Gaffing all the way

Mona Charen
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Posted: Jan 09, 2004 12:00 AM

Need I say it? If a Republican had made the sort of joke Sen. Hillary Clinton made at a Missouri fund-raiser, it would have been front page news for days. Introducing a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, Sen. Clinton said, "He ran a gas station down in St. Louis." After the laughter subsided, she added, "No, Mahatma Gandhi was a great leader of the 20th century."

There was a minor league little dust up, and Clinton later apologized. But for some reason, the sensitivity police were remarkably quiescent for Mrs. Clinton. Boy, if that had been Tom Delay or Bill Frist, there would have been, to quote the title of the late Barbara Olsen's book on Hillary, "hell to pay."

Or consider the string of gaffes tumbling from the lips of Howard Dean. The only reason they haven't passed beneath the radar altogether is that Dean has competitors for the Democratic nomination.

But imagine if George Bush had been asked to name his favorite New Testament book and replied "Job." Job is, of course, an Old Testament book. Dean added, "But I don't like the way it ends. ... Some would argue, you know, in some of the books of the New Testament, the ending of the Book of Job is different. I think, if I'm not mistaken, there's one book where there's a more optimistic ending, which we believe was tacked on later."

The Book of Job (for an interesting interpretation see William Safire's "The First Dissident: The Book of Job in Today's Politics") recounts a bet between God and Satan. Satan challenges God, saying that Job is faithful only because he has been fortunate. So God strips Job of his wealth, his family and his health. Job questions God's justice. God challenges Job's capacity to judge Him. In the end, God restores all of Job's wealth and health, and he acquires a new family.

Now some people find God's unwillingness to justify Himself to man unsatisfying. He does not explain evil, far less injustice. But Dean seemed to be saying something different -- that the story itself had an unhappy ending. An hour after his original slip, Dean returned to the reporters he had entertained with his Bible scholarship and corrected the placement of the Book of Job. But he went on to say: "Many people believe that the original version of Job is the version where there is not a change, Job ends up completely destitute and ruined. It's been a long time since I've looked at this, but it's believed that was added much, much later."

Of course, anyone can forget a story after many years. But that Dania arrogance is what rankles. Note his pseudo-scholarship, "which we believe was tacked on later." Who is we? We Bible scholars? The Job gaffe came in the course of a conversation with reporters in which Dean was seeking to burnish his religious credentials. He spoke of his trip to Israel and his visit to the spot where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. "If you know much about the Bible, which I do," Dean explained, it was an "exceptional experience."

Feeling his way like a blind man in a maze, Dean is peppering his speeches with religious references these days, trying to overcome the perception that he is too secular to be elected.

"I'm pretty religious," he explained in Iowa recently. "I pray every day, but I'm from New England, so I just keep it to myself." Now one can never probe another human being's soul, particularly a stranger's. But Dean's comment reminds me of the quip National Review once published about Teddy Kennedy: "His religious principles are so private that he wouldn't dream of imposing them on anyone, including himself."

It is not for us to judge Howard Dean's piety. That is between him and the Almighty. But this newfound piety he's been road testing is downright comical. It's like he's decided to hire Jesus in preparation for Super Tuesday. "I'm still learning a lot about faith and the South, and how important it is," he told The New York Times.

Well, let's just say that most Southern Christians wouldn't have left the Episcopal Church, as Dean did, over a bike path dispute. And people who take their faith seriously don't usually marry someone of another faith. And many Christians can be found in church on Sundays -- even in New England, Dr. Dean!