Republicans employ an interesting verbal arsenal when they sense a populist threat. First there was Bush senior's widely reported aside about the late Senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minnesota). When attending the 1991 White House reception for incoming senators, the newly elected Wellstone reportedly cornered Bush Sr. three separate times and urged him to spend more time on issues like education and to find a quick diplomatic solution to the looming crisis in the Persian Gulf. "Who is this chickenshit?" the senior Bush muttered in response.
"Chickenshit," according to the Urban Dictionary, originated as World War II military slang for something so silly and trifling it doesn't even warrant being called bullshit. The word's more recent chief usage is as a name for people who are cowardly.
In an eerily reminiscent moment a few weeks ago, Senator-elect James Webb (D-Virginia) likewise refused to kowtow to the junior Bush. When at the 2006 version of the reception, Bush 43 walked over to Senator Webb (who had been avoiding the president and opted out of the receiving
line) and asked, "How's your boy?" The Senator-elect, who has a son serving in Iraq, replied, "I'd like to get them out of Iraq," according to sources at the event. Bush retorted, "That's not what I asked you," and then repeated, "How's your boy?" to which Webb responded, "That's between me and my boy." Webb reportedly was so angered by the exchange that he was tempted to "slug the guy."
Webb subsequently has been vilified as a "boor" by Washington Post neoconservative columnist George F. Will. Will so designated Webb in a November 30, 2006 editorial for replying so uncivilly to the Commander in Chief, who, according to Will, was "asking a civil and caring question, as one parent to another." Bush 43 was gracious enough to do so, Will notes, despite "many hard things Webb had said about him during the campaign." Yeah, right.
George F. Will probably meant "a rude or insensitive person" when he chose "boor" to describe Webb. But surely, employed by a wordsmith like Will, the word's other meanings were also implied and intended. They are "peasant" and "yokel."
When populist senators-elect speak truth to patrician power, it's implied that they are so inconsequential (silly, trifling, yokel) as to be beneath contempt. But underlying the blueblood verbal bullying there's real fear. Getting rid of Paul Wellstone became a primary goal of the Bush 43 White House in the 2002 Senate election cycle. "When I first met the President, he called me 'Pablo,'" Wellstone joked about Bush 43 in a 2002 Nation article. "That lasted a day or two. Then they started trying to figure out how they were going to get rid of me." Wellstone, his wife and daughter died in a plane crash October 25, 2002, just days before the hotly contested Minnesota Senate race so we'll never know if Republican strategist Karl Rove would have managed to give Paul Wellstone "a thumpin'" in the contest between Wellstone and current Senator Norm Coleman. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001 Wellstone's populist message was in danger of getting drowned out by fear of terrorism and the drumbeat for war with Iraq. He might well have lost his bid for re-election.
Four years later though, there's a populist rumbling among the hoi polloi, one much more widespread than Wellstone progressivism and therefore much more frightening to the neoconservative elites that still run the nation. Lifelong military man Jim Webb is, at the moment, the main embodiment of this new breed but he's not the only one, even among Senators-elect from swing or red states. Union supporter Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), organic farmer Jon Tester (D-Montana) and would-be Washington corruption fighter Claire McCaskill
(D-Missouri) - who skipped the reception to vacation with her family - all just might turn out to be Senators who put representing their constituents before making nice with the powers that be. If that turns out to be the case - and it's by no means certain that it will as Congressional membership tends to compromise even those arriving with the best intentions - the next two years could well look like a drawn out dramatization of "The Emperor's New Clothes."
Many in Washington have much to lose from an unblinking scrutiny of this incarnation of the Bush dynasty, a group of self-styled superiors who have been running the nation as if our treasury is their private slush fund and our military their mercenary army. So expect Swift-boat style attacks from remnants of the right on any new Senator so brave as to try while entrenched Democrats will urge moderation on these uncomfortable colleagues.
In his refusal to defer to the man who would be king, in his unwillingness to let his soldier son be used to symbolize Bush's faux concern about how the little people were faring in Iraq, Jim Webb reminded us all how much better represented we might be with a few more Mr. Smiths (or Ms. Smiths) in Washington - folks who feel their duty is to good policy over good manners, even at the expense of being called a boor. One thing these would-be plain-speaking populists have working in their favor is that Americans loathe losers and the worst-president-ever Bush presidency is demonstrably that. Productive boorishness might prove a popular style next season in the Congress. It might even catch on with regular citizens.
In fact, right now there are citizens out on the streets in Florida, yellin' and carryin' on like boors, demanding a new election because bad machines botched the first one. Imagine what might have happened had we
been willing to be boorish for democracy six years ago in Florida.
Cynthia Bogard is a sociology professor at Hofstra University. Her main claim to fame is that she was once called names in a Wall Street Journal column by Peggy Noonan for criticizing parents who tried to shut down a 2004 anti-war commencement speech by E. L. Doctorow. She can be reached at Cynthia.J.Bogard@hofstra.edu.