It isn't often that I suffer from moral confusion, but the reaction to Vice President Dick Cheney's caustic remark to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has me perplexed.
To summarize for those who have been away from the planet, Cheney delivered a popular epithet (see "The Sopranos") in response to Leahy's attempt at camaraderie following his "questioning of my character," as the vice president put it in an interview with Fox's Neil Cavuto. Cheney took umbrage at the phony Washington practice of personal attack on a fellow politician, followed by a seemingly kind gesture as if the attack had never been made.
Democrats were quick to pounce. Some noted this is an administration that is trying to muzzle shock jock Howard Stern from using the same language that Cheney employed. Others bemoaned the loss of "civility" in Washington, which they date from the day Newt Gingrich arrived in Congress in 1978 and Republicans began to behave as if they did not have to be forever content with their minority status.
In a week of morally conflicting messages, former President Bill Clinton began hawking a $35 book for which he received an advance of about $10 million and in which he speaks about the extramarital affairs he had with two of his many women - Monica Lewinsky and Gennifer Flowers.
Then we learn that Illinois Republican Senate candidate Jack Ryan is withdrawing from the race after a previously sealed divorce court file was released. In it, Ryan's ex-wife (actress Jeri Ryan) accused him of taking her to sex clubs and demanding they have sex while others watched. He denied it.
Clinton does it with women not his wife in the Arkansas governor's mansion and the Oval Office and gets rich. Ryan allegedly wants to do it in public with his wife, but doesn't, and is forced out of his Senate race. I'm confused.
Hitler is also making a comeback this political season and not just in the road tour of the Broadway show, "The Producers" ("Springtime for Hitler" is its best known song). The Bush campaign Web site is showing pictures of former Vice President Al Gore, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and filmmaker Michael Moore. They are shouting. These clips are interspersed with sound bites of der Fuhrer in full rhetorical rant. But wait. These images aren't just a Bush commercial disparaging Democrats. The Hitler image is from an earlier commercial (now removed) on the MoveOn.org Web site, which opposes the president.
Gore flirted again with the Hitler theme last week in a speech at Georgetown University's Law Center. There, he accused President Bush of "intentionally misleading" and telling "outright falsehoods" (why isn't he as candid as Cheney?). Gore compared the president to Richard Nixon, King George III, Julius Caesar and Enron's Ken Lay and then followed with this whiff of Deutschland Uber Alles: "The administration works closely with a network of rapid responders, a group of digital brown shirts who work to pressure reporters and their editors." Sieg Heil! And when Gore and Clinton did the same thing in 1992, it was called "The War Room." A movie was made about it, and its "stars," James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, now have their own TV shows.
While I do not endorse the use of crude language in public places (such as the Washington Post, which printed Cheney's remark unedited), we would all be better served if we knew what politicians really think. Who believes that "my good friend" baloney congresspersons always say to each other? Criticism doesn't have to be crude or a barnyard epithet. It can be creative, such as this remark by Harold Ickes Sr. about Gen. Douglas MacArthur: "MacArthur is the type of man who thinks that when he gets to heaven, God will step down from the great white throne and bow him into His vacated seat." The irascible columnist H.L. Mencken once said of Franklin D. Roosevelt, "If he became convinced tomorrow that coming out for cannibalism would get him the votes he surely needs, he would begin fattening a missionary in the White House backyard come Wednesday."
John Adams called Thomas Jefferson "a slur upon the moral government of the world" and Gen. George McClellan said Abraham Lincoln was "nothing more than a well-meaning baboon."
A little more candor in politics could have an additional benefit. It might improve voter turnout because more people would believe politicians are expressing their true feelings and not saying things generated by pollsters and focus groups.