Ronald Reagan and the Casual Invocation of ‘Lynching’

In March 1983, Anne Gorsuch Burford, the chief administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, fired Rita Lavelle on charges of having abused the $1.6 billion Superfund that the US Congress had earmarked for cleaning up chemical spills and hazardous waste dumps. Allegedly, Superfund monies were being steered to Republican officeholders seeking relection. A few weeks later, Burford, along with twenty other EPA employees, resigned after Congress cited her for contempt in refusing to hand over Superfund records.

The US president in March 1983 was Ronald Reagan. His response to the news included the following line: ‘This whole business has been a lynching by headline hunting Congressmen’.

In September 1983, Secretary of the Interior James Watt resigned. In responding to critics of a Watt-created commission, he had said that his commission included ‘every kind of mixture you can have. I have a black, I have a woman, two Jews and a cripple.  And we have talent.’

The US president had a response for this resignation too. He admitted Watt had ‘an unfortunate way of putting his foot in his mouth’ but then went on to insist Watt was ‘really the victim of a two and half-year lynching.’

In The Age of Reagan: A History 1974-2008 (Harper Perennial, 2009)pages 169-170 of which serves as source for the notes above–Sean Wilentz notes that ‘Reagan often referred to press and congressional investigations as lynchings.’ (The James Watt story is taken from: Douglas Brinkley, ed., The Reagan Diaries (New York 2007), 185, entry for October 8-10, 1983.) These two instances appear as part of a distinct pattern of speech in describing political adversity.

Comparing violent, murderous events to considerably more benign activities is a fairly common rhetorical strategy among journalists and politicians alike. The most common and widespread instance of this is the almost constant invocation of martial metaphors and language when talking about sports. In more recent times, that natural killer of hundreds of thousands, the tsunami, has been routinely compared to almost anything that is sudden, widespread, or remotely threatening. Perhaps you have heard of the tsunami of election commercials which await us in the next few weeks? Or the tsunami of Christmas shopping commercials which will inundate and engulf us? Perhaps modern life drenches us with a tsunami of ennui?

Still, even having accounted for the widespread deployment of this bit of verbal pyrotechnics, it still seems incontrovertible that only a ‘special’ talent could use, as part of his political linguistic arsenal, a word that has such a gruesomely violent history in the associated domain of interest . It also, of course, requires that political leader, in the modern age of mass media coverage, to be surrounded by incompetent media advisers. And lastly, and most depressingly of all, it perhaps requires that leader to be afforded an almost bizarre tolerance by his electorate, one perhaps not so attuned to the history invoked by the word in question.

Note: Next week, the Wolfe Institute of Humanities at Brooklyn College will be hosting Sean Wilentz as its 2012 Robert Hess Scholar in Residence. A full week of panels, talks and round-tables is planned; the program for the week is now available. Please contact me if you have any questions and/or are interested in attending.