Sam sees his friend Morris is perturbed and asks what’s the matter. “I have misplaced my glasses. I looked for them in my shirt pocket, my pants pockets and my outside jacket pockets and I can’t find them.”
“Why don’t you check your inside jacket pockets?” asks Sam.
“What? And lose the last bit of hope I have left…?”
The Republicans in Congress are in this position now. They are within an ace of winning a huge victory on the issue of health care, a spectacular triumph which can resonate across the countryside. If handled correctly, this success could resound clearly even above the media din. But it would require their doing the one thing they have always held back from, playing the trump card from the inside pocket. That is, to call the Democrats what they are: mean-spirited.
For decades, this curious compound has been to the American political debate what “upstart” was to the Fredonian in the Marx Brothers classic, Duck Soup. Groucho played the President of Fredonia, who let every imaginable insult roll off him except the dread U-word. In the United States, Democrats have used “mean-spirited” against Republicans to spectacular advantage in a series of bruising battles. Whether the political football was the minimum wage, Welfare, Medicaid, Social Security, SCHIP, illegal immigration, every time a Republican voiced an opinion a Democrat appeared from behind the bushes. “Nah, na, na, nah, na, you are mean-spirited,” the bully would shout and little Lord Fauntleroy from Nebraska or Idaho with the neatly-pressed suit would scurry off into the wings, blushing furiously.
Bystander types, innocent and otherwise, would be led to conclude that the nice Mister D was trying to he’p the po’ fo’ks while the mean Mister R relished the prospect of the weakest links being pounded into Darwinian sausage. Mean-spirited, a word with archaic echoes, conjures up villains from dark corners of history and literature, from Rasputin to Fagin, from Robespierre to Scrooge, from John D. Rockefeller to Silas Marner.
In their hearts, the players on the American right believed they were advocating a path for the betterment of all. Their conviction, vocalized vociferously among themselves, never became convection, as the heat of their passion never emanated into the public thoroughfare. They were too beaten down by the taunts. Being called mean-spirited made them meek-spirited. And so they could only attract the hard-headed budget-balancers who could tolerate the hard-hearted.
Now is their chance to strike back in kind, to teach a truth in an arena where it can be displayed with clarity. Everyday Americans, you-and-me Americans, down-home Americans, have been congregating gregariously in town halls to greet their egregious Congress persons. They have been giving pieces of their minds, feedback, flak, grief, and hell to their erstwhile representatives. But beyond the occasional raised voice the interplay has been civil. Civil as in civility, civil as in civil discourse, civil as in civic responsibility, civil as in civilization.
In response, the champions of health care for the downtrodden have offered a full dose of vitriol. Pelosi has called the town hall hollerers Nazis. Dingell says they recall the KKK. Hoyer, with Pelosi again, sees them as un-American. Reid coined a new pejorative, evil-mongers. Other commentators see the hall monitors as racists. Specter sees them as unrepresentative of America. (Is it racist when the pot calls the kettle black?)
How to describe such behavior, if one wishes to eschew adjectives like crass, boorish, egotistical, supercilious, sanctimonious and condescending? You got it: mean-spirited. No, not like that; in caps: MEAN-SPIRITED.
From this day forward, at least until the end of August, let the august halls ring with this cry. Every interview or press conference should feature the anti-socialist-medicine side referring to this mean-spirited crusade against ordinary Americans. This mean-spirited campaign to demonize concerned citizens. This mean-spirited attack against sincere people. This mean-spirited assault against folks standing up for their rights. Use it until it screams, squeeze it until it bleeds. It is a powerful winner of a word and for once has the added advantage of being true.
Okay, one last joke about government programs to help the poor and how they grow. Abe was standing at the street corner asking passersby for five dollars for a cup of coffee. His friend Irving showed up and asked, “Doesn’t a cup of coffee cost about a dollar and a half?”
“Yes,” smiled Abe. “But I’m a big tipper.”