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Jewish World Review April 10, 2001/ 17 Nissan 5761

Wesley Pruden

Wes Pruden
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Consumer Reports

We have no bananas, they have hostages -- YOU can't blame the the Bush administration for going bananas over words.

A banana, as some of us in Washington fondly recall, is not always a banana. When Herb Stein, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Ford administration, was admonished by his boss not to use the word "recession" to describe a recession, he complied, reluctantly.

"From now on," he told a group of economic reporters, "I won't use the word 'recession.' I'll say 'banana.' When I say banana, think 'recession'. I think we must be wary of the risks of a banana."

Dick Cheney, like all heads of state and their top deputies, can't always say what he means. Sometimes he can't even say "banana." The vice president went to some pains on Sunday to scold Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, for an editorial suggesting that President Bush was taking a softer line than necessary on the Chinese plane incident and that the line would lead to national "humiliation." Mr. Kristol's editorial, he said in an aside remarkable for its testiness, was an attempt to "sell magazines" and was "disreputable."

He then quibbled with Rep. Henry Hyde, the chairman of the House International Affairs Committee, for using the word "hostage" to describe the 24 hostages held by China on Hainan Island. The veep prefers, or said he does, the more euphemonious "detainee." (And if there's no such word as "euphemonious," there should be.) The dictionaries agree with Mr. Hyde, i.e., "hostage: a person given as a pledge, or taken prisoner as by an enemy or terrorist, until certain conditions are met." (Source: Webster's New World College Dictionary, "the official dictionary of the Associated Press".) The usually plain-spoken Mr. Cheney has become a hostage himself to diplomatic doublespeak.

President Bush, who this time is staying out of his administration's wrestling match with the language, is nevertheless beginning to feel heat. "Diplomacy," he said yesterday, "takes time." And so it does, but he knows that the time available before he starts getting public criticism on the Hill and in press and tube is severely limited. "Every day that goes by increases the potential that our relations with China will be damaged."

That's why the administration is trying to keep the word "hostage" out of the public conversation. Once the public regards the hostages as hostages the president's job becomes enormously more difficult.

The Chinese plane incident resembles, in several ominous ways, the Iranian hostage crisis that destroyed the Carter presidency. There are, to be sure, stark differences, beginning with the fact that a Texas oil-field roughneck is no Georgia peanut farmer. The man from Plains stocked his State Department with men who wore the lace on their pants with considerable pride. The parallels are nevertheless chilling.

When the Iranian mullahs first seized the embassy in Tehran the American diplomats they kidnaped were called "detainees," too, and everyone assumed they would be freed as soon as the mobs in the streets had a little fun. When they weren't, outrage grew. The hours and days and then weeks ticked past, until finally humiliation was measured in months. Lots of yellow ribbons were tied around lots of old oak trees, Ayatollah Khomeini entered the national lexicon of villains, and Ted Koppel became America's most famous television journalist when a late-night newscast called "America Held Hostage" evolved into the popular "Nightline." We're still a long way from Jimmy Carter country, but in another week we might be able to see it from here.

The Chinese measure months and years differently than we do, and the Chinese generals who have possession of the hostages are probably in no hurry to dissolve the crisis. Why should they be? They see the photographs and television footage of the yellow ribbons festooned on trees across America (and, yesterday, on trees in the little park in front of their embassy in Washington), and understand at once how valuable hostages are as the currency of state terrorism.

The Chinese generals have their own chagrin to ameliorate. Despite the tears for the pilot whose reckless hot-doggery started all this, the Chinese military is mortified. The generals know, and know that everybody else knows, that 40-year-old planes that can make 300 miles an hour with a tail wind aren't a match for a supersonic state-of-the-art fighter. If this pilot was the best they've got, as Beijing insists, he could have used a little training in Taiwan. The EP-3E is the military version of the old Lockheed Electra that flew the Eastern Shuttle between Washington and New York four decades ago.

Eastern Shuttle 1, Chinese Air Force 0.

JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.


