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About that Gramm 'Gaffe'

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

"Nation of whiners"? I don't know how you flesh out with mathematical exactitude ex-Sen. Phil Gramm's famous assertion of last week concerning how we talk about the economy.

I'll say this: There's a lot of whining go on, and if, as Phil avers, he was "talking about our leaders," not our people in general, he makes a serious point with something of the blunt force requisite to the task. Alas for him!

The glory of the First Amendment to the Constitution is that it lets you say practically anything about practically everything. The fly in the buttermilk is you can't keep people from trying to shovel your remarks back down your throat.

"Nation of whiners" sounds like a general indictment. Phil's firmest fans would agree, well, that wasn't, you know, maybe the most prudent way of putting things -- especially for one speaking on behalf of his friend John McCain. The Democrats are in stitches over the plight of an old enemy in line, reportedly, to become McCain's Treasury secretary.

Formerly, my former senator knew his way around a sound bite. "Nation of whiners" is the kind of thing you say when, like Gramm, you've been out of elective politics for a long stretch. Your inner reflexes relax. Like Jesse Jackson's on the subject of Barack Obama? I leave the thought to hang there. A more fitting subject is the temper of the times -- badly, badly out of joint and in dire need of expert attention.

Here's Gramm's day-after explanation: "I'm talking about our leaders. I'm not talking about our people. We've got every kind of excuse in the world about oil prices -- we've got speculators, the oil companies, to blame. But too many people don't have a program to get on with producing [oil]. If you listen to our leaders, we can't compete against Mexico, for God's sake. If they don't think we can compete against Mexico, who can we compete against?"

If you like, call it covering a trail. Or a tail. Whatever the original activity, there's broken crockery everywhere. We might as well look.

What we see going on is indeed a lot of whining, with an end-of-the-worldish lilt. The loudest voices have the least hope in them. We've lost the war. We're running out of oil. The banks are ruined. The glaciers are melting. Civil liberties are kaput. Everyone hates us.

It's gone on in this vein ever since the homicidal maniacs of Iraq obliged us to go on fighting longer than we'd thought we had to. Of all the calumnies, the worst is that we've lost a "disastrous" war. We've lost no such thing. If we had, Saddam Hussein would be preening himself in Baghdad, a mustachioed peacock.

Free speech permits distortions and misrepresentations aplenty. Unfortunately, the First Amendment doesn't answer for their baneful consequences. The widespread feeling we've somehow lost the war in Iraq makes many see as disaster and folly everything else to which the Bush touch can be ascribed: gasoline prices and the economy included.

The senator protests that we're not in a recession. We might be one day, he says, but we're not right now. What he omits to say is that you can talk yourself into a recession by imagining the worst even when it's not happening, just as people sometimes talk themselves into dying.

"Whining," to use the senator's word, isn't the characteristic American activity. Generally, when injured or anxious, Americans swear a little, possibly sling a chair around, then commence doing whatever needs doing. We don't normally say, "help, we're all washed up, we need a savior." (Any first-term Midwestern senator want to volunteer?)

What a foul and vicious mood we're in: One that could bring swift punishment of the political variety down upon the extraordinarily gifted Phil Gramm. We'll just have to see. There's an urgent matter to address in the meantime: What did Phil Gramm have to tell us that we truly -- no kidding or cheap shots -- need to be hearing about?

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