Sometimes the best political strategy is simply to stand still and allow yourself to be attacked by the wrong guy.
We are witness to such a phenomenon as George Bush -cheered, regaled and not-bad in his Top Gun duds -finds his form-fitting aviator pants leg in the clenched teeth of Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., playing the Taco Bell Chihuahua to Bush's Rin Tin Tin.
In a curt letter Tuesday to the U.S. comptroller general, Waxman asked that the Government Accounting Office "provide a full accounting of the costs associated with the president's trip," referring to Bush's carrier landing to greet returning troops on the USS Abraham Lincoln.
Waxman daringly noted that the dramatic arrival "had clear political overtones," whereupon an entire nation gasped in shock and awe. How dare the president engage in political overtones. What next? Posing for pictures with soldiers and sailors?
Thank goodness we have gimlet-eyed legislators keeping a watch out for such blatant publicity stunts.
Nah, this is too easy, too good to be true for the Bush administration, too perfect a set-up. Republicans hoping to exploit the MOAPO -mother of all photo ops -of a vindicated leader in celebratory hoist could do no better than Waxman as Bush's critic.
But then, it does get better. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., also swooped in to suggest that Bush's carrier landing was used as "an advertising backdrop for a presidential political slogan."
Wha'! I don't know about you, but that kind of insight gives me goose bumps. The incisiveness. The scalpel-like precision.
As one-two punches go, the Byrd-Waxman sally was a bad day for nerds everywhere. Performing a whiney duet of the desperate, they managed to evoke images of skinny boys studying the quarterback's swagger for clues on cool. It's almost as painful to watch them contort in envy as it must have been for them to watch Bush, a stud muffin no matter what his other flaws, arriving on a testosterone bullet to the cheers of 5,000 sailors.
Not to mention the living room applause of an appreciative nation not nearly as perplexed as pleased by the pageantry clearly intended. Who cares if it was a photo op? It's our photo op, which the other envy-boys around the world also got to see.
But, but, Bush's jet taxi cost $100,000 in hard-earned taxpayer money, says Waxman. Yes, it's true. The president could have arrived by helicopter, as Waxman and even the White House noted. But Bush didn't want to. A trained jet pilot, he wanted to come by jet, to make a splash (figuratively), to seize the moment for spectacular and memorable effect.
Which is of course precisely why Waxman and Byrd hated it. It was spectacular and memorable. Even some who don't care for Bush or his policies confessed to finding the carrier landing riveting and satisfying. We like pageantry and ritual in this country. We like big pictures and special effects. So it cost a little more than mugging a hug with a dying AIDS baby. Does anybody really care about the price tag?
Waxman, whose collected letters someday will require a new wing added to the Library of Congress, had to work hard to find something politically sinister in Bush's landing. He cited conflicting accounts of why the president needed to arrive by jet, noting that when the carrier was anchored closer to shore than originally anticipated, Bush could have arrived "less theatrically."
True. Next? And then came this from Byrd, who characterized Bush's speech as "an affront to the Americans killed or injured in Iraq." He said our military forces "deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, and not used as stage props to embellish a presidential speech."
That loud "kerplush" you heard was the sound of Byrd's hollow words dropping into the deep well of ignored harrumphs. The bitter truth that has sourpusses frozen in an uncharming pucker is simply this: The military loves Bush, loved his arrival on the Abraham Lincoln, loved the flight suit, the jet, the noise, the drama, the speech and the quintessentially all-American moment.
By attacking the right guy at the wrong time, Byrd and Waxman not only have harmed their cause, but aided the Bush ascendancy. For now the president is not only a daring jet rider, he's a victim of empty criticism. The hero-victim doesn't have to do anything but stand still -and no doubt fight the urge to say, "Yo quiero Waxman and Byrd."