Why, just ask U.S. Rep. Jim Talent:
"Conservatives believe in the institutions and values of private American life ... liberals don't.
"Conservatives believe violent crime is the result of choices by a layer of bad people to do wrong. We want to catch and punish these people.
"Liberals think that the criminals are victims because society has failed to provide them with a good education or a good job, or because honest people have too many firearms. Liberals seek to "prevent' crime by remedying what they see as the defects in the rest of us."
Damn. We've been exposed.
Sorry, my fellow liberals, to take your valuable time away from, say, corrupting that Boy Scout troop with homosexual literature or plotting the demise of some irritating church in your neighborhood, but I think it's time to sound the alarms: The conservatives are onto us.
If we're not careful, honest people will be free to defend their homes and families against our unfortunate, underprivileged, undereducated and unemployed friends. We must stem the tide of tough measures against criminals, or decent, God-fearing Americans will catch and punish our favorite victims of society and it will be next to impossible to coddle criminals in the name of (yuk, yuk) "preventing" crime.
We must renew our efforts to identify and remedy the defects in law-abiding Americans across this capitalist-pig nation. Traditional institutions and family values must not be allowed to prevail, so help us Marx.
Yes, Talent, a self-described man of faith and conscience, is willing to brand "liberals" in this extreme without qualification. Those unprovoked words "Conservatives believe in the institutions and values of private American life ... liberals don't" are staring up at me from Talent's congressional stationery.
Talent wrote these words on June 2 in response to an inquiry from one of his West County constituents, Eleanor "Cookie" Goldberg, who had contacted his office on behalf of her study group. She and her friends were planning to discuss the problem of violence in society, she told his staffer, and she wanted to know his views on gun control.
"I was shocked by the letter," Goldberg told me. "He had no idea of who I was, whether I was a Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative. We asked for his views on gun control, and we get this attack on liberals."
They also got some of the most simplistic rhetoric imaginable on the subject of gun control.
"I have often remarked in public appearances, conversations and letters with constituents that gun control is not effective crime control," Talent wrote. "Gun control merely restricts the rights of law abiding citizens and ensures that only criminals will own guns.
"The perverse effect of any gun control is to increase violent crime because criminals know their victim is less likely to be able to defend himself or herself." (I added the emphasis, because it's so amazing.)
"For example, there is growing and powerful evidence that violent crime has gone down in states which permit honest citizens to carry firearms on their persons. In addition, as you note, there are serious Constitutional concerns with gun control by the federal government."
Well, Mr. Righteous Conservative, I'd say the really serious concerns are with divisive and mean-spirited attacks on political opponents' loyalty to the "institutions and values of private American life." The "perverse effect" of that sort of insult-hurling is to lower the civility and intelligence of political debate.
Is that the tone you'd like to bring Missouri as governor?
It certainly didn't play so well with the study group to which Goldberg belongs. The 25 or so West County women meet once a month to discuss the issues of the day sometimes after bringing in a speaker and they do so because they think of themselves not as ideologues but as citizens participating in democracy, Goldberg says.
The group includes a minister's wife, homemakers, community volunteers, retired schoolteachers, small-business owners and an attorney, she says. If you didn't know better, you'd think it was Jim Talent's kind of group, smack-dab in his district.
But Goldberg says the women were overwhelmingly "astonished" at the congressman's response to their question. And she let him know it.
"I believe the Study Group consists of Republicans as well as Democrats, but no one has ever asked," Goldberg wrote to Talent in response to his letter. "We discuss issues, not our politics. We get our opinions across without name-calling or attacking anyone. Yes, people can really behave this way.
"Many of us thought your letter sounded like something from the 1950s, bashing the "liberals.' We thought Americans had learned a lesson how dangerous name-calling is how it divides us.
Actually, Mrs. Goldberg, most Americans did learn that lesson. But in recent years, in an age that has seen the Rush Limbaughs and Jerry Falwells gain vast fame, power and fortune by appealing to the deepest fears and anger of the general public, a generation of young, adroit politicians like Jim Talent benign and mild-mannered in appearance have learned to play the name-calling card with stunning success.
Now, Talent, who couldn't be reached for a response Tuesday, does have another side when the situation calls for it. Two years ago, when he delivered the first Republican radio address after President Clinton's second inauguration, Talent played the statesman:
"Both the President and the Republican leadership of Congress have expressed the desire to work together. That is a good thing. Both have used the same rhetoric in describing what they want to do. That is a hopeful sign. But if the President and Congress are to move forward together and without hesitation, all must use honest language when discussing the future of America.
"I raise this issue in good faith. Candor is essential to a good relationship, whether in public or private life. It allows people to trust each other, find common ground where it truly exists and respect and contain any honest differences."
Well, most of the time, it seems. On the other hand, when the subject is gun control and it's just one constituent asking a question, "honest language" may take on some new meaning. Trust? Common ground? Respect? Containing any honest differences?
Jim Talent's all over it.
Unless you're some un-American liberal.
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