Lawrence O'Donnell's Offensive Interview with Herman Cain

Cable news reached a new low when the MSNBC host invoked Vietnam veterans and dead civil rights marchers to insult the GOP candidate

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Despite all the hours of Bill O'Reilly that I've watched, the unfortunate experience of hearing Mark Levin at his worst, and listening to Rush Limbaugh for more hours than I can count, I've never been more disgusted by a broadcaster's interview with a presidential candidate than I was Thursday night, when Lawrence O'Donnell repeatedly hectored candidate Herman Cain in a disrespectful way. As a cable news host, he had every right to ask the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza tough questions. Given the opportunity to interview Cain tomorrow, I'd press him about what he means when he says that many black voters are brainwashed into voting for Democrats, confront him about his changing position on the wisdom of assassinating Anwar al-Awlaki, and challenge his factually inaccurate ideological boilerplate about protests against Wall Street banks.

What I'd avoid is the smugness O'Donnell displayed throughout his long conversation with Cain, the focus on creating idiotic gotcha moments rather than drawing out or clarifying Cain's positions -- is there any respectable reason to ask a presidential candidate to respond to a Hank Williams Jr. appearance on Fox & Friends? -- and more than anything else, the several especially objectionable questions O'Donnell posed that were offensive even by the standards of cable news.

Where to begin? It's difficult to choose, but my jaw dropped farthest when O'Donnell demanded, "Mr. Cain, what are you grateful to this nation for? You served in the Navy. They paid for you to go get a graduate degree while you were in the Navy. Are you grateful to the government for doing that? Are you grateful to this government for passing the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act?" In fairness to O'Donnell, Cain said that he was grateful, but I was put off by the bullying inquiry into gratefulness to country, expecting any moment that O'Donnell would start demanding to know why Cain wasn't wearing a flag lapel pin; and when O'Donnell then mentioned the civil rights laws, I thought to myself, Are blacks who grew up in that era and witnessed the epic struggle for equality really supposed to be 'grateful' that the government finally granted the rights that were their due as humans, and that they ought to have had all along?

The exchange was also notable because O'Donnell got his facts wrong. As Cain would politely point out, "Let's get the record straight, I didn't serve in the Navy, I was a civil servant. I started working for the Department of the Navy as a mathematician and ballistics analyst." The tenor of the interview is perhaps best understood by looking at how O'Donnell responded to being corrected.

O'Donnell: I misread your book and its references to the Navy. I thought you served in the Navy. You're now telling me you didn't. Can you explain how you avoided military service during the Vietnam War and during the draft, and why you should be commander in-chief if you did successfully avoid service during the war that came during what would have been your war years? After avoiding the Vietnam War, why should you be commander-in-chief?

Cain: Lawrence, you know, do you stay up nights coming up with the wording of these questions?

O'Donnell: Just thought of that one now when I heard you didn't serve in the Navy or the military during Vietnam. How did you do that?

Cain: You say, "How did I avoid the Vietnam War?" I wasn't trying to avoid the Vietnam War! Here's what happened, Lawrence. I was working in a critical area called exterior ballistics. I worked on something called rocket assisted projectiles for the Department of the Navy. It was my local board in Atlanta, Georgia, that told me, "We would rather have you continue to do that analytical work, to help the Navy, rather than us draft you." Secondly, when they had the lottery, I made myself available. The year that they had the lottery for the draft, they did not draft me because they didn't get to my number. So I think that's a poor choice of words on your part to say that I "avoided" the Vietnam War. I made myself available to my country, and they did not draft me. The rest of the time I was serving my country in a critical role called exterior ballistic analysis. So I am offended with your choice of words in terms of what I was doing during the Vietnam War.

You'd think that would conclude the subject.

Incredibly, O'Donnell followed up by saying, "I am offended on behalf of all the veterans of the Vietnam War who joined, Mr. Cain. The veterans who did not wait to be drafted, like John Kerry, who joined. They didn't sit there and wait to find out what their draft board was going to do. They had the courage to join, and to go, and to fight that war. What prevented you from joining? And what gives you the feeling, after having made that choice, you should be the commander in chief?"

Obviously, this is an absurd standard to apply, and it is difficult to imagine the Vietnam veterans that O'Donnell so opportunistically invokes being upset that a man of their generation didn't enlist after being told by his draft board that his work for the Navy was where he could contribute most.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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