04/06/01: Putting a little face on the China 'crisis'
04/04/01: No caving, please, to the cave men
04/02/01: Child abuse, anyone? Try dodging this
03/28/01: In fear of the peril of the Weak Sisterhood
03/23/01: Dubya disowns the dirt dishers
03/21/01: Why can't senators be nice to Mom?
03/19/01: Knocking hard heads at the Pentagon
03/14/01: Second thoughts on the faith initiative
03/12/01: Getting punch drunk on disappointment
03/07/01: The dazzling triumph of Saddam Hussein
03/05/01: How can a real gent tell the lady no?
02/28/01: Who won that war? Best not to look
02/26/01: Bonnie & Clod, gifts who keep on giving
02/21/01: It's Hot Springs week in downtown Harlem
02/13/01: Some of our riots seem to be missing
02/07/01: When a hate crime is something to love
02/07/01: Lifting a few spoons, cutting a few taxes
02/02/01: A few small surprises and a large lesson
01/31/01: Serving fried crow in the press mess
01/26/01: The gathering storm over Jesse Jackson
01/23/01: A graceless getaway, a graceful beginning
01/19/01: Once more to wave the bloody shirt
01/16/01: Bring on the lions, the clowns are ready
01/12/01: The dastardly plot to restore slavery
01/10/01: Mr. Lott's generosity to the Dems
01/05/01: Looking to the past for a bad example
01/03/01: A modest proposal for Arkansas folk
12/19/00: The reflexive sneer at George W. Bush
12/15/00: Taking inspiration from John Birch
12/12/00: It's time to raise high Florida's standards
12/08/00: A President Bush, and about time, too
12/05/00: Here come the judge --- and he's got a hook
11/28/00: Cry no tears for Al, lawyers are the losers
11/21/00: The useful loathing of America's sons
11/17/00: When this is all over, we spray for lawyers
11/14/00: Something murky in the twilight zone

11/10/00: Something sinister in Palm Beach

11/07/00: Low days in the life of the ruptured duck

11/06/00: A little race baiting in the final hours

11/01/00: Creator gets a hard time on the hustings

10/27/00: The sorcerer rides to rescue his apprentice

10/25/00: The founding father with a story to tell

10/23/00: A lonely passion for religious rights

10/16/00: Spending blood on the folly of fools

10/11/00: A big night for the embellisher-in-chief

10/06/00: AlGore's black problem

10/04/00: In headlong pursuit of the bigot vote

10/02/00: A modest proposal for Rick Lazio

09/27/00: When folks at home give up on a scamp

09/25/00: Gore plot exposed! The secret minutes

09/18/00: Playing politics with the blood supply

09/14/00: Al sets out to find his 'tolerance level'

09/12/00: When it's time for a thumb in the eye

09/07/00: Making a daughter a campaign asset

09/04/00: A footnote to the lie: How he beats the rap

08/30/00: Unbearable lightness of a cyberjournal

08/21/00: Clinton chickens on AlGore's roost

08/16/00: The long goodbye to California's cash

08/09/00: Innocence by proxy is a risky scheme

08/07/00: After insulin shock, an authentic rouser

08/02/00: When it gets hard not to get a little giddy

07/31/00: George W.'s legions of summer soldiers

07/26/00: He's set a surprise --- or a trap for himself

07/24/00: How do you serve a turkey in August?

07/19/00: Would Hillary sling a lie about a slur?

07/17/00: Process, not peace, at a Velveeta summit

07/12/00: The Texas two-step, a nudge and a wink

07/10/00: The Great Mentioner and his busy season

07/05/00: No Mexican standoff in these results

07/03/00: Denting a few egos in the U.S. Senate

06/28/00: Bureaucracy amok! Punctuation in peril!

06/26/00: The water torture of American resolve

06/21/00: The happy hangman is a busy hangman

06/19/00: Dick Gephardt finds a Dixie dreamboat

06/14/00: Taking a byte out of innovation

06/12/00: 'Go away, little boy, you're bothering us'

06/07/00: When a little envy is painful to watch

06/05/00: Fire and thunder, bubble and squeak

05/31/00: South of the border, politics is pepper

05/26/00: Running out of luck with home folks

05/24/00: The heart says no, but the head says yes

05/22/00: A fine opportunity to set an example

05/17/00: The Sunday school for Republicans

05/15/00: Hillary's surrogate for telling tall tales

05/10/00: Listening to the voice of an authentic man

05/08/00: First a lot of bluster, then the retreat

05/02/00: Good news for Rudy, bad news for Hillary

04/28/00: The long goodbye to Elian's boyhood

04/25/00: Spooked by Castro, Bubba blinks

04/14/00: One flag down and two memorials to go

04/11/00: Consistency finds a jewel in Janet Reno

04/07/00: Here's the good word (and it's in English)

04/04/00: When bureaucrats mock the courts

03/28/00: How Hollywood sets the virtual table

03/24/00: Dissing a president can ruin a whole day

03/20/00: When shame begets the painful insult

03/14/00: The risky business of making an apology

03/10/00: The pouters bugging a weary John McCain

03/07/00: When all good things (sob) come to an end

© 2000 Wes Pruden