A Tale of Two Janets: The Right Takes Aim at Napolitano

| Mon May 4, 2009 4:04 PM EDT

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has become the woman the right loves to hate--to the point that bloggers, talk show hosts, and right-wing groups are jumping aboard a new "dump Janet" movement.

Anyone old enough to remember the the Clinton administration should have seen this one coming. Bill Clinton’s Attorney General, Janet Reno, was second only to Hillary on the list of conservatives’ most-loathed women–and for the far right, Reno quickly moved into the #1 slot after the Waco debacle, which took place during the first year of her tenure. Waco provided fuel for radical far-right movements for years to come: It aided the growth of the Militia Movement, and was cited by Timothy McVeigh as a reason for the Oklahoma City bombing, which took place on its second anniversary.

Janet Napolitano’s transgressions are hardly in the same league as Waco. But there’s a kind of perverse symmetry in the fact that it is a half-baked, ill-timed report on “right-wing extremism” that's helped cement Napolitano’s status as the most-reviled woman in the new Democratic administration. The April 7 Department of Homeland Security report warned law enforcement officials that the economic crisis, plus the election of a black president, were likely to aid the recruiting efforts of far-right groups. 

As I’ve written before, the report was dangerously vague and speculative, and should make civil libertarians of all stripes nervous. But it was aimed at the violent, radical far-right movement, not at mainstream or even hard-core conservatives. Yet it became a rallying point for right-wing pundits and talk radio hosts, and was brandished at ”tea parties” later that month. And at the center of it all was Janet Napolitano.

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After the story of the DHS report broke, the Drudge Report featured a picture of Napolitano above the line, “SHE IS WATCHING YOU.” Within a week, Newsmax was reporting on Republicans who had “taken to the House floor to criticize Napolitano.” The ever-present Michele Bachmann asked: “Has this homeland security secretary gone absolutely stark raving mad?” and said of Napolitano: ”She needs to come before Congress. She needs to answer a few questions.” Texas’s Michael Burgess said her actions reflected “the tactics of tyrannical governments from Red China to Venezuela.” 

Further to the right, the attacks were even more vicious (and often racist, misogynistic, and homophobic), and more explicit about the Reno parallel. The blog Theodore’s World, which proclaims itself a “PC Free Zone” recently featured side-by-side head shots of the two Janets–Napolitano and Reno–with the caption “Fascist Wench’s” (sic). The whacked-out Plain Truth blog cited Waco (for which it says Reno and Bill Clinton should be hanged) and asked: “Is Janet Napolitano in some danse macabre with Janet Reno to beat her bloody record and up the ante by aiming at veterans and others whose patriotism would never be questioned by sane people?”

Then came the swine flu outbreak. Right-wingers, already unhappy with Napolitano for her perceived softness on illegal immigration, now accused her of placing U.S. lives at risk by refusing to close the Mexican border. This offered them an opportunity to simultaneously attack two of their favorite targets: Napolitano and immigrants–as talk radio’s Michael Savage did last week:

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Make no mistake about it: Illegal aliens are the carriers of the new strain of human-swine avian flu from Mexico…If we lived in saner times, the borders would be closed immediately…[C]ould this be a terrorist attack through Mexico? Could our dear friends in the radical Islamic countries have concocted this virus and planted it in Mexico knowing that you, Janet Napolitano, would do nothing to stop the flow of human traffic from Mexico?…[T]hey are a perfect mule–perfect mules for bringing this virus into America. But you wouldn’t think that way, would you? Because you are incapable of protecting America’s homeland, Napolitano.

One web site accused Napolitano of “race pandering instead of closing the border to swine flu”; another  offered a simple solution to both problems: “dump Janet in Mexico.”

Dumping Janet is now a popular topic in the conservative blogosphere, where Napolitano has earned several nicknames–including “J-No” and “Nappy.” There are web sites,  several online petitions, and various other campaigns demanding the DHS secretary’s resignation, as well as a couple of lawsuits against her.

Perhaps the most ironic things about these attacks is that Janet Napolitano–like Janet Reno before her–is one of the more conservative members of the administration. (How else could she have been elected governor of Arizona by an almost 2-1 margin?) She is known for being  relatively tough on crime,  drug trafficking, and even immigration–though she prefers harsh penalties against employers, rather than undocumented workers. She also believes the right to bear arms is “fundamental to the liberty interests of all Americans."

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