The most partisan of all the Democrats gave us a glimpse this week of how it used to be, and maybe could be again. But we shouldn't wait up.
The day after Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, described George W. Bush as the devil and said the podium at the United Nations General Assembly still reeked of sulfur, he went up to Harlem to bask in what he imagined would be praise and golden afterglow. And why not? Hugo reads the Internet, too, and cyberspace has been boiling and bubbling for weeks with vitriol and other toxins aimed at the president. You can't blame Hugo for expecting flowers, not ripe fruit.
Nevertheless, what he got was a Bronx cheer. Rep. Charles Rangel, who has been among the president's fiercest critics, let the visiting president have it with both barrels. The message was clear: "Get out of my district. Get out of town. Go home. (Write only if you get work.)"
What he actually said was plain enough: "It should be clear to all heads of state that criticism of Bush Administration policies, either domestic or foreign, does not entitle them to attack the president personally. George Bush is the president of the United States and represents the entire country. Any demeaning public attack against him is viewed by Republicans and Democrats, and all Americans, as an attack on all of us."
Nancy Pelosi, whom the Republicans are measuring for the shroud last used for Newt Gingrich, was even more colorfully forthcoming. "Hugo Chavez fancies himself a modern-day Simon Bolivar, but all he is is an everyday thug," Mrs. Pelosi said. "Hugo Chavez abused the privilege that he had, speaking at the United Nations. He demeaned himself, and he demeaned Venezuela."
We might usefully explain to small children that this is the way it used to be in America, where the president was accorded certain perks and privileges, foremost among them the respect for the office, if not for his politics. Paying respect like this is regarded today as only for wimps. Partisan insult is expected all day, every day.
Mr. Chavez, who beat it out of town late yesterday with his considerable tail tucked between his overstuffed thighs, had on Wednesday incited the delegates from the toy nations to giggling and simpering [-] and of course the expected round of applause with his attack on George W., describing him as Satan, though not necessarily the size of the Great Satan of Islamist invective. "The devil is right in the house," the Venezuelan president said. "And the devil came here yesterday. Right here. It smells of sulfur still today, this table that I am now standing in front of." What Mr. Chavez may have smelled was something from his own inner man, but the delegates nevertheless had a high old time listening to fun being poked at Big Daddy, who lives in the big house high above the town.
Not every Democrat was offended by the bad manners of the visiting head of state. Sen. Tom Harkin, speaking to a radio interviewer in his home state of Iowa, conceded that the Chavez remarks were "incendiary." But still. "Let me put it this way," he said. "I can understand the frustration, ah, and the anger of certain people around the world because of George Bush's policies." He then lapsed into the Democratic mantra about the war in Iraq, dirty water (a joint Republican-germ conspiracy against nice people), medical aid (which George W. denies to the poor), and education (which the rich want to keep only for themselves and their children). Or something like that.
The opportunist defense of the president was not, to be sure, without qualification. Even Charlie Rangel was eager to protect his franchise. He appreciates the discounted oil that Venezuela is sending to poor neighborhoods in Harlem; maybe George W. had it coming. He invited scolding when he referred to an axis of evil nations as "the axis of evil." Charlie was surprised that "American oil companies have not stepped up to provide that kind of assistance to the poor."
The Democrats came to the president's aid in a way reminiscent of the fate of the embattled pastor of a small Baptist church back in the sticks. The preacher asked for a vote of confidence, and went home considerably cheered by the vote of 32 to 31. Sometimes you have to be satisfied with what you get, and it beats a stick in the eye.