Barack Obama is laying out a revolutionary agenda for his second term, and he’s calling up his heaviest artillery to enforce the transformative presidency delayed in the first. The campaign to confirm Chuck Hagel will be no campaign for the fainthearted summer soldiers who know only small-caliber combat.
The emerging White House strategy is to repeat and repeat the canard that anyone who criticizes the president and his agenda is a racist, probably a Klansman and maybe even a conservative. If the canard is repeated often enough, some people will believe it, even if they’re mostly people who believe it already.
A long season of rage, recriminations and name-calling lies ahead before the president finally gets the Cabinet he wants. The Senate is charged by the Constitution — quaint document, that — to closely examine his nominees, to ask them sharp and even unpleasant questions, and then to decide whether they’re fit to be in the Cabinet. The president proposes and the Senate disposes. It’s called “advise and consent,” not “shut up and cheer.”
The giants of the media are having a little trouble with this, too. Bob Schieffer, pretending to be younger than he really is, told Sen. John McCain on “Face the Nation” that he “couldn’t remember a time” when the opposing party has so sharply questioned a president’s Cabinet choices. Bob can’t figure out why the senator from Arizona isn’t wild about Chuck Hagel.
“He would seem to be your kind of guy, a veteran, a guy who’s been shot at,” he told the senator in gentle rebuke. It’s true, Mr. Hagel is a “guy guy,” and he’s a veteran and he has been shot at. But that’s not necessarily all a president looks for in a secretary of defense. If it were, almost anyone from the Chicago streets would qualify.
Colin Powell, heretofore admired and even revered by many on the right, insists he’s still a Republican, but he’s an “Obama Republican” who disagrees with just about everything Republicans believe. Unless they become more like him, the Republicans are doomed, and deserve to be.
Mr. Powell told an NBC interviewer that he sees “a dark vein of intolerance” running through the party, and unless the party elders are aggressively intolerant of intolerance, as Mr. Powell and his friends define intolerance, “they are going to be in trouble.”
He cites Sarah Palin as one of the intolerant for her use of the street slang “shuck and jive.” So, too, the chorus of voices, not all of them Republican, who described Mr. Obama as “lazy” in his disastrous performance in the first presidential debate. Only a racist would call a lazy black man lazy, even if, as Mr. Obama has done, he once described himself as “lazy.”
Or not. Mr. Powell is a man of a certain sophistication, having served in enough high positions to have come across expressions and language used well beyond the precincts such language originated. The actual phrase Mrs. Palin used in the 2008 campaign was “shuck and jive shtick,” combining a black expression with a Yiddish word used by vaudeville performers, many of them Jewish, to describe a practiced comic turn. Mr. Powell did not say whether he imagines use of the word “shtick” reflects a dark vein of intolerance of Jews.
One of the gifts of the diversity of America is that immigrants and even visitors contribute to the richness of the American language. We pick up slang, some of it colorful and some of it even vulgar, from one another. We feel free to use it at will. That’s why our dictionary is thicker than most others. Mr. Powell, who was born in Harlem (a name stolen from the not-so-colorful Dutch), knows this better than most others. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo used what we must call “the S&J words” when he campaigned for Hillary Rodham Clinton, calling her a straight-shooter (no offense intended to cowboys and gunfighters) in 2008: “You can’t shuck and jive at a press conference. All those moves you can make with the press don’t work when you’re in someone’s living room.” If a New York politician — and a Democrat to boot — thinks it’s OK to use “the S&J words” without giving offense, surely a politician from Alaska deserves a break, too.
Nobody gets through a turn in Washington without hearing a recital of his faults, usually at high decibel. If you want a friend in Washington, as Harry Truman famously said, get a dog. That goes double for presidents.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.