There was a long history, especially in Eastern Europe, of individual congregants working to undermine the tenure of a new rabbi who had been voted in over their objection. One of the techniques used to harass the newcomer was to come in and bombard him with silly questions, all of which he would have to answer politely to project comity. My favorite such story involves a troublemaker who approached a freshly installed rabbi with this query: “I’m a tutor who takes students by the hour. I have 24 students a day for the 24 hours, but now I was approached by a very wealthy and powerful person to tutor his son for an hour a day. What should I do?” The cleric didn’t skip a beat and was ready with an answer.
“You need to get up in the morning an hour earlier.”
That is the fine art of answering a question directly while subtly highlighting its ridiculousness or inappropriateness. I witnessed it once up close at a political event in Silver Spring. A friend of mine, with a Federal Court pedigree, was a scheduled speaker towards the end of the program. A State Department fellow approached him and explained that he might have to leave early, then asked: “What will you be speaking about?” I was mortified for my friend; what an insult! The implication was that if the subject didn’t interest him, the fellow would choose to leave.
He handled it perfectly, replying in a natural, pleasant voice: “About twenty minutes.” You could slice the tension with a knife, but the other guy knew he had been bested and he had the good grace to take it like a man.
All of this becomes terribly relevant all of a sudden. A loud chorus has begun calling for the impeachment of President Bush. Howard Fineman in Newsweek is talking about “the I-word” and so is Katrina vanden Heuvel in a piece for the Nation that was picked up by Yahoo News. Numerous lesser lights are making similar noises, including a flood of polling: “For or against impeachment?” Clearly there is orchestration here and choreography and synchronization. We are witnessing the birth of the Democratic strategy for winning the 2006 Congressional elections.
Here’s their theory. Impeachment is once again a significant word. There were no impeachments for over a century, so the concept seemed remote, and using that word against a sitting President smacked of desperation. Then Nixon came close and suddenly the idea was less abstract. Then it was actually done to Clinton, and a mere seven years ago, so now the term has segued from the hyperbolic to the realistic. Thus, harping incessantly on impeachment as a real option can begin to register with the man in the street.
Secondly, it has the effect of stirring up the Democrat base, which is thirsting for vengeance. Nothing can commove this band of true believers like the chance to do unto Bush what the Republicans did unto Clinton. Work this bunch into a frenzy and team them up with the swing voters who have hitched a ride on the bandwagon and suddenly you have a groundswell of folks looking to impeach Bush. Since the present Congress won’t buy in and sell out, the campaign will be afoot to give Congress to the Democrats who will bring Bush to justice.
Aside from the question of whether the Dems have enough ammo to shoot beyond their own foot, the Administration needs to make a communication choice, a semantic choice. Here is where those two stories hold the key. The fact is that Republicans cannot afford to engage the I-word. If it turns into a contest between “You should be impeached” and “I should not be impeached,” then the President loses, because both sides are keeping the word alive.
It becomes like Nixon saying “I am not a crook,” which forever framed the debate between yes-a-crook and not-a-crook, eliminating the possibility of don’t-be-ridiculous as a last word. In fact, it’s fair to say that in hindsight the Clinton people hurt his cause by going everywhere and repeating the mantra that it did not “rise to the level of impeachment.” That made it sound close enough for the referee to look at a replay.
It is urgent that the White House and the RNC circulate very strong memos to the effect that under no circumstances is the word “impeachment” ever referred to in a statement or an answer. Great care must be taken to isolate the Democrats as engaging in hysterics and histrionics. That will prevent a concrescence of interest in the concept, thereby preventing a coalescence of support. If the Democrats are left out there as the ones engaging in fantastic rhetoric, the people in the middle of the road will catch on that the only relevant I-word is Idiots.
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