Free speech got a loud boost from Hollywood on Wednesday. Jon Voight has responded to accusations from a critic sympathetic to the American Communist Party, who said the actor had used hate speech and threatened the well-being of President Obama during a recent appearance before Republicans in Washington.
Mr. Voight denied both charges, saying that those who speak out against the Obama administration are “demonized” and “attacked,” often with hate speech.
The Academy Award winner’s speech before the National Republican Congressional Committee on June 7 was both a political and cultural moment. As a paragon of a new Hollywood conservatism, Mr. Voight spoke bluntly of Republican strategies for 2012 and what he sees as the shortcomings of the Obama administration.
Yet the actor also ignited a public discussion about bitter partisan rivalries and what constitutes threatening language.
Toward the end of his speech, Mr. Voight lauded a list of 23 high-profile Republicans, saying “Let’s give thanks to them for staying on course to bring an end to this false prophet, Obama.”
The phrase “bring an end” was quickly caught in the echo chamber of news reports and Op-Eds in the aftermath, framed out of context.
Mr. Voight’s words brought criticisms from the New York Times, activists and bloggers. But they particularly troubled Teresa Albano, editor of the People’s Weekly World — a Chicago-based publication sympathetic to the Communist Party.
“I don’t want to equate what Jon Voight said as expressing a conservative opinion on politics. It went way beyond that. He made a threat against the president of the United States to a crowd at a GOP fundraiser and got a good response from the Senate minority leader and other powerful people. And that is scary,” Ms. Albano, editor of the publication, said at the time.
An editorial also said his speech was a form of “home-grown terrorism.”
Mr. Voight did not take the characterization lightly.
“America is a country of freedom — which means we, as American citizens, can voice our disagreements, if necessary, against a regime that seems to be destroying our great nation,” Mr. Voight told The Washington Times on Wednesday.
“But everyone who speaks out against Obama’s policies is immediately demonized and attacked in a way that becomes dangerous to them. Teresa Albano had targeted me with vicious, harmful lies. She is igniting hate against me. I never did, nor would I ever, threaten the president of the United States. I did say President Obama’s policies must fail because they are creating a socialist America,” he said.
Ms. Albano said in response that, “It sounds like Mr. Voight is standing by what he said. And I am standing by what I said,”
Mr. Voight also cited the magazine’s history.
“Ms. Albano is the editor of the People’s Weekly World, a paper published by the Communist Party USA. Originally, it was called the ‘Daily Worker,’ and it adhered to the Stalinist party line, from the time of Josef Stalin’s rise to power in the Soviet Union,” he said.
The publication’s editorials “constantly criticized any and all opponents of Stalinist socialism, including other communists, such as Leon Trotsky,” Mr. Voight said. “In 1945, Louis Budenz — who was managing editor and a self-admitted recruiter of agents for the Soviet NKVD, a forerunner of the KGB — was part of a spy ring in the U.S.”
The publication’s heritage had given Mr. Voight great pause.
“I find it very troubling that people like Teresa Albano, with her background, are backing President Obama’s policies and trying to defame my name,” he said.
In conservative and Republican circles, the speech Mr. Voight gave that night in early June is still reverberating. It inspired Op-Eds framed as a bold step toward the reinvention of the GOP as the party looks to 2012.
“The left will flail as they attempt to marginalize him and diminish his stellar reputation and award-winning career,” said Big Hollywood.com columnist Andrew Breitbart. “His analysis of how President Obama got elected will eventually be the accepted truth once sober and dispassionate journalists re-enter the mainstream media. I predict there will be more ‘Jon Voights’ in the next election cycle, thanks to his courageous, trailblazing spirit.”
But there are those who disapprove of the silver screen conservative.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman cited the speech in a June 12 Op-Ed called “The Big Hate” that accused certain conservatives and news organizations - including The Washington Times - of “mainstreaming right-wing extremism” systematically as far back as the Clinton administration.
A day later, Frank Rich, also an Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times, included Mr. Voight on a roster of “Obama haters’ silent enablers,” citing the now infamous “bring an end” phrase.
Mr. Rich observed: “This kind of rhetoric, with its pseudo-scriptural call to action, is toxic.”