EDITORIAL: The hyperbole disease

There are neither Nazis nor rebels here, just democracy making noise

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Some of our politicians should go back to junior high school for the history lessons they missed the first time. Ted Cruz sees Germans lurking behind the arborvitae bush, and Tom Harkin imagines the thunder he hears in the west to be P.G.T. Beauregard, organizing the Confederate lines to lick the Yankees once more at Manassas Junction.

“If you go back to the 1940s,” Mr. Cruz told the Senate during the 21 hours on his feet last week, “Nazi Germany, look, we saw in Britain, Neville Chamberlain, who told the British people, ‘accept the Nazis. Yes, they’ll dominate the continent of Europe but that’s not our problem. Let’s appease them. Why? Because it can’t be done. We can’t possibly stand against them.’”

When you’ve been talking for hours without a break, trying to think of something, even green eggs and ham, anything to keep the clock running, and the only people there are fellow senators, you’re tempted to think you can say anything, and nobody in the audience will be any the wiser. History is not usually highly regarded among politicians.

Analogies, like adjectives, can be fun, but they’re nearly always excessive, as every wordsmith knows. So enough with the Nazis. Nobody in Washington is a Nazi, nor even a fifth columnist. Even fellow travelers are mostly dead and gone to the great Politburo in the sky (or somewhere below the basement). Mr. Cruz was actually talking about not giving in to intimidation, which is always a needed admonition. That should be the correct focus of the argument.

Mr. Harkin, on the other hand, is so intimidated by argument and debate that he’s leaving town for good at the end of next year, and from the sound of it he wants to get out before the troops of the rebellion besiege the city gates. “This is the path they see for taking over the government,” he said of the Tea Party legion at the end of the tumult of last week, which promises to be even more raucous this week. “It’s dangerous, very dangerous,” he says, his chin quivering. “Every bit as dangerous as the breakup and the Civil War.”

If the Democratic senator from Iowa (which dispatched several hard-fighting regiments to the Late Unpleasantness) could channel almost any of the senators in the 36th or 37th Congress, he would get a very different take on his analogy. The comparisons are not even close.

John McCain suffers from hyperbole disease, too. He says he has not seen “anything like the gridlock” of the present day in all the years he has served in the Senate. The gentleman from Arizona was engaged elsewhere in the 1960s, as anyone’s honor roll of heroes would show, but the din and clamor of that decade, not only in Washington but in a lot of unlikely precincts, put to shame the pipsqueak partisan noisemakers of the present day.

Perspective is often undervalued in Washington. Ours is a republic, with a unique system of government of competing power centers, and the noise — even the overwrought adjectives and analogies — might occasionally frighten some of the women and most of the horses, but the noise is there by design. Relax, senators, and enjoy the fight.

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