Enough already with the Nazi analogies.
Invoking Adolph has been a noxious habit these last 10 years, a symptom of our debased political culture, and today the tactic seems more popular than ever. On the left and the right, Nazism is grist for the rhetorical mill. Politicians and commentators, to score points in the news cycle, continue to commit unspeakable acts of historical disproportion.
A few years back, for instance, Democratic Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen complained that the Republicans were lying about President Obama's health-care reform -- "a big lie, just like Goebbels." But Richard Land, a Baptist leader, saw things differently. He said Obama's health-care reform "is precisely what the Nazis did." Elsewhere, Hollywood director Rob Reiner said that the tea party was "selling fear and anger, and that's what Hitler sold." But Fox News chairman Roger Ailes had a different target. He said that the people who run National Public Radio "are, of course, Nazis. They have a kind of Nazi attitude."
This rote hyperbole, this disrespect for the genocidal victims of Nazism, has been common since the early George W. Bush era -- Republican Sen. Phil Gramm said in 2002 that a Democratic tax plan was "right out of Nazi Germany" -- but at least there was an upside. There was no talk of Nazis among our presidential candidates. The knee-jerk smears were confined to the lower strata.
I'm referring, of course, to the rhetorically challenged Rick Santorum. What follows are verbatim remarks that the surging candidate uttered last weekend. You may need to read it twice, because Santorum tends to ramble through the English language like bison trampling amber waves of grain. He was arguing that Americans need to be vigilant about Obama:
"But remember, the Greatest Generation, for a year and a half, sat on the sidelines while Europe was under darkness, where our closest ally, Britain, was being bombed and leveled, while Japan was spreading its cancer all throughout Southeast Asia. America sat from 1940, when France fell, to December of '41, and did almost nothing. Why? Because we're a hopeful people. We think: 'Well, you know, he'll get better. You know, he's a nice guy. I mean, it won't be near as bad as what we think. This'll be OK.' Oh yeah, maybe he's not the best guy -- and after a while, you found out things about this guy over in Europe, and he's not so good of a guy after all. 'But you know what? Why do we need to be involved? We'll just take care of our own problems. Just get our families off to work and our kids off to school, and we'll be OK.' "
Once you prune that verbal thicket, the point is clear. Obama is like that "guy over in Europe," the bad guy we ignored for too long; if we don't wise up, America's latter-day Hitler will conquer us.
Naturally, when Santorum was asked whether he had likened the president to Hitler, he replied: "No, of course not." He said: "It's a World War II metaphor. It's one I've used hundreds of times."
Indeed he has, and that's the problem. On the Senate floor seven years ago, during a debate about filibustering judicial nominees, he said Democrats were behaving like "the equivalent of Adolph Hitler in 1942." Jewish groups complained that "Once again, Nazi imagery was used in a political debate, where it has no place," and Santorum issued the standard apology.
His latest outburst is disgraceful not merely because he equated Obama with Hitler, but also because he botched the actual history. It is factually wrong to say that America "did almost nothing" prior to entering the war. Recognizing the Hitler threat, FDR goaded Congress to pass the Lend-Lease law, which allowed the United States to ship material to Hitler's enemies -- in today's dollars, $620 billion's worth. We also shipped destroyers to Britain. And contrary to Santorum's faux history, we never saw Hitler as a "nice guy" -- as evidenced by the numerous domestic boycotts of German goods during the '30s.
Newt Gingrich went the Nazi route last June, declaring during a debate that he would require Muslim Americans to sign a loyalty oath to work in his administration; after all, he said, "We did this in dealing with the Nazis" -- an apparent reference to America's postwar de-Nazification program in Germany. It seemed over the top to equate Muslim Americans with Nazis, but Newt touts himself as a historian.
I can see why Nazi analogies are popular. Politicians and commentators want to grab our attention, which explains why Glenn Beck, during his first 18 months on Fox News, reportedly invoked Adolph 147 times. But that tactic doesn't stimulate debate; it stifles it. Regardless of what we may think of Obama, or the tea party, or NPR, a Nazi "metaphor" (Santorum's word) dishonors the tens of millions who were beaten, tortured, bombed, and sent up the chimney. Facile comparisons have no place in our civic discourse. By continuing to make them, we dishonor our own politics.
Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to him at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org; blog: http://www.dickpolman.blogspot.com.