Right-wing media are falsely claiming that, in recent interviews and speeches, former President Bill Clinton compared the tea party movement to the domestic terrorists who carried out the Oklahoma City bombing. In fact, Clinton did no such thing; rather, he stressed the importance of citizens' ability to criticize the government, and in drawing "parallels" to the rhetoric leading to the bombing and the rhetoric today, he specifically limited his criticism to those currently advocating or encouraging violence.
Clinton criticized those advocating violence -- not the whole tea party movement
Clinton did not compare the tea party movement to domestic terrorists in his remarks. Clinton recently gave a speech at the Center for American Progress (CAP), conducted an interview with CNN, and wrote an op-ed in The New York Times. In each, he commented on the events and rhetoric leading Timothy McVeigh to carry out the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and discussed the bombing in the context of political rhetoric today. Clinton said in each of his remarks that "criticiz[ing]" the government is the "lifeblood" of "democracy" and of "liberty" but warned that people should temper their rhetoric so as not to inflame secessionist and extremists groups who may be inclined to use violence.
From Clinton's April 16 speech at CAP:
There is an enormous psychological disorientation today. And that is also the way it was in the early '90s. And we must not forget that when that happens, we have to pay special care both to have a raging debate, because we need to figure out what to do about this, and to do it in a way that nurtures the best in us, not the worst.
The second lesson we have to learn is that we can't let the debate veer so far into hatred that we lose focus of our common humanity. It's really important. We can't ever fudge the fact that there is a basic line dividing criticism from violence or its advocacy. And the closer you get to the line, and the more responsibility you have, the more you have to think about the echo chamber in which your words resonate.
Look, criticism is part of the lifeblood of democracy. Nobody's right all the time. But Oklahoma City proved once again that, beyond the law, there is no freedom. And there is a difference between criticizing a policy or a politician and demonizing the government that guarantees our freedom and the public servants who implement them. And the more prominence you have in politics or media or some other pillar of life, the more you have to keep that in mind.
But what we learned from Oklahoma City is not that we should gag each other or that we should reduce our passion for the positions we hold, but that the words we use really do matter because there are - there's this vast echo chamber. And they go across space and they fall on the serious and the delirious, alike; they fall on the connected and the unhinged, alike. And I am not trying to muzzle anybody.
But one of the things that the conservatives have always brought to the table in America is a reminder that no law can replace personal responsibility. And the more power you have, and the more influence you have, the more responsibility you have. Look, I'm glad they're fighting over health care and everything else; let them have at it.
But I think that all you have to do is read the paper every day to see how many people there are who are deeply, deeply troubled. We know, now, that there are people involved in groups -- these "hatriot" groups, the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, the others -- 99 percent of them will never do anything they shouldn't do. But there are people who advocate violence and anticipate violence.
One of these guys the other day said that all politics is just a prelude to the ultimate and inevitable civil war. You know, I'm a southerner. I know what happened. We were still paying for that 100 years later when I was a kid growing up, in ways large and small. It doesn't take many people to take something like that seriously. So I don't want the whole story of this retrospective just to be about this, and trying to turn everything into politics.
And I guess that's naïve, me being in Washington and all. I still have some memory of it. But I think that the point I'm trying to make is, I like the debate. This "tea party" movement can be a healthy thing if they're making us justify every penny of taxes we raised and every dollar of public money we spend. And they say they're for limited government and a balanced budget; when I left office, we had the smallest workforce since Eisenhower and we had four surpluses for the first time in 70 years.
From Clinton's April 16 interview on CNN's The Situation Room:
WOLF BLITZER (host): I guess the question is, is the rhetoric that we're hearing today -- I don't know if you want to get into the Tea Party, or some of the expressions you're hearing there...
BLITZER: ... or what we're generally hearing from a small, but very, very vocal group -- is that potentially dangerous?
Most of the Tea Party people, though, are explicitly political. You got to give them that. Now, forget about whether we disagree with them or not. It's really important to be able to criticize your government and criticize elected officials. That never bothered me.
Nobody's right all the time, and it's part of the lifeblood of liberty. The freedom of speech means the freedom to criticize in part. And so most of them have been understanding that they are not like the Boston Tea Party, when there was no law, there was no representation.
They just have representation they didn't vote for and don't agree with. But they -- most of them have been well within bounds in their harsh, but limited criticism -- that is, they're not advocating violence or encouraging other people to do it.
But some of the things that the secessionists have said, the Idaho militia says that, if they want to secede in Idaho, they will support them military. Some of the things these Three Percenters have said, some of the things these Oath Keepers have said, that's more like the extremist and the militia groups or what David Koresh did or some of the other people, that -- that -- all of which influenced Timothy McVeigh.
I think it's important not to draw too tight a historical analogy. The Toyota thing I want to say is, I'm not interested in gagging anybody. I actually love this political debate. I would like to be a part of it. I was a tiny part of it when the president asked Hillary and me to make some calls on the health care thing, and then for me to go out and speak to the Senate and others on it.
But I just think that we have to be careful. We have been down this road on more than one occasion before. We don't want to go down it again.
