
So far this sounds like just another day on the campaign trail. A Democratic candidate for national office being greeted by a crowd of booing people with nasty signs calling him a socialist traitor is no big deal. The only unusual thing is that they were allowed so close to the event. In a post 9/11-world they would be kept across the street for an Obama event, or out of view several blocks away when Bush was President.
Here's the part that blew my mind. In 1960 this kind of behavior actually bothered people! The rude manner in which LBJ and his wife were treated was scandalous. It's credited with encouraging Texas to rally around its mistreated native son and delivering the state to the Kennedy/Johnson ticket. There were still independents and moderate Republicans who felt a sense of shame about a crowd of ignorant, hateful jackasses. What happened?!
Today they would be celebrated on cable news as the hot new political movement. They would whine about liberal bias until the press gave them favorable coverage and their own show on CNN.
Nasty, uninformed crowds have no ideological boundaries, of course. In any large crowd protesting Bush you might have seen a few signs that crossed the line into personal, hateful, or ignorant territory. But, those few weren't encouraged in that direction.
What's different today is that Americans have been desensitized by a well financed, institutionalized hate machine. The new normal is daily broadcasts of mean-spirited, childish name-calling on talk radio and monthly meetings of 9-12, the Tea Party and other groups that, with a straight face, claim Obama is a socialist traitor plotting to destroy America. This isn't a "both sides" problem because Republican leaders have embraced a well-funded, organized hate factory that has no equivalent on the left.
The saddest part is that the political climate won't improve as long as the modern fear and anger based movement has financial backing, and as long as the press refuse to confront it. I don't expect either of those things to change anytime soon. It will continue as long as the people organizing fear, paranoia, and ignorance keep getting the results they're looking for. So far, they haven't suffered another 1960 backlash.