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Union Station Bushwhack
Courtesy of ingramsonline.com
By Jack Cashill
Earlier this summer I attended a wedding reception in the grand hall of Union Station, an excellent site for a reception by the way. Unescorted that evening, I strolled through the entrance gate, tuned my Celtic honing fork in on the bar and followed my instincts towards it.
I had not gone 10 steps when a group of four people, all of whom I knew, stopped me. “Hey, you’re just the person we want to talk to.”
“What are we talking about?” I asked.
“Iraq?” At the end of a hot summer day, before my first beer, I would not have wanted to discuss the Pope or Jennifer Aniston, let alone Iraq.
“This is a wedding reception,” I answered incredulously, “Iraq is the last thing I want to talk about.”
The issue here is not politics—no need to worry—but political etiquette, a bipartisan problem. I have learned mine over time, the hard way, through trial and error. The first lesson I learned is this: it simply does not pay to talk politics in a setting that is not designed for the same, like a wedding reception or—God help you—your client’s office.
I once had a Dallas client, for instance, who insisted that JFK was assassinated over a football bet gone bad. I had to find some way to not overtly disagree with him. “You really think so?” I asked. He looked at me like a half-bright child and told me that he used to deliver Lee Harvey Oswald’s newspaper so he knew whereof he spoke. “Hmm,” I said, “how about that?”
I make this argument about political etiquette from strength, not weakness. Having done five years of yin-yang daily talk radio, I can still answer most political questions before they are even asked. Talk radio also taught me discipline, taught me how to smile through even the stupidest questions and most slanderous remarks. A friend once compared me—forgive the immodesty—to the Kung Fu master at the end of the bar, hoping to drink his beer in peace, but prepared to kick butt if justice demanded it.
The folks at the wedding reception wanted to mix it up. As university types—the principal instigator was once the dean of a local law school—they rarely encounter adults who think and vote differently than they do. This tends to make them overconfident in their opinions and conspiratorial to the point of goofiness.
“Well, we were just saying the war’s all about oil,” said the Dean.
“If it is,” I answered, “where’s the oil? Why am I paying two and a half bucks a gallon for gas?”
“Bush is such an idiot,” replied the Dean, “he even screwed up the oil part.”
The Dean had made his way to the oddly illiberal “Bush is an idiot” riposte in less than 30 seconds, a record for an ideologically mixed wedding reception.
“Well,” I said as my sign-off line, “I just got back from France, and I paid $80 there to fill up my tank.”
“That was Bush’s fault too,” peeped the Deans’ wife.
“Whatever,” I said, “I’m out of here.”
They wouldn’t let me go. “If the war’s not about oil then,” asked the Dean, “what’s it about.”
“Beyond the obvious,” I answered, “Israel.”
“You’ve got Saddam commissioning suicide bombers and threatening to wipe out Tel Aviv with a VX-tipped scud. We can’t abandon Israel, and we can’t wait for a second holocaust to get involved.”
There are many things about which I know nothing—dog breeding, ballet, Buddhism, the list goes on—and I happily avoid debate on all of them. On the question of Iraq and terrorism, however, I come well-armed. I have written more on the subject—one book and about 30 articles—than some of my provocateurs have read. Besides, terrorism is not simply a matter of opinion like, say, a sewer bond issue. One person’s viewpoint is not as good as another. Terrorism is about facts, about sorting through them, about finding connections and following them wherever they lead.
Amazingly, one of the four at least half agreed with me on the Israel answer. The Dean seemed stymied for a second and then countered, “But at least we can all agree that Bush is an idiot, can’t we?”
I will be the first to admit that we have equally dense people on my side of the aisle. The worst of them would not hesitate to insult a friend’s candidate even if that means insulting the friend by implication.
What I have not seen on my side, however, is a bushwhack of this magnitude, a collaborative act of boorishness by this many people smart enough to know better. Instead of scolding the offending Dean, or at least shushing him, the others all cheered him on, “Yea, Bush is an idiot.”
“I’m in a good mood,” I demurred. “This is a wedding reception. I don’t want to spoil it.” So saying, the Kung Fu master headed for the bar. Once I got my beer, I decided to eat with the bride’s family. I didn’t know them, but on the bright side, they didn’t know me. They proved to be a cheerful bunch of Micks who understood what a wedding reception is really all about, and that’s not Iraq.
An inter-generational family dinner is another good place to avoid nasty politics. At Easter, I found myself sitting across from a lawyer who volunteered just how much he “hated” George Bush. If he were expressing his distaste knowing that we shared it, I might think him merely cranky. But he said it to provoke, and he did.
“Why all the hatred?” I asked calmly. “I don’t get it.”
“Hatred?” the lawyer sputtered. You’re putting words in my mouth.”
No, I assured him, I wasn’t. I polled our end of the table and all agreed that he had used the phrase “I hate Bush” in three consecutive sentences. When he regained his composure, the lawyer offered the amusing but preposterous rationale that he hated Bush—hang on!—because of the budget deficit.
My stories are hardly unique. There has been a widespread breakdown in political civility, and much has been written about it. But little is written about a new complication, the attendant breakdown in humility. In the self-esteem era, dull people feel increasingly free to have sharp opinions.
Shortly after the wedding, for example, I went out to dinner with my sister and brother-in-law and a couple of their friends, Rose and Mike, whom I had never met. The first hour of the evening went swimmingly.
Then Mike raised the issue of intelligent design, much in the news lately. Rose proved to be something of an authority on the movement. She insisted that it was just a bunch of fundamentalists forcing students to read Genesis as science.
“If it’s about teaching Genesis,” I asked, “how do you explain the Muslims and atheists in the movement?”
“Well, you have your opinion, and I have mine,” she countered.
“It’s not just a matter of opinion,” I answered. I explained as politely as I could that I had produced a documentary on the subject, attended the Kansas School Board hearings and knew the movement’s leaders personally.
Flustered, Rose burst out, “Well, there’s one thing I know for sure.”
“What’s that?” I asked innocently.
“Bush is an ---hole!”
This came so totally and wildly out of the blue that I could do nothing but laugh. “Your sister was right,” said Mike. “She said we could insult Bush, and you wouldn’t get mad.”
“I’m used to it,” I answered, “and besides I was just relieved Rose didn’t call him an idiot.”
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