Former Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich never has been one to hide from controversy. His allegations about past liberal icons West Virginia Democrat Senator Robert Byrd and former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Long are the latest example.
Gingrich last Sunday on the CBS Sunday talk show Face The Nation claimed that Byrd and Long got “passes” despite their association with the Ku Klux Klan
Senator Byrd and Justice Long never received the criticism, Gingrich asserts, that current Republican Steve Scalise of Louisiana has been subjected to in recent weeks for speaking several years ago to a White Supremacy group. Gingrich cites a dual standard in our perception and treatment of prominent liberals vis à vis conservatives.
It’s true that times have changed in terms of culture, politics, social mores and media coverage. Today we expect from our public servants an almost unachievable standard of ethics, morality and performance. And their inevitable failure evokes scathing vitriol and condemnation. Our forefathers were equally critical; but they were more lenient. We, their offspring, are less tolerant.
Did Sen. Robert Byrd and Justice Hugo Long get passes despite their membership as youth in the Ku Klux Klan? Yes, most certainly.
More important did the two men change their views? That appears true, too.
Fast forward to 2015 and ask do their KKK associations match the mistake of House Republican Steve Scalise of Louisiana? Obviously Byrd and Long were much more intimately involved with a racist organization than Scalise , who claims he knew little or nothing about the group he was speaking to.
That seems ingenuous and raises questions about his intelligence and honesty. But does it rise to a level requiring his resignation from office or House leadership? Of course not.
I find the early associations of both Byrd and Long understandable given the era of their political development. However, I cannot condone their membership and–despite some criticism from various quarters at the time—both men survived and had notable careers. Understandable youthful indiscretions and poor judgment given the times–but unacceptable nevertheless.
Neither can I condone Scalise’s mistake. But in 2015 we as society and media are too willing to pounce, judge and condemn more vigorously than in the past. The slightest perceived missteps or indiscretions are characterized as more egregious sins than they are and subject to more vehemence and stronger recriminations than they warrant.
That isn’t fair, of course, but it’s a product of America’s increasingly polarized political discourse and intolerance—enabled by the electronic anonymity of social media and the ubiquity of instant, unfounded opinion masquerading as news.
No one knows whether Steve Scalise will have a long, productive, notable public career. But if his mistakes are no more serious than a single ill-considered speech to a controversial group, they are far, far less serious than the missteps of Robert Byrd and Hugo Long.
If they received a pass, overcame their mistakes and rose to prominence, Representative Steve Scalise deserves the same opportunity.