The president of the United States really needs a minder. Or at least an aide who'll always tell him when the microphone that's catching his every embarrassing word is open, and broadcasting his buddy-buddy chitchat with some foreign leader to the whole country. And the whole world.
Mr. Obama is bad about that. Not too long ago he was sympathizing with the French president about what a pain both found Israel's pushy president to be. Nothing like having a troublesome little ally who can't see the Big Picture, and raises a petty matter like its own survival when the Great Powers have so much more to think about. Especially the re-election of their leaders.
Mr. Chamberlain and M. Daladier must have felt a similar irritation with Eduard Benes, the president of little Czechoslovakia in 1938, who was such an irritant at Munich conference in 1938, much like his whole country, which would vanish soon enough. The nerve: standing in the way of Peace in Our Time.
No problem. M. Benes would soon be gone. Along with his troublesome little country. How dare he stand in the way of their grand vision!
One can only imagine the contempt the conference's leaders, including Herr Hitler, must have felt for that obnoxious little man and his obnoxious little country. I say only imagine because there was no open mike around to record their cynicism the time.
But in the case of Barack Obama, one need not imagine. Somebody forgot to turn off the microphone the other day at that grand international conference in Seoul, which was supposedly about international security. It left some of us feeling decidedly less secure after overhearing a conversation between the American president and his Russian counterpart. Their conversation, with the whole world listening in, turned out to be less than secure.
Mr. Obama was heard telling Comrade Medvedev -- or maybe it's Gospodin Medvedev in this new but still much-the-same Russia -- that he needs more time to work out some of the issues with this country's missile defense system in Europe because a presidential election is pending in this country. So he was asking the Russians not to press him on the matter. For now.
Implicit in the American president's request was the understanding that he wouldn't want to cave to Russian demands before the election, since Americans have grown a little leery of appeasement since Munich. Or as our president confided to the Soviet -- excuse me, Russian -- leader: "This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility."
After his re-election, anything goes. Like maybe his country's missile defense.
The vocabulary has changed since Munich, appeasement having come into bad odor, but the operating principle is pretty much unchanged -- even if it's now known as flexibility.
For just a minute the slippery little Chicago pol inside the Great American Leader, the prophet of Hope and Change, was revealed for the world to hear. Such a description may be unfair -- to Chicago pols. Whatever can be said about the Daleys, they never left any microphones on to record their machinations, not to my knowledge or any prosecutor's.
We the mere People aren't supposed to notice the man behind the curtain at these Oz-like international conferences, but how could anyone help listening?
What some of us had long suspected, but didn't dare assert, now has been confirmed by the highest source. In his own words. In his own voice. Off-guard moments may speak louder than any formal address.
Dmitri Medvedev, and the rest of the Russian establishment, doubtless know whom they they're dealing with, and have known even before this president announced he was resetting American policy when it comes to our friends in Moscow.
President Medvedev certainly didn't sound surprised. "I understand," he replied. He assured the American president he would pass the word to the real power in this new/old Russia: "I will transmit this information to Vladimir and I stand with you."
No doubt, the Russian meant to be assuring. But this conversation was anything but assuring to some of us back home -- those of us who can remember where appeasement has a way of leading.
As for Russia's once and future tsar, V. Putin, no doubt he'll be assured. Much too assured.
The administration's bad week only began in Seoul. Back in Washington, in the Supreme Court of the United States, to be specific, the president's Signature Achievement, the great new American health-care system, was running into a little problem called the Constitution of the United States. At least in the eyes of some justices of the court, especially the one supposed to be the new Sandra Day O'Connor, the new swing man/weathervane. The questions from His Honor Anthony Kennedy were pointing to some serious doubts about the new law's constitutionality.
Remember when Nancy Pelosi, who was still speaker of the House at the time, was asked if she was concerned about the constitutional grounds of this brave new health system? "Are you serious?" she replied, which was her way of not replying. It turns out the Supreme Court of the United States may be serious indeed.
How seriously the administration's arguments in defense of its crowning achievement can be taken is another question. Monday, its solicitor-general was telling the court that Obamacare's penalties are not a tax that had to be collected before the court could uphold it. But by Tuesday, it had become a tax well within the government's power to regulate trade under the Constitution's commerce clause.
So when is a tax not a tax? Answer: When it suits the administration's purposes that day.
The advocate arguing the case for Obamacare before the distinguished justices is a fine lawyer. It's just that the law he's trying to defend is not so fine.
But what's most impressive about the administration's legal case -- and its foreign policy -- is not its flexibility. It's the cynicism of it. It's the no-longer-hidden contempt for the American people, who aren't supposed to notice these transparent little tricks. Even when the microphone is on. Even when this administration's constitutional arguments change daily.