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Media weren’t as quick to point out so-called ‘vitriolic’ rhetoric during 1990s congressional debate over welfare reform

Jeff Poor
Business & Media Institute
March 31, 2010

Since Obama”s health care legislation has been signed into law, the media have been in overdrive about the backlash – whether it”s been former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin”s “reload” metaphor “targeting” certain congressional districts or how Republican lawmakers have supposedly encouraged violence by their floor rhetoric.

Media personalities and Tea Party movement detractors have been agog – saying this is unprecedented rhetoric in our political culture, especially when it has come from members of Congress.  But that”s simply not true.

For one example, go back to 1995 during the welfare-reform debate. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who is now embroiled in a controversy as to whether a Tea Party protester hurled a racial epithet at him, employed the use of his own Nazi invective.

“Read the Republican contract,” Lewis said on the House floor on March 21, 1995. “They”re coming for our children. They”re coming for the poor. They”re coming for the sick, the elderly and the disabled.” Lewis”s comment paraphrased a famous passage by Rev. Martin Niemöller, who was in the resistance against the Nazis.

Back then, it didn”t get the same rise out of NBC “Today” host Matt Lauer, as it did on March 30, 2010, who in an interview asked President Barack Obama how he was going to overcome “the vitriol, the rhetoric, the sniping, the threats…” Instead, invoking the Holocaust on the House floor was just “fireworks” and “explosive” and an opening for then-President Bill Clinton to benefit politically according to Lauer.

“More fireworks are expected today when the House resumes its debate on welfare reform,” Lauer said on NBC”s March 22, 1995 “Today.” “On Tuesday, that debate was at times explosive and President Clinton hopes to benefit from that.”

Handling the coverage for NBC that day was Jim Miklaszewski, now the Pentagon correspondent for NBC News. Miklaszewski called Lewis” outburst “scoring some points” for Democrats, which is a less severe media reaction than for recent outbursts on the House floor.

“Whether it”s welfare reform or budget cuts, the Democrats are scoring some points and Republicans are taking a beating on the issue of fairness,” Miklaszewski said. “The House debate on welfare reform turned ugly when Democrat John Lewis all but compared the Republicans” plan to the Holocaust.”

According to Miklaszewski back then, it was an opportunity for the Democratic Party to play the populist card because there was a feeling the GOP may try to overreach with the majorities they had won just five months earlier.

“Outrage or not, Democrat attempts to paint Republicans as heartless budget cutters are beginning to hit home,” Miklaszewski said. “In a series of staged events and speeches, President Clinton”s accused Republicans of trying to cut taxes for the rich on the backs of the poor and it”s worked. Nearly half of the House Republicans have signed a letter asking that tax cuts for the wealthy now be scaled back. And the latest polls show that nearly two-thirds of Americans think Republicans will go too far to help the rich and hurt the poor.”

A decade later, the Republican”s push for welfare reform was deemed to be a success by The Wall Street Journal, despite the reporting of such from Miklaszewski. However, what were downplayed by NBC at the time were Lewis” remarks and played-up – how it would benefit Clinton.

“Now Republicans are in the process of regrouping but in the short-term, while they”re cutting up the budget, and sometimes themselves, President Clinton appears to be reaping the benefit,” Miklaszewski added.

The double standard wasn”t just relegated to NBC”s “Today,” back then. Also the March 22, 1995 broadcast of ABC”s “Good Morning America” had a similar take on Lewis” words, downplaying them and emphasizing how Republican policy efforts would effect aid to dependent children and school lunch and that it would require welfare recipients to find work, cut illegal aliens off from Medicaid, food stamps and welfare benefits, trimming $64.9 billion from welfare costs. ABC correspondent Bob Zelnick emphasized these social program implication and only mentioned Lewis” in passing.

“At times, the floor debate became emotional – one Democrat invoking the memory of Nazi Germany,” Zelnick said.

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