Parsing Patriotism

Defining the bounds of acceptable political rhetoric is child's play.

Child-development experts caution parents to choose their words carefully when admonishing their kids. Say your teenager is misbehaving in school and bullying classmates. You could say, "You're an ass" or "You're acting like an ass." Both insults are hurtful, but the latter will do less harm.

Vilify the behavior, experts say, not the child.

Now let's extend that analogy to another group of kids—Republican and Democratic politicians and the pundits who feed off them (yes, including me).

In 2008, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama criticized President George W. Bush for adding $4 trillion to the U.S. debt. "That's irresponsible," he said. "That's unpatriotic."

By focusing on the action rather than Bush as a person, Obama's formulation is the rough equivalent to a mother telling her child, "You're acting like an ass."

Similarly, I criticized Republicans in late 2013 for rooting for the Affordable Care Act to fail, adding on MSNBC'S "Daily Rundown": "And I frankly find that unpatriotic. The law's been passed. We should all be doing what we can to make it work."

I called the act of undermining a law passed by Congress and signed by the president unpatriotic. I did not call Republicans unpatriotic.

Still, that's not what many conservatives heard. My distinction made no difference to people who now think I questioned their patriotism.

I regret that. I need to be more careful with my words.

Go back to our parenting analogy. "Over time, children become who we tell them they are, so we have to be very careful with our words," says Stephen Gray Wallace, author and school psychologist who runs the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE). "It's one thing to identify the behavior. It's another to then ascribe your displeasure to a person."

"So you might say to a kid, 'I don't think you're working as hard as you could.' That's very different than, 'You're lazy.'"

Wallace says the political analogue on Obamacare would be for me to argue that America is at its best when we share responsibility for making laws work, even when we disagree with them. Obama might have spoken to the cross-generational value of fiscal sanity rather than call Bush's actions unpatriotic.

In politics and life, certain words inflame and should be avoided. Like "lazy" and "ass" for a parent—and "unpatriotic" for a president or pundit.

Another loaded word is "lie." I've used it on occasion to describe what I believe to be a knowing deception by members of the Bush administration to justify war in Iraq. I don't think Bush himself lied, but Judge Laurence H. Silberman recently quoted me making that accusation on FOX News.

I could quibble with the quote. I could say I misspoke. I could make the distinction between the Bush and his administration. But, again, I ask myself: Can I choose my words more carefully? Yes.

Which brings me to Rudy Giuliani. The former New York mayor and hero of 9/11 has numerous concerns about the direction Obama has taken the country. Whether you agree with Giuliani or not, no fair-minded person would deny him the right to strongly criticize Obama's stance toward Islamic extremism and his policies to fight ISIS.

Giuliani could have said Obama's actions and policies are endangering America or, stepping it up a notch, "The president's policies toward ISIS are unpatriotic."

Instead, he made it harshly personal. He jumped the rails: "I do not believe the president loves America."

Nobody knows what's in another person's heart. The presumption is that every American loves this country unless it can be proved otherwise—and there is a high bar for establishing treason.

The worst you can say about Obama is he's a bad president. Go ahead, say it. But don't say he's a bad American unless you're willing to be judged just as shallowly, even dangerously, by people who don't share your ideology.

Ask any parent: Our culture is coarsening. Civility is eroding. The Internet easily reinforces and amplifies hateful language. Nobody wants to live in a country where the singular measure of patriotism is that you agree with me.

Giuliani isn't a deplorable man. His words were.