The witless challenge the wits

Suzanne Fields
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Posted: Jan 19, 2004 12:00 AM

We must wish Al Franken well. Heaven knows the left needs all the help it can get in its search for a place on the radio dial, but Al is going unarmed into a battle of wits and humor against Rush Limbaugh.

"We're trying to give people an alternative," he told The Washington Post. "We want to provide a change in the political landscape and a beacon of hope for ordinary Americans who work hard and play by the rules." That sounds like an appeal to the dittoheads, and they've already got Rush.

Conservatives have been winning the culture war because the soldiers of the left are firing mostly blanks. Comedian Dennis Miller, who's getting a new talk show on CNBC, tells why he slid to the right. "Well, can you blame me?" he asks the New York Times. "One of the biggest malfeasances of the left right now is the mislabeling of (Bush as) Hitler."

Mocking the horrors of the Holocaust has become a cottage industry in the dark corners of the anti-Semitic world, but who could have believed that in 60 years references to the Nazis would be played for laughs. An anti-Bush Web site parodies Time magazine's Person of the Year, pasting a swastika on the arm of an American soldier.

MoveOn.org, an extremist advocacy group, held a contest for anti-Bush television commercials to be broadcast during State of the Union week, and posted two entries that likened the president to Hitler, and the ritual apologies for letting the Hitler ads slips through the "screening process" had hardly cooled before they stepped into their own waste again at an anti-Bush rally in Manhattan.

Comedian Margaret Cho laced her Hitler analogy with obscenities that aren't printable in a family newspaper (and would make a public toilet blush). She professed wonderment over why the Republican National Committee was so angry over two entries: "They're like looking for Hitler in a haystack. You know? I mean, George Bush is not Hitler. He would be if he ... applied himself."

The crowd cheering her on reminded me of Ronald Reagan's famous observation of a noisy Vietnam War protest: "The signs of the protesters said 'Make Love not War.' It didn't seem to me that they were capable of either."

Roger Angel makes an odious World War II comparison in the New Yorker, likening the American bombing of Japan to al-Qaida's destruction of the Twin Towers: "Sixty-seven Japanese cities were firebombed by the B-29s in the spring of 1945 and three hundred and fifty thousand civilians burnt to death - and the war in effect won - well before Hiroshima. . Now, thanks to our sleek modern weaponry, Americans no longer have to kill civilians in indiscriminate numbers in wartime."

Political invective is an honorable weapon and there's a long and colorful history of it in our country. It awakens the public and stimulates debate. But for it to work well, it requires substance, style and truth.

Thomas Jefferson, accused of being an atheist, pagan and traitor, worried over the viciousness of partisan attacks and thought the Federalist press that opposed his presidency slandered him. He suggested that editors divide their newspapers into four sections clearly labeled (1) truth, (2) probability, (3) possibility and (4) lies. "The third and fourth," he said, "should be professedly for those readers who would rather have lies for their money than the blank paper they would occupy."

But what was missing in the older political invective was the garbage-mouth language so prevalent today among the anti-Bushies. The language, along with the culture, has been hideously vulgarized. The clever, so-called, men and women stoop to deride with humor from a junior high-school rest room.

When Norman Mailer ranted to an antiwar rally on the eve of the celebrated march on the Pentagon by the "Armies of the Night," he went on and on about his adventure in the men's room and how he missed his aim at the urinal. This was supposed to have been fraught with apocalyptic meaning for the crowd.

Americans have never quite had the British talent for stylish insult. No one was better at it than Winston Churchill. He once described Clement Atlee, his successor as prime minister, as "a modest man, who has much to be modest about." On another occasion he observed that "an empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was opened, Atlee got out."

Adlai Stevenson, who ran twice for the presidency and lost twice, was pretty good at it, too. When someone told him he had the vote of every thinking person, he replied: "That's not enough, madam. We need a majority."