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Jewish World Review Dec. 21, 1999 /12 Teves, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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The republic of irony -- DOWN WITH A BAD CASE of laryngitis, which has doubtless been a blessing for all around me, I've been laid up and reduced to watching the irony channel, formerly the news.

Between the inscrutable testimony of John Huang, the shotgun wedding between Israel and Syria at the White House, with Bill Clinton in the minister's role, and that big party by the canal in Panama, I've seen enough unconscious satire to last another millennium.

That last show on the banks of the canal, with its Latin American rhythms, was my favorite. To sum up the proceedings: They gave a party, and only Jimmy Carter showed up.

It was that kind of occasion. This country's nominal leaders were not exactly falling over each other to watch Old Glory come down over the Canal Zone. But the king of Spain and six interchangeable Latin American presidents were there. They all remained equally unidentified in the Associated Press dispatch -- another sign of this country's keen interest in our immediate neighbors.

Bill Clinton couldn't make it. (He was reported to be battling flu-like symptoms, and, like about half the country by now, I could identify with him.)

Madeleine Albright, the current Warren Christopher, couldn't make it, either. Neither could Carmen Miranda, who would have made the ideal commentator in her rapid-fire, incomprehensible way. Which left Jimmy Carter, who's always a good sport.

Anyway, giving away the canal was largely Mr. Carter's bright idea -- among any number of others during his time in the White House, otherwise known as the Age of Malaise.

My respects and respect go to the gentleman from Georgia. At least, he had the guts to show up for the last act of the show he set in motion. Once again, he's made the country an ex-president we can all be proud of.

When you think about it, the only blot on Jimmy Carter's record is the Carter administration. He's been making up for it ever since.

To sum up the happy scene: The American canal through Panama (which is also an American invention, circa 1903) was being turned over to its new owners, and the old ones seemed to be otherwise occupied at the moment. It's still not clear whether the Panamanians will ever be prepared to turn their country over to its original owners, the Colombians. Anyway, much as this administration loves ceremonies, this was one it skipped.

If there is a single tradition this White House has honored beyond question, it is ill grace. If you're going to give something away, by all meansgive it away. With smiles and handshakes all around, and sincere professions of good will. The deed's been done; why not celebrate it?

You would think a president from the South would know all that. Instead, despite Mr. Carter's beaming presence as a sacrificial substitute, once again the Clinton administration looked begrudging.

Some things have not been given away. This country remains largely responsible for the canal's defense and for much of its administration. We get the responsibility, but not the sovereignty.

Naturally, no ceremony like this would have been complete without the standard, regulation anti-American demonstration. Canal giveaway or no canal giveaway, everything is still going to be Uncle Sam's fault.

It is never so much American deeds that inspire such protests, but the protesters' own dissatisfaction with their lot. And that is not likely to change as one American Century ends and, let us hope, another begins. By now you'd think we'd get used to being the target of all the world's malcontents. It comes with the territory, namely Pax Americana.

And so we lumber on. We could do so with better grace, as demonstrated by this ironic little party in Panama with its conspicuously absent American guests. But look at it this way: The Romans never ceased to yearn for their old republic, either, and they may not have been any smoother the first couple of centuries of their empire. And look at how at long they lasted. It's not just the Panamanians who have a lot of growing up to do.

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©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate