Jonah Goldberg

I think it was Adlai Stevenson who said that America can choke on a gnat but swallow tigers whole. We've just defeated the rabid tiger of Saddam Hussein and, while celebrating the victory, we're gagging over one of the most insignificant controversies in a long while. I'm referring, of course, to the "scandal" of President Bush landing on an aircraft carrier.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who over his career has led numerous fights to sluice billions upon billions of dollars out of taxpayers' pockets and into the public trough for various liberal programs, is now demanding an investigation into how much the president's photo-op cost.

Alas, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., has spent so much taxpayer money on personal porcine priorities he could not possibly complain about the costs. If he had, his fellow senators would have leapt under their desks to take cover from the Divine Lightning Bolt that surely would have struck him for such rank hypocrisy. So, the good senator, who often compares himself to the great Roman orators, went a different route, prattling on about Bush's "self-congratulatory" and "flamboyant showmanship."

This presents one of those terrible conflicts we all face from time to time: Do you take an argument seriously on its own terms, or do you cynically say this is all political hoo-hah? My instinct says it's all hoo-hah.

But, then again, what's nonsense to some is important to others. For example, in 1988, George H.W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis in part because Dukakis is Greek for "fashioned by the gods to lose national elections," but also because Bush successfully used symbolic issues - the Pledge of Allegiance, for example - to bludgeon Dukakis.

In 1996, President Clinton won in part because Bob Dole seemed like the sort of old man who follows you around his store making sure you don't steal anything, but also because Bill Clinton came out in favor of such symbolic issues as school uniforms. Conservatives whined that presidents have nothing to do with school uniforms, but Clinton and his adviser Dick Morris reasoned that such small-bore values issues resonated with voters.

In short, symbolism matters because -duh -symbols symbolize larger issues.

So I guess it makes sense to take this whole fight seriously for a moment. Yes, the Democrats are right. This was a photo-op. Of course it was a photo-op, and the White House was silly to pretend that Bush had to visit the USS Abraham Lincoln in a S-3B Viking jet, wearing a flight suit while the aircraft carrier was moving.

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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