- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 10, 2001

You can't blame the the Bush administration for going bananas over words.

A banana, as some of us in Washington fondly recall, is not always a banana. When Herb Stein, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Ford administration, was admonished by his boss not to use the word "recession" to describe a recession, he complied, reluctantly.

"From now on," he told a group of economic reporters, "I won't use the word 'recession.' I'll say 'banana.' When I say banana, think 'recession'. I think we must be wary of the risks of a banana."

Dick Cheney, like all heads of state and their top deputies, can't always say what he means. Sometimes he can't even say "banana." The vice president went to some pains on Sunday to scold Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, for an editorial suggesting that President Bush was taking a softer line than necessary on the Chinese plane incident and that the line would lead to national "humiliation." Mr. Kristol's editorial, he said in an aside remarkable for its testiness, was an attempt to "sell magazines" and was "disreputable."

He then quibbled with Rep. Henry Hyde, the chairman of the House International Affairs Committee, for using the word "hostage" to describe the 24 hostages held by China on Hainan Island. The veep prefers, or said he does, the more euphemonious "detainee." (And if there's no such word as "euphemonious," there should be.) The dictionaries agree with Mr. Hyde, i.e., "hostage: a person given as a pledge, or taken prisoner as by an enemy or terrorist, until certain conditions are met." (Source: Webster's New World College Dictionary, "the official dictionary of the Associated Press".) The usually plain-spoken Mr. Cheney has become a hostage himself to diplomatic doublespeak.

President Bush, who this time is staying out of his administration's wrestling match with the language, is nevertheless beginning to feel heat. "Diplomacy," he said yesterday, "takes time." And so it does, but he knows that the time available before he starts getting public criticism on the Hill and in press and tube is severely limited. "Every day that goes by increases the potential that our relations with China will be damaged."

That's why the administration is trying to keep the word "hostage" out of the public conversation. Once the public regards the hostages as hostages the president's job becomes enormously more difficult.

The Chinese plane incident resembles, in several ominous ways, the Iranian hostage crisis that destroyed the Carter presidency. There are, to be sure, stark differences, beginning with the fact that a Texas oil-field roughneck is no Georgia peanut farmer. The man from Plains stocked his State Department with men who wore the lace on their pants with considerable pride. The parallels are nevertheless chilling.

When the Iranian mullahs first seized the embassy in Tehran the American diplomats they kidnaped were called "detainees," too, and everyone assumed they would be freed as soon as the mobs in the streets had a little fun. When they weren't, outrage grew. The hours and days and then weeks ticked past, until finally humiliation was measured in months. Lots of yellow ribbons were tied around lots of old oak trees, Ayatollah Khomeini entered the national lexicon of villains, and Ted Koppel became America's most famous television journalist when a late-night newscast called "America Held Hostage" evolved into the popular "Nightline." We're still a long way from Jimmy Carter country, but in another week we might be able to see it from here.

The Chinese measure months and years differently than we do, and the Chinese generals who have possession of the hostages are probably in no hurry to dissolve the crisis. Why should they be? They see the photographs and television footage of the yellow ribbons festooned on trees across America (and, yesterday, on trees in the little park in front of their embassy in Washington), and understand at once how valuable hostages are as the currency of state terrorism.

The Chinese generals have their own chagrin to ameliorate. Despite the tears for the pilot whose reckless hot-doggery started all this, the Chinese military is mortified. The generals know, and know that everybody else knows, that 40-year-old planes that can make 300 miles an hour with a tail wind aren't a match for a supersonic state-of-the-art fighter. If this pilot was the best they've got, as Beijing insists, he could have used a little training in Taiwan. The EP-3E is the military version of the old Lockheed Electra that flew the Eastern Shuttle between Washington and New York four decades ago.

Eastern Shuttle 1, Chinese Air Force 0.

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