Editor’s note: John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and writes a weekly column for The Daily Beast. Previously, he served as Chief Speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.
[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/08/07/wingnuts.jefferson.macguffie.art.jpg caption="William Jefferson (L) and Bob MacGuffie (R)."]
Politics is getting heated in the month of August, as health care debates cause the "tea party" activists to hijack town halls and a former Democratic congressman finds himself heading to the cooler for corruption. It’s all in this edition of "Wingnuts of the Week."
Cartoonish corruption is a stereotype often associated with big city Democrats from Boss Tweed to Rod Blagojevich. Former New Orleans Congressman William Jefferson officially entered the "ring of dishonor" this week with his conviction of using his public office to enrich himself.
The eight-term Democratic Congressman and member of the influential House Ways and Means Committee was accused of having taken more than $400,000 in bribes tied to business ventures in Africa, including an infamous $90,000 in cold, hard cash found in his home freezer.
Undaunted by the evidence and embarrassment, Jefferson ran for re-election in 2008 and was defeated despite his attempts to play the victim of a government sting.
Jefferson's lawyer offered the defense that his client was stupid and unethical, but not criminal. The jury decided otherwise.
During the trial, Mr. Jefferson's team also tried to play the race card by arguing that the congressman was disadvantaged by the trial's location in Virginia, where the cold cash was found. While the congressman’s wife was at his side during all six weeks of the trial, it appears that she was still being paid for her position at a state college in Louisiana – adding insult to the taxpayers’ injury.
Sentencing will proceed in October, but it's likely that former Rep. Jefferson will be joining his money in the cooler for a long time.
On the right, the "tea party" movement is taking to the town halls as congressmen face angry activist constituents during the summer recess. The curtain was pulled back on these organized efforts in the form of a wingnut memo written by Connecticut grassroots conservative activist Bob MacGuffie.
Titled “Rocking the Town Halls – Best Practices” and written under the banner of MacGuffie’s group “RightPrinciples” – the memo seeks to teach people how to disrupt the town halls held in support of what is called “the socialist agenda of the Democrat leadership in Washington.”
In a perfect wingnut irony, the memo counsels conservatives to “Use the [Saul] Alinsky playbook of which the left is so proud: freeze it, attack it, personalize it and polarize it.”
“The objective is to put the Rep on the defensive…you need to rock the boat early. Watch for an opportunity to yell out and challenge the Reps statements’ early. If he blames Bush for something or offers other excuses – call him on it, yell back and have someone else follow up with a shout out…Look for these opportunities even before he takes questions.” Beyond barraging the congressmen, the stated goal is to intimidate the undecided: “We want the independent thinkers to leave the hall with some doubts about the Democrat solutions continually proposed by the national leadership.”
This is politics as an ideological bloodsport, where civility is the first calculated casualty. And things are starting to get ugly, with Maryland Congressman Frank Kratovil being hung in effigy outside his office, Congressman Tim Bishop having to be escorted to his car by police after one town hall and North Carolina Congressman Brad Miller deciding to cancel his August town halls after receiving a death threat. Protesters against Connecticut senator Chris Dodd suggested that he commit suicide with whiskey and painkillers as a treatment for his newly disclosed prostate cancer. One sign at that rally summed up the fear-mongering: “universal health care = equals medical genocide.” Needless to say, neither universal health care or genocide is being contemplated in the current bills. As freshman Virginia Representative Gerry Connolly said, “They’re inciting people to riot with just total distortions of facts. They think we’re going to euthanize Grandma and the government is going to take over.”
But Democrats make a mistake if they think conservative populist outrage over health care and the unprecedented government spending is artificial and canned. It is genuine, building off the kind of deficit hawk frustration that gave rise to the Ross Perot’s independent campaign in 1992. But those activists who are trying to stir the pot of hysteria and hatred toward our elected representatives are playing a dangerous game. They are confusing patriotism with hyper-partisanship.
In a bonus round of "Wingnuts of the Week," here’s a headline that caught my attention: “Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction.” In an article from the Indypendent, explicated on the network Democracy Now, columnist Arun Gupta details the explosion in park consumption fueled by industrial farming. The controversy as detailed in the recent documentary “Food, Inc.” is complex and not uninteresting, but with hysterical headlines like that you can’t help but think that the wingnut PC police are coming for your bacon next. Enjoy your breakfast while you can.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.