Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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October 30, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

CRIMINALIZING POLITICS....Is the indictment of Scooter Libby an example of "criminalizing politics"? Who invented that phrase, anyway?

I was curious, so I did a Nexis search. Oddly enough, the earliest references turn out to be not from the United States, but from India in the early 1980s in a context that's exactly the opposite of how American conservatives use it today. Back then, the Calcutta Telegraph was complaining not about politicians being turned into criminals via partisan prosecutions, but about thugs and killers taking over politics during the prime ministership of Indira Gandhi:

Criminals of the most heinous disposition smugglers, murderers and black-marketeers have been contesting elections and what is truly tragic, winning. The criminalization of politics has assumed a frightening shape.

But how about the origin of the phrase in its current context as used by American conservatives? Here it gets a little hazier.

The original expression was "criminalization of policy differences," a reference to the prosecutions of the Iran-Contra plotters. But who coined it? Who made it famous? Here's a rundown:

  • The first reference I can find is in an op-ed by Paul Craig Roberts that ran in various newspapers on July 6, 1988.

  • Later that year, Peter Brimelow credited the phrase to Oliver North, but didn't provide a source or a date.

  • It was subsequently popularized by Gordon Crovitz of the Wall Street Journal, who spoke about it at an AEI seminar and later wrote a paper on the subject for the Heritage Foundation.

  • Shortly before he left office, George Bush used the phrase in his pardon of several of the Iran-Contra plotters, saying that he found it to be a "profoundly troubling development in the political and legal climate of our country."

But when did the phrase morph into the "criminalization of politics"? Crovitz appears to have been the first to use it that way, in a paper called, appropriately, "The Criminalization of Politics," collected in 1989 in The Imperial Congress: Crisis in the Separation of Powers. Pat Buchanan and a few others picked it up after that, but then, unsurprisingly, conservatives mostly dropped it during the Clinton years aside from the occasional embarrassed claim that Clinton had it coming because, after all, Democrats started the whole thing back in the Reagan administration.

In the past couple of months, of course, it's come back with a vengeance, as Fox News anchors have settled on it as the sound bite du jour to describe the current travails of Tom DeLay, Bill Frist, Scooter Libby, and the rest of the conservative establishment. Then, in the Weekly Standard last week, editor Bill Kristol memorably transformed it into "Criminalizing Conservatives," a breathtakingly calculated act of political hypocrisy from a magazine that, from the moment of its birth in 1995, was practically slavering in its pursuit of Bill Clinton.

At any rate, it's a phrase with a fine conservative pedigree, so I think we can expect to hear a lot more of it. What's more, since it was the stated reason for George Bush Sr. to pardon his pals in the Iran-Contra affair, who knows? Maybe George Bush Jr. will follow family tradition and use it as an excuse to pardon his pals in the Valerie Plame affair, whoever they might turn out to be. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 8:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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