Public Nuisances

Posted: Apr 16, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- Ah, that international sticky wicket, referred to last week as America's "national humiliation" by Washington journalist and statesman Winston Spencer Kristol, is over. Not a shot was fired. Kristol is another of those expansive Americans who cast themselves in an heroic mode whenever there is an opportunity to summon the nation, to muster the troops, to call out the fleet, and to secure for our generation and our time a D-Day. What composed the dramatis personae and plot line of this national humiliation? A hot-rod Chinese combat pilot stalled his fighter in front of an American surveillance plane over international waters. The ensuing collision caused his unfortunate demise along with the forced landing of the damaged American plane on Chinese soil. The Chinese detained the plane's crew, pursuant to some sort of propaganda coup under the delusion that this is the spring of 1951. Similarly deluded, Kristol envisaged a White House full of appeasers when President Neville Bush failed to call out the Pacific Fleet. Yet the fleet was not needed. The Chinese adjusted their calendars to contemporary times. Their haughty demand for an apology was met with what I would describe as a pretty sorry apology for an apology. Washington took no responsibility for the Chinese hot-rodder's death and merely expressed regret for his passing. In the realm of personal accountability, the statement was somewhat on the order of expressing regret for Hong Kong's inclement weather. Will this assuage the purple passions of Kristol and the country's other hawks? I doubt it. My guess is that they have all gone back to their country homes to sip brandies and lament the appeasers in the White House. Admittedly, I share their impatience with Beijing. What sort of propaganda coup was it aiming for? Was it hoping to rouse the anti-Americanism of what were once called the nonaligned nations at the U.N.? Yet surely calling the Bush administration's response a national humiliation was a bit over the top. In fact, it gave some of us a good laugh, as I guess I have implied. The loss of life and the attendant hostility between Beijing and Washington were not funny, but whenever a public figure begins playing out personal fantasies, the stage is set for comedy. Certainly Barbra Streisand set the stage for comedy about the time the Chinese began acting up. Thinking herself a tough-minded political stratagist, she sent out a letter to Democrats that amounted to a battle cry to get tough with the Bush administration. Barbra knew not the power of her pen. In no time, a major Democratic contributor to the 1996 presidential campaign took up her challenge. The Chinese military, a generous contributor to the Clinton presidential campaign and -- who knows -- possibly a contributor to the Clinton Presidential Library, Inc., downed our surveillance plane. There goes bipartisanship. In the past, left-wing Democrats and their supporters have burned American flags and held demonstrations against American foreign policy, but none has ever taken up arms against the United States. And where was the beneficiary of Barbra's and Beijing's munificent campaign contributions? The retired president was in India, where he was photographed riding an elephant while wearing what looked like his pajamas. In the meantime, the object of Barbra's and Beijing's and Kristol's ire was in the Oval Office trying to figure it all out. President George W. Bush is a very nice man. He recently told a gathering of the American Society of Newspaper editors that we must all be more polite. Yet surely he knows that a great many American public figures when attracted to politics engage in play acting. Those who whoop it up for more vigorous combat against their opponents are not serious. Before taking them too seriously, he ought to ask himself: Are we talking about someone who has really demonstrated courage against an opponent? Or are we talking about someone who is demanding that others demonstrate courage against an opponent? The image of the Monday morning quarterback comes to mind, and few Monday morning quarterbacks ever played football. The president played this latest diplomatic contest well.