Cal Thomas, Rachel Maddow, and Civility

Cal Thomas made a tasteless joke at Rachel Maddow's expense. He describes the lesson in civility he learned.

Cal Thomas made a tasteless joke at Rachel Maddow’s expense. He describes the lesson in civility he learned.

Last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, I failed to live up to one of my highest principles. Here’s the background. The story about the Obama administration’s attempt to force Catholic and other faith-based institutions to offer employees free contraception in their health care coverage was still fresh. I was asked to be on a panel before what looked like a crowd of about 1,000 conservatives, hungry for “red meat.”

A clip was played from Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC program. It featured her commenting on the subject. I stupidly said before thinking, “I think she’s the best argument in favor of her parents using contraception.” I then added, “and all the rest of the crowd at MSNBC, too, for that matter.”

It didn’t matter that far worse things have been said in print and on TV about me. I am not supposed to behave like that. I co-wrote a book with my liberal Democratic friend, Bob Beckel, called “Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America.” We also write a column together for USA Today. One of the principles in which I believe is not to engage in name-calling; which, to my shame, I did.

The next morning I felt bad about it, so I called Maddow to apologize. It wasn’t one of those meaningless “if I’ve offended anyone …” apologies; it was heartfelt. I had embarrassed myself and was a bad example to those who read my column and expect better from me.

Maddow could not have been more gracious. She immediately accepted my apology. On her show, she said publicly, “I completely believe his apology. I completely accept his apology.” To be forgiven by one you have wronged is a blessing, it’s even cleansing.

[…]

Maddow also accepted my invitation to lunch and we will soon meet in New York. I am looking forward to it. Since the incident, which, of course, garnered a minitornado of media and blogosphere coverage, I have watched a couple of her shows.

Without engaging in any qualifiers, she is a strong and competent advocate for her position. Why do so many of us only watch programs that reinforce what we already believe? Where is the growth in that? Whatever else she may or may not be, she is my fellow American.

I have many liberal friends acquired over the years. They are impossible to avoid in the media, but I don’t wish to avoid them. They became my friends because I stopped seeing them as labels and began seeing them as persons with innate worth.

That is what I failed to do in my first response to Maddow. One might expect a pro-lifer like me to support the birth of fellow human beings and not suggest they should never have been born.

Thomas has always struck me as a decent fellow.  Rather than the classic Washington gaffe of accidentally revealing one’s true thoughts, I suspect what happened here is that he succumbed to the temptation for cheap humor and pandered to a partisan crowd. The joke was quite literally thoughtless.

I share Thomas’ instincts for reading thoughtful people who disagree with me and treating them as fellow countrymen and citizens of the planet rather than treasonous enemies worthy of scorn. It is, however, not a mindset that lends itself to making a name for oneself in punditry or selling a lot of books.

I’m particularly befuddled at the animus that so many on the right direct at Rachel Maddow. While I’ve watched only a handful of episodes of her show–I just don’t watch much talking head TV these days–she’s always struck me as quite pleasant and fair. I understand why people dislike Keith Olbermann or Rush Limbaugh; they’re bombastic point scorers preaching to the choir. But Maddow is more akin to William F. Buckley or George Will, bringing the temperament of a Rhodes Scholar and Oxford PhD, not a street fighter or shock jock.

via Oliver Willis

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies 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.

Comments

  1. I’ve met a few people on the right who have been guests on Maddow’s show and they’ve all said that they were treated fairly and respectfully. Yes, there’s obvious disagreements between the guest and the host but Maddow has never struck me as being like other hosts who bring on people with opposing points of view just to yell at them (Ed Schultz, Chris Matthews, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Rellly, and Lawrence O’Donnell all play that game).

    As for Thomas, I didn’t hear the “joke” last week but it quickly made the rounds at CPAC that day. I’m glad he apologized for it.

  2. Eric says:

    It’s always nice to read good news and a pleasant story. Especially after something distasteful has happened.

  3. David M says:

    So that’s what an actual apology looks like, as opposed to the “I’m sorry if I offended someone, although I have no idea what I actually said to offend them”.

  4. Hey Norm says:

    Kudos to Thomas.
    What Maddow is doing is the antithesis of Cable TV.
    We could use many more of her…all across the political spectrum.

  5. I’m particularly befuddled at the animus that so many on the right direct at Rachel Maddow. While I’ve watched only a handful of episodes of her show–I just don’t watch much talking head TV these days–she’s always struck me as quite pleasant and fair. I understand why people dislike Keith Olbermann or Rush Limbaugh; they’re bombastic point scorers preaching to the choir. But Maddow is more akin to William F. Buckley or George Will, bringing the temperament of a Rhodes Scholar and Oxford PhD, not a street fighter or shock jock.

    Most of the animus is coming from the street fighters and shock jocks, solely BECAUSE she is fair and pleasant. If political debate starts becoming more rational and less emotional, their meal ticket is gone. They have a vested interest in making sure the Maddows, Wills, and Buckleys of the world are stamped out as fast as they appear.

