Adversaries vs. Enemies

On his show yesterday, Rush Limbaugh recounted having run into Bill Clinton at a steak restaurant, shaking his hand, saying “Mr. President, it’s a pleasure to meet you” and engaging in some brief small talk. Apparently, this provoked some angry responses from listeners:

I’m already getting e-mails, “You’re falling in with the enemy. I knew it! It happens to every one of our conservatives. They get famous, and fall in with the enemy, even you.” What am I supposed to do, folks, when he comes to my table? Am I supposed to stand up and leave? Am I supposed to turn my back? What am I supposed to do? I’m not that kind of person.

One would hope not. Clinton isn’t my favorite fellow on the planet but he’s not exactly Charlie Manson, either. I’m unlikely to run into either of the Clintons while dining and even less likely to have them interrupt my meal to exchange pleasantries. Were it to happen, though, I’d certainly be cordial.

Indeed, I can’t think of any significant figure in American politics where that wouldn’t be the case. Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy, Al Gore, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, and plenty of others have irritated me in their public personae but I’m not going to spit in their face if I see them. They’re out there in the arena and I respect that even if they come up short again and again.

Ann Althouse observes that, “from what I’ve seen, people who are hostile to each other in the public arena act pretty cordial in a social setting. I haven’t blogged about it, but I’ve had social interactions with some of my biggest enemies in the blogosphere — including sitting down for a meal together — and it was completely friendly.” So far as I know, I don’t have an “enemies” in the blogosphere. I have met several prominent bloggers on the other side of the aisle and found all of them to be decent people worth having a conversation with.

Indeed, I though that was the whole point of this exercise. What is a political blog if not a conversation with readers and, through cross-discussion, other bloggers?

With some exceptions on the lunatic fringe, I think people who disagree with me are wrong, not evil. I’ve met plenty of bloggers, think tankers, professors, congressional staffers, party operatives, and the like from all across the political spectrum and haven’t found any strong patterns in terms of sense of humor, intellect, and basic human decency.

Indeed, like most people who are passionate about anything, I find myself having a harder time fitting in with groups consisting entirely with people on my “side” than those with a wide variety of viewpoints. As with religion, small differences seem to divide more in politics than big ones. Liberal bloggers seem to hate Joe Lieberman more than they do George W. Bush and conservatives target more vitriol at John McCain and Rudy Giuliani than Hillary Clinton or Ted Kennedy. Plus, people let their guard down more among their “own kind” and presume everyone shares their extreme view of positions X,Y, and Z and their contempt for anyone who holds positions X’,Y’, and Z’ where ‘ represents even the slightest deviation from the Absolute Truth.

We’d certainly be better off with more cross-ideological discussion and civility than less. The realization that people who see things differently are people is a helpful starting point.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    The incident says much more about Bill Clinton’s character than Rush’s. I don’t think Clinton ever made a career out of vilifying Rush and his wife (if there is one).

  2. James Joyner says:

    Well, they’re in different lines of work and Clinton more-or-less blamed Limbaugh for the Oklahama City bombing . . .

    Still, by all accounts, Clinton is a hail fellow well met and a charming guy. And he’s someone who thinks he can make everyone like him if he gets the chance.

  3. Triumph says:

    Here are some “famous” people I’ve met:

    Kucinch–pretty nice guy, not flaky.

    Mel Martinez–very personable and genuinely interesting.

    Robert Rubin–not so personable

    Earl Blumenauer–kind of cold–although he gives a great speech.

    Hitchens–great guy to have a drink with. If you have cigs, he’ll be your friend for life.

    Mary Peters–total flake.

  4. Steve Plunk says:

    Civility with ones enemies usually means a person is confident in his position and is smart enough to know insults get you nowhere.

    Clinton and politicians I may disagree with have earned a measure of respect by winning office. Somewhat like the military, the rank earns respect to a certain degree.

    In a public place respect is also a must. It sets an example and keeps our society on an even keel.

    Civility is also wise politically since you never know when you may have to deal with someone at a later date. Burning all bridges limits what you may accomplish in the future.

  5. Cernig says:

    Hi JJ,

    Nice post, and agreed. But I have to say Rush only has himself to blame. If you keep saying Dems are traitors then you’re nice to one…

    As for blogging amiability…I still blush every time I recall the way you and I first started exchanging emails and comments. I seriously misread your sarcasm as support for the ridiculous and said some dumb things. In return, you were easygoing instead of scornful. Thanks for that, and I learned my lesson well.

    Regards, C

  6. carpeicthus says:

    Well, how many people who spend all day getting enraged on political blogs have friends and family who have political positions they abhor? I’m friends with one of the biggest GOP activists in NYC, and large swaths of my family are rabid conservatives. Sometimes you have to stop talking politics and just relate as people.

  7. NoZe says:

    By the same token, I can personally attest that Mike Huckabee is a really nice guy, as President Bush seems to be in person as well.

    Doesn’t mean I’d vote for either of ’em!