Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, took the microphone the other day at the annual Loeb First Amendment Dinner in Manchester, New Hampshire. His topic? Free speech must be curbed. It's important to note that, even on the heels of our nation rejecting such views, the political climate of the Bush era still allows for a conservative as prominent as Gingrich to say this publicly, at an event about free speech no less.
Though these views have been harbored by right-wing extremists in the Republican Party (Cheney and Rumsfeld, for example) for over 30 years, the public and the press pre-9/11 would not have countenanced this type of blatant neo-McCarthyism. It's the kind of speech - or, in post-McCarthy era America, more likely an off-the-record comment or slip of the tongue - that, in the past, could ruin a career or at the very least scotch any hope for a presidential run. Even during the Reagan-Bush (H.W.) years, though some members in those administrations most certainly would have agreed with Gingrich's views, expressing them publicly would have brought private admonishment and, if the incident picked up steam in the press, even public dismissal. You could believe free speech should be nipped in the bud, you could even couch this idea in coded language, but expressing it directly exposed the dark underbelly of our government's most tyrannical minds. And, as the saying goes, they may be evil but they are not stupid. Edward R. Murrow proved long ago that such exposure leaves its messenger, and the benefactors of the message, all too vulnerable for attack.
Yet, today, there is exceedingly more press coverage of, and consequent public discussion over, Michael Richards' racist on-stage meltdown or O.J.'s "fictionalized" how he would have murdered them book than there is about a prominent Republican blithely denouncing one of the most vital freedoms of our country.
Fortunately, Keith Olbermann exists.
Tonight, Olbermann, one of the only shining lights in the still dim world of television news, eviscerated Gingrich's argument. The following are some key excerpts, but I recommend you read the entire manuscript; the man, like his hero Murrow, can write (video is available as well):
“This is a serious long-term war,” the man at the podium cried, “and it will inevitably lead us to want to know what is said in every suspect place in the country.”
Some in the audience must have thought they were hearing an arsonist give the keynote address at a convention of firefighters.
This was the annual Loeb First Amendment Dinner in Manchester, N.H. — a public cherishing of freedom of speech — in the state with the two-fisted motto “Live Free Or Die.”
And the arsonist at the microphone, the former speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, was insisting that we must attach an “on-off button” to free speech.
And who among us can look to our collective history and not see its turning points — like the Civil War, like Watergate, like the Revolution itself — in which the right idea defeated the wrong idea on the battlefield that is the marketplace of ideas?
But apparently there are some of us who cannot see that the only future for America is one that cherishes the freedoms won in the past, one in which we vanquish bad ideas with better ones, and in which we fight for liberty by having more liberty, not less.
“I am seeking to create a movement to win the future by offering a series of solutions so compelling that if the American people say I have to be president, it will happen.”
What a dark place your world must be, Mr. Gingrich, where the way to save America is to destroy America.
I will awaken every day of my life thankful I am not with you in that dark place.
And I will awaken every day of my life thankful that you are entitled to tell me about it.
And that you are entitled to show me what an evil idea it represents and what a cynical mind.
And that you are entitled to do all that, thanks to the very freedoms you seek to suffocate.
Free speech and the delusion of grandeur
By Keith Olbermann
Countdown with Keith Olbermann