CLINTON: But, by and large, in the last 50 years -- or, well, at least since the early '70s, when we still had some left-wing problems, by and large, these have been systematically coming out of the far right.
And, again, I think that all those folks have a place in our political debate. We just have to know where to draw the line. And I -- and we have enough threats against the president, enough threats against the Congress that we should be sensitive to it.
The 15th anniversary of Oklahoma City -- I'm not trying to draw total parallels -- I'm just saying we should be aware of this. This is a vast echo chamber, this Internet. And there's lots of folks listening, and, as I said, some are serious. Some are delirious. Some are connected. Some are unhinged.
And we, all of us who have any responsibility, have to exercise that responsibility, so that we're intellectually honest about our political positions, but we're also intellectually honest about what certain words might do to people who are less stable.
From Clinton's April 18 New York Times op-ed:
Americans have more freedom and broader rights than citizens of almost any other nation in the world, including the capacity to criticize their government and their elected officials. But we do not have the right to resort to violence -- or the threat of violence -- when we don't get our way. Our founders constructed a system of government so that reason could prevail over fear. Oklahoma City proved once again that without the law there is no freedom.
Criticism is part of the lifeblood of democracy. No one is right all the time. But we should remember that there is a big difference between criticizing a policy or a politician and demonizing the government that guarantees our freedoms and the public servants who enforce our laws.
We are again dealing with difficulties in a contentious, partisan time. We are more connected than ever before, more able to spread our ideas and beliefs, our anger and fears. As we exercise the right to advocate our views, and as we animate our supporters, we must all assume responsibility for our words and actions before they enter a vast echo chamber and reach those both serious and delirious, connected and unhinged.
Civic virtue can include harsh criticism, protest, even civil disobedience. But not violence or its advocacy. That is the bright line that protects our freedom. It has held for a long time, since President George Washington called out 13,000 troops in response to the Whiskey Rebellion.
Right-wing media: Clinton compared "peaceful," "anti-tax, anti-big-government grass-roots" tea partiers to McVeigh
New York Post: Clinton's comments are "shameless." The New York Post claimed in an April 20 editorial that Clinton "seized on the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing to draw implicit parallels between bomber Timothy McVeigh and peaceful -- if rambunctious -- political dissent like the Tea Party movement." The editorial then quoted Clinton saying at CAP, in part: "What we learned from Oklahoma City is ... the words we use really do matter. ... There is this vast echo chamber, and the words fall on the serious and delirious alike." The editorial called Clinton's remarks "shameless."
Washington Examiner: "To Clinton, criticism is terrorism." An April 20 Washington Examiner editorial titled, "To Clinton, criticism is terrorism," stated that "Clinton has warned in speeches and in a New York Times op-ed commemorating the April 19, 1995, Oklahoma City terrorist bombing that 'there is a big difference between criticizing a policy or a politician and demonizing the government that guarantees our freedoms and the public servants who enforce our laws.' " The editorial then stated:
Just as he did in 1995, Clinton is again peddling the argument that a new wave of domestic terrorism is coming this time because millions of Tea Partying Americans have during the past year or more taken to the streets to protest, often loudly, many of the policies advanced by President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and the Democratic majority in Congress.
If Clinton and other liberal Democrats who agree with him truly believe that the words of Tea Partiers and other critics of the Obama presidency will inspire acts of terrorism, it only seems logical to conclude that they would also endorse official suppression of such speech.
Byron York: Clinton is "leading" the anti-tea party "narrative." In an April 20 Washington Examiner column, chief political correspondent Byron York wrote: "There's a new narrative taking hold in the wake of the recent Tea Party protests and the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing: The Tea Partiers' intense opposition to the Obama administration has led to overheated political rhetoric, which could in turn lead to violence, perhaps as devastating as Oklahoma City." York continued: "Former President Clinton is the leading voice of this new narrative. In newspaper interviews, television appearances and a widely discussed speech Friday, Clinton said it's 'legitimate' to draw 'parallels to the time running up to Oklahoma City and a lot of the political discord that exists in our country today.' "
IBD: Clinton "portrayed the group as a bunch of Timothy McVeighs." An April 19 Investor's Business Daily editorial stated: "Those fighting unprecedented federal expansion appeal to constitutional principles. With Bill Clinton deployed to demonize the Tea Party movement, is it really the Constitution those in power fear?" It added: "There is something terrifying to Democratic leaders about the flavor and the force of the Tea Party, so on the eve of the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, they portrayed the group as a bunch of Timothy McVeighs." As an example, the editorial quoted from Clinton's CAP speech.
Tony Blankley: Clinton "smear[ed] [the] anti-tax, anti-big-government grass-roots efforts." In an April 20 Washington Times column, Tony Blankley wrote that "once again, Mr. Clinton went back to his once-trusty playbook and implied that this time, the Tea Party rhetoric might result in political violence." Blankley referred to comments Clinton made about the tea party on The Situation Room as his "latest attempt to smear anti-tax, anti-big-government grass-roots efforts."