Remember when polite society treated a politician’s use of the word “evil” as a sign that the old boy was dangerously lacking upstairs?
We saw it in 1983, when Ronald Reagan famously used the word in a speech to describe the Soviet empire. What a rube! New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis spoke for the smart set when he wondered what Soviet leaders must think: “What confidence can they have in the restraint of an American leader with such an outlook?”
We saw it again in 2002, when George W. Bush characterized North Korea, Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as an “axis of evil.” Tom Daschle, a Democrat and then Senate majority leader, warned that “we’ve got to be very careful with rhetoric of that kind”; former President Jimmy Carter called it “overly simplistic and counterproductive”; and comedian Will Ferrell parodied it on Saturday Night Live. Soon the phrase became acceptable only in the ironic sense—as in the Chris Fair cookbook titled “Cuisines of the Axis of Evil and Other Irritating States: A Dinner Party Approach to International Relations.”
With all this history, you would think Harry Reid (D., Nev.) had ample warning. Nevertheless, the Senate majority leader invoked the e-word himself last week at an energy conference in Las Vegas, where he accused those protesting President Barack Obama’s health-care proposals of being “evil mongers.” So proud was he of this contribution to the American political lexicon that he repeated it to a reporter the next day and noted the phrase was “an original.”
And then . . . nothing. No thundering rebuke from the New York Times. No outburst from Mr. Carter. In fact, it’s hard not to notice that the good and gracious people who instinctively recoil at words like “evil” or “un-American” (the preferred term of Mr. Reid’s counterpart in the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi) have all been silent.
But the people he was calling “evil” were opponents of the Democratic agenda.