The president wants everybody to wash his (and her) hands to avoid catching the disease formerly known as swine flu, but the ablution that probably tempts Barack Obama is washing his hands of Joe Biden.
Joe suffers severe hoof-in-mouth disease, which is incurable but, like the disease formerly known as swine flu, rarely serious. Everybody should lay off good old Joe. The veep unbuttoned his famous lip on the NBC breakfast show Thursday morning with a warning that threatened to shut down the economy on six continents. But he was only trying to get with the program, and his contribution to public pandemic panic was no more than the president, his Cabinet and nearly every newspaper and TV station in America have been doing since a few dozen Americans began coming down, briefly, with the sniffles.
Good old Joe was just being good old Joe, adding a little comic relief to an act going stale at the weekend, in dire need of dramatic punch. This is what makes the veep endearing to everybody but the boss, like a boring old uncle who can't resist pinching the bottoms of all the comely nieces at the Thanksgiving dinner.
When the TV interlocutor asked him what he says when someone in the family (maybe a bruised niece?) asks whether it's safe to travel, he replied: "I would tell members of my family -- and I have -- I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now. It's not that it's just going to Mexico, it's that you're in a confined aircraft so, from my perspective, what it relates to is mitigation. If you're out in the middle of a field when someone sneezes, that's one thing. If you're in a closed aircraft or a closed container or closed car or closed classroom, it's another thing."
If it's not one thing it's another.
That was right on message. Joe wants everybody to stay out of closed places. But airline chiefs and executives in the travel industry went nuts. A spokesman for the airlines protested that the stale air in an airliner is cleaner than the air in most public buildings (anyone who has taken a coast-to-coast flight would argue with the first part, but airliner air is probably fresher than certain public building air in Washington).
At midmorning, President Obama, jealous of his constitutional prerogative as the panic-spreader in chief, sent his press agent out to rewrite what good old Joe had said. "The advice [the vice president] is giving is the same advice the administration is giving to all Americans, that they should avoid unnecessary air travel to and from Mexico."
That's not at all what good old Joe had said, but this was good spinning practice. Over the next few weeks, the president and all the president's men will be trying to take back a lot of the stuff they're saying to punch up the panic over the disease formerly known as swine flu.
After several days of crying that the end is near, the White House finally came up with a celebrity victim, a presidential aide who had traveled to Mexico with the president a fortnight ago and started coughing when he got home. He didn't actually get very sick; this flu so far is mild stuff and the aide is already back at work. There was no need to worry about the president himself; he has no symptoms. Besides, even if he dies he'll only be gone for three days.
The Great Disease Formerly Known as the Swine Flu Pandemic of Aught-Nine is convenient for a lot of folks. The panic focuses everybody's attention on the glory of the government, and impresses the easily impressed that only the feds can stop a pandemic in its tracks, just as easily as it can take over the banking system, assume control of what's left of the American automobile industry, restore international bonhomie (surely you've noticed) and "reform" the health system so that health will be carefully rationed and your doctor will be mentored by your postman on how to deliver efficient government services.
Governments elsewhere are taking advantage of the pandemic. In Egypt, the government ordered the slaughter of 300,000 pigs; one mullah calls the swine flu pandemic "worse than the hydrogen bomb." No one thinks eating pork actually spreads flu, but if a shariah menu is good enough for a mullah it will be good enough for a Methodist. (Getting friendly with a pork chop can still cost you your head in Saudi Arabia.)
The government in Washington is reacting to the pandemic heroically, much like government employees in Washington deal with the mere threat of a half-inch of snow in January. So far the supermarket shelves haven't been stripped of bread, milk and toilet paper. But the pandemic, such as it is, is young.