- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2005

This was the week of the most embarrassing retreat since the yankees ran like scalded dogs from First Manassas, Napoleon fled Moscow with pots and pans banging against cannon and caisson, and a certain senator beat it out of Dodge in his BVDs five minutes ahead of two angry husbands, three bill collectors and a sheriff’s posse.

The Page One headlines told the sad, demoralizing story: “7 senators abandon GOP on filibuster,” and “GOP retreats on women-in-combat bill.”

Military metaphors are rarely exact, but sending Republicans against Democrats when the issue hangs in the balance is nearly always as futile as sending George B. McClellan against Robert E. Lee, the Italians against Marshal Montgomery’s desert rats or an Arab armored division against an Israeli rifle company. The copy desk can write the headline before the battle begins and take the rest of the night off.

Bill Frist, who should have got over queasiness at the sight of blood a long time ago, showed up the next day still as white as John Brown’s ghost and tried to spin defeat as victory. He was joined in his pitiful enterprise by the White House, putting out a brave message that nobody believes, winning hoots and hollers from everybody. The sly, smug smile on Nancy Pelosi’s face in the photograph on Page One said it all: The pussycat who swallowed the canary, feet, beak, squeak, feathers, fuss and all. Outnumbered and all but unarmed, the Democrats continue to work their intimidating mastery over Republicans mired, probably permanently, in the minority-party mind-set.

The seven senators who went over the hill at the sound of the guns woke up at dawn the next morning, impatient as 6-year-olds on Christmas morning, expecting to see their profiles on the Style section front of The Washington Post: John McCain, firing up “the Doubletalk Express,” his presidential campaign bus; John Warner, charming little old ladies who imagine him to be the courtly, harmless old Virginia ham of Victorian caricature, and young Master Lindsey Graham, eager to tutor George W. Bush on Social Security reform and dreaming of beating out Chuck Hagel as John McCain Lite.

Some of the Southerners among the Democrats of the new Senate Regency could have their own reasons. The old Ku Klux Klansman, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, and young Mark Pryor of Arkansas, remembering (if only from a history text) the great filibusters of yore that beat back assaults on a vanished way of life, could spin the Democratic victory as a bow to the nostalgia of the home folks.

On the other disaster of the week, calling Republican timidity a retreat from an attempt to reassert civilian control of the military was no mere metaphor. Rep. Duncan Hunter of California marched bravely up the hill with his legislation to make the Army brass quit lying to Congress about sneaking women into combat ranks, but when his troops ran out on him he could only march down the hill, mumbling something about loyalty to the Republican legislators who had betrayed him.

The White House should have been behind this legislation, since the commander in chief says he’s against assigning women, unqualified by nature, to the hardships of combat at the side of men. But George W. is curiously passive about his conviction, speaking of it only in the passive voice. The generals at the Pentagon, foremost among them Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, treat the president (perhaps with a wink from Donald Rumsfeld) with the dismissiveness that the Regular Army officer typically reserves for “National Guard weenies.” (“Go away, boy, you bother me.”)

The most thorough search of the Pentagon would no longer turn up a Stonewall Jackson, a Phil Sheridan or a George S. Patton — indeed, Jackson, Sheridan, Patton and their ilk are often regarded at the Pentagon as relics of an age best forgotten. One feminist polemicist, who terrifies Pentagon generals who can’t stand up straight for the weight of all the brass on their shoulders and fruit salad on their chests, demonstrates her deep understanding of warfare with the remark that the dogface soldier faces no more risk than someone “flipping burgers in the mess tent.”

So the Pentagon generals will continue to tell Congress only what they think congressmen — and presidents — are capable of understanding. If this means occasionally lying to Congress, well, why not? Nobody under the dome appears to be man enough to do anything about it.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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