NEW YORK — Every once in a while, you have to feel sorry for Mitt Romney.
One of his surrogates during his unsuccessful 2008 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination was Dr. John Willke, the controversial doctor who inspired Missouri Congressman Todd Akin’s now infamous belief that a raped woman is unlikely to become pregnant. Moreover, the good doctor is inconveniently sticking to his guns. A woman being raped, he told The New York Times, “is frightened, tight and so on. And sperm, if deposited in her vagina, are less likely to be able to fertilize. The tubes are spastic.”
According to the Times, Dr. Michael Greene, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School, dismisses Willke’s theories as “just nuts.”
Another 2008 Romney supporter was Joe Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff charged by the U.S. Justice Department with discrimination and racial profiling who is also one of the foremost proponents of the equally wacky proposition that President Obama was not born in Hawaii, is therefore not a naturally born U.S. citizen, and consequently is ineligible to serve as president. Arpaio believes the president’s birth certificate to be a forgery, and it appears that nothing under the sun can convince him otherwise.
There are lots more birthers out there, including most prominently Donald Trump, all driven by an irrational animus toward the president. Understandably, Gov. Romney does not want to needlessly antagonize them. They, too, may well be nuts, but a vote is a vote irrespective of the citizen’s IQ or emotional equilibrium.
Still, it was disturbing to hear Gov. Romney’s quip, “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate.” To be sure, he subsequently dismissed his comments on the CBS Evening News as an attempt to “have a little humor” in the campaign. “I’ve said throughout the campaign and before, there’s no question where [President Obama] was born,” he explained. “He was born in the U.S.”
The problem, of course, is that the generally humorless birthers were certain to interpret the “birth certificate” comment not as a joke but as an indication that Gov. Romney was sympathetic to their cause. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd described it as “a bat’s squeak calling to the basest emotions.”
Last year, I observed in these pages that Gov. Romney “does not come across in any way as mean-spirited,” and quoted him as telling the Values Voters Summit that, “We should remember that decency and civility are values, too.”
Unfortunately, as I have also noted here more recently, there is nothing decent or civil in attempts to depict President Obama as somehow un-American, and to date Gov. Romney has not done nearly enough to dissociate himself from the nastier, unquestionably mean-spirited personal attacks on President Obama that emanate from others in the Republican/conservative camp.
This goes far beyond the birthers who could be dismissed as part of the loony element of the electorate. Accusing President Obama of espousing “some phony theology” (Rick Santorum), charging that he “wants to destroy capitalism” and “nurtures a hatred for the white man” (conservative Christian radio host Bryan Fischer), referring to him as the “food-stamp president” (Newt Gingrich), alleging that his administration has been infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood (Michele Bachmann), proclaiming that “He’s just not an American” (Rep. Mike Coffman, R.-Colo.) and that he “hates this country” (Rush Limbaugh), denouncing him as an “anti-Christian, anti-religious bigot” (conservative radio host and columnist Jeffrey T. Kuhner), calling him a Muslim who “hates the U.S.” (Hank Williams Jr.), and repeatedly likening him to Adolf Hitler (again, Rush Limbaugh) are part and parcel of an insidious campaign of personal destruction that cannot be countenanced in the American body politic of the 21st century.
The Jewish community has also not been immune from this type of virulent, irresponsible and utterly reprehensible verbiage. In January of this year, the owner of the Atlanta Jewish Times was forced to resign as the paper’s publisher for suggesting that one response to the Iranian nuclear threat might be for “U.S.-based Mossad agents to take out a president deemed unfriendly to Israel in order for the current vice president to take his place.” Rabbi Dov Lior, the chief rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, called President Obama a “kushi,” a derogative Hebrew term for a dark-skinned person of African descent, and likened him to Haman, the archenemy of the Jewish people in the Book of Esther. Paul Eidelberg, a far-right American-Israeli political scientist, has written, “Obama is Israel’s most insidious enemy” who “shares the Muslim objective to wipe Israel off the map.” In the same vein, conservative radio host Mark Levin declared earlier this summer that “Obama hates Israel and he’s demonstrated it time and time again.”
Never mind that the Obama administration recently allocated $70 million over and above the approximately $3 billion in annual security assistance that Israel receives from the United States to fund Israel’s Iron Dome defense system that helps protect Israelis from rocket attacks launched against them from Gaza.
Never mind that no less an authority than Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said publicly that, “I can hardly remember a better period of support, American support and backing and cooperation and similar strategic understanding of events than what we have right now.” Never mind that President Obama has consistently and fiercely championed Israel’s cause at the United Nations and in the international arena.
Rigorous debate and strongly expressed differences of opinion are central to our way of life. Hate mongering in any form, however, is never a permissible political strategy. As the 2012 presidential campaign shifts into high gear, I fervently hope that we can all agree, regardless of our political affiliations, that the demonization of the president of the United States, or of anyone else for that matter, will be neither tolerated nor rewarded.
(Menachem Z. Rosensaft teaches about the law of genocide and World War II war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities.)