    It’s kind of like the right’s animus for NPR. Even though I rarely agree with their viewpoints, I tend to find NPR wrong in interesting ways that get me thinking about my positions and frequently adjusting them based on what I hear. Rush Limbaugh, on the other hand, I tend to find an insult to my intelligence. Even on issues where I agree with him, his arguments are so flimsy I can’t believe that anyone could possibly be swayed by them. It’s purely and appeal to emotion (and maybe this is what makes me different from most people, but few things get me more pissed off than noticing that someone is trying to emotionally manipulate me).

  6. Gromitt Gunn says:

    I really enjoy her program because she treats all of her guests well. That is also why I enjoy reading the majority of the writing here. I disagree with both you, James, and Rachel at about the same rate, but I also find that both of you make me think, which I greatly appreciate.

  7. anjin-san says:

    A stand up move by Thomas.

    I am baffled by the animosity directed at Maddow.

  8. Cycloptichorn says:

    The animus towards Maddow is two-fold:

    1, she’s incredibly successful at calmly and satirically pointing out how crazy many of the GOP positions are. She specializes in comparing and contrasting statements and actions in a way that makes many of the elected officials and media on the right side of the fence look like total hypocrites.

    2, she’s a Lesbian, and it’s cool on that side of the fence to hate on gay folks. Didn’t you know that?

  9. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Cycloptichorn:

    I think this is true. She deconstructs them without ever veering off into crazy. It must take quite a lot of self control. And the reason the ranting by the usual suspects on the right isn’t going away is because (as someone above observed) it’s become a highly profitable cottage industry and that’s what the punter’s like. I don’t quite share JJ’s enthusiasm for George Will these days since he’s largely moved into bombast territory. I was for years one of his greatest fans, and he writes very well about baseball, but over the last five or six years he’s descended into pure hackery. Walter Lippman he aint.

  10. Tsar Nicholas says:

    I guess I’m out of the loop. I have no idea who either of those two people are.

    In any event, taking the high road most often is the best policy. Sometimes, however, especially in connection with politics, it’s necessary to call a spade a spade. For example, there’s nothing wrong in my view with saying that Rush Limbaugh is a no talent hack who’s living proof that W.C. Fields was correct. Harsh but true. Along similar lines it would be appropriate to point out that Friedman, Thomas, Krugman, Milbank, Klein, Gregory, Clift, et al., are liberal partisans suffering from reality comas. No blood, no foul.

  11. @Tsar Nicholas:

    I guess I’m out of the loop. I have no idea who either of those two people are.

    Well of course you haven’t heard of them.

  12. anjin-san says:

    @ Cycloptichorn

    I think you have it. I find her to be charming, witty, reasonable, and intelligent. Sometimes it slips my mind that on the far right these things are negatives. And of course, she is a lesbian, which is reason enough to hate her for far too many…

  13. PogueMahone says:

    A moment of civility, graciousness, dignity, and humanity.

    We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

  14. Septimius says:

    Yes. Rachel Maddow is a model of civility. She would never describe Americans exercising their constitutional right to peaceably assemble and petition for redress of grievances with a vulgar, sexual term. She is way too “pleasant and fair” for that.

  15. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Septimius:

    She used the word they used to describe themselves. It would be like if you suddenly realized Septimus was a horrible name then got mad when we called you that.

  16. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    Along similar lines it would be appropriate to point out that Friedman, Thomas, Krugman, Milbank, Klein, Gregory, Clift, et al., are liberal partisans suffering from reality comas.

    Well Krugman has been a damn more right in his economic diagnosis than you ever have been so maybe it’s actually you whose in the reality coma?

  17. PogueMahone says:

    @Septimius:
    “She would never describe Americans exercising their constitutional right to peaceably assemble and petition for redress of grievances with a vulgar, sexual term.”

    You see children, one must describe the Tea Party these days as “Americans exercising their constitutional right to peaceably assemble and petition for redress of grievances” because the term “Tea Party” has become a point of ridicule.

    And that has nothing to do with anything Rachel Maddow said. That’s a lesson in self-destruction.

  18. Septimius says:

    @Neil Hudelson: That is total nonsense. No one in the tea party movement ever referred to themselves as a “teabagger” before people like Maddow started using it as a pejorative.

  19. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Septimius:

    One of the very first tea party sites was teabagparty.org

    (unfortunately now defunct)

  20. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Septimius:

    No one in the tea party movement ever referred to themselves as a “teabagger” before people like Maddow started using it as a pejorative.

    Oh boy these Republicans are whiners….if being called a teabagger is the worst that you can be called and it causes you to burst into tears because that nasty Rachel Maddow called me teabagger…cry me an ocean.

  21. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Septimius:

    Additionally, from the National Review,

    “The first big day for this movement was Tax Day, April 15. And organizers had a gimmick. They asked people to send a tea bag to the Oval Office. One of the exhortations was “Tea Bag the Fools in D.C.” A protester was spotted with a sign saying, “Tea Bag the Liberal Dems Before They Tea Bag You.” So, conservatives started it: started with this terminology. But others ran with it and ran with it. ”

    Afterwards, yes, liberals ran with it and had a lot of fun.

    But yes, you are mad that conservatives used the term “tea bag’ as the action they would want to take, and people started calling them “tea baggers?”

    http://www.nationalreview.com/nrd/article/?q=Mjk1YmRjNzIxNmUwMTI0ZWYxZWU4OWU2MzFiOWJmNDE=

  22. WR says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:” I have no idea who either of those two people are. ”

    This seems to be a regular theme from you. Is there anyone or anything you actually do know about?

  23. Kylopod says:

    I think she’s hated in part because she’s a liberal stalwart who’s a good debater and effective communicator without being loud and rude and angry like so many partisan TV commentators–thus making her harder to dismiss, which infuriates conservatives. Add to that some sexism and homophobia, and the attacks are pretty understandable.

  24. mattb says:

    For example, there’s nothing wrong in my view with saying that Rush Limbaugh is a no talent hack who’s living proof that W.C. Fields was correct.

    And as, on so many issues, you would be wrong. Limbaugh might be a cynical. He might even be a bigot. And he doesn’t have any problem making money off of hate. But, like him or not, there is no question he is talented.

  25. Neil Hudelson says:

    @WR:

    Tsar Nicky, like so many of the conservative masses, is proud to be ignorant. It’s a badge of honor.

  26. Septimius says:

    @Neil Hudelson: One guy with a sign doesn’t give an entire cable news network free reign to describe an entire movement with a vulgar sexual term. MSNBC and Maddow played it up for months. Just because some guy shits on a cop car doesn’t mean Fox News gets to call the Occupy movement “cop car shitters.”

  27. Franklin says:

    I just want to second the motion that this was a real apology. I hope Thomas and Maddow have a pleasant and constructive lunch.

  28. mattb says:

    @Septimius do you get the problem with the argument you just made?

    Ahh the nature of semantics. You’re right, I don’t think they ever directly called them “cop car shitters”… but please tell me you are not trying to pretend that almost all programs on the fox news channels didn’t recycle that image for months, and when talking in generalities about Occupy, brought up that incident over and over as an “example of the behavior that happens at all Occupies.”

    Put a different way, I might never call you “gay” outright, but if I spend an inordinate amount of time referring back to a homosexually tinged phrase you one wrote, I think people will get a general idea of what I’m saying without ever using that specific word.

    And frankly, the fact that the only thing you can manage to find wrong with Maddow is that she engaged in that particular bit of bathroom humor, is a testament to the fact that she is, generally speaking, anything but a bomb thrower.

  29. michael reynolds says:

    Both Thomas and Maddow behaved like grown-ups.

    What the hell are they doing in cable news and politics?

  30. john personna says:

    @Septimius:

    On January 19, 2009, Graham Makohoniuk, a part-time trader and a member of Ticker Forum, posted a casual invitation on the market-ticker.org forums to “Mail a tea bag to congress and to senate,”[37] a tactic that had first been attempted by the Libertarian Party in 1973.[38] The idea quickly caught on with others on the forum, some of whom reported being attracted to the inexpensive, easy way to reach “everyone that voted for the bailout.”[39]

    The difference is that “tea bagger” is not unambiguously dirty. It is metaphor.

    As I’ve said, the wrong step was the insecurity of the protesters. They should have said “sure we mail tea bags, not get out of here you freak.”

  31. john personna says:

    I mean “, now get out of here you freak”

  32. Tillman says:

    It didn’t matter that far worse things have been said in print and on TV about me. I am not supposed to behave like that.

    This is a sentiment that needs to spread.

  33. dug says:

    Cal Thomas was 100% right to apologize and Maddow was gracious in accepting it. To me, the interesting thing is that it highlights the mean spirited tone that has become the default setting of a vocal wing of the Republican party.
    Sure, liberals can be plenty rude when bashing conservatives but let’s face it, Republicans are more nasty and vocal and that tone is not only more accepted within the party–it’s largely applauded.
    Thomas wouldn’t have made the joke at CPAC if he didn’t think it would go over well. And it did. Plenty other jokes (far more mean spirited, scathing & personal) were made that weekend and nobody else had the courage to publicly apologize for betraying their ideals.

  34. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @dug:

    Plenty other jokes (far more mean spirited, scathing & personal) were made that weekend and nobody else had the courage to publicly apologize for betraying their ideals.

    That’s because those “jokes” are their ideals.

    Also good for Cal. In my entire life I can recall only one time I agreed with him, but I always found him thoughtful and respectful. And good for Rachel too. I look forward to seeing Cal on her show soon.

  35. gVOR08 says:

    Last year a public policy class at Hamilton College ranked several well known pundits on the accuracy of their verifiable predictions. Cal Thomas rated last. James, you may remember it:
    https://www.outsidethebeltway.com/ranking-the-pundits/
    He may be able to make a good apology, after being very publicly caught. He may even be perfectly charming face to face. But he does seem to be just another financially successful purveyor of conservative conventional wisdom, with no ideas and no insight into reality.

  36. John425 says:

    Well, if you thinkk Maddow’s outright lies constitute “fair and balanced”, go tight ahead.

  37. Chris Morrow says:

    @WR:

    Is there anyone or anything you actually do know about?

    Give him a break, he’s been dead since 1918.

  38. pcbedamned says: