Jewish World Review Oct. 7, 2002/ 1 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Wesley Pruden

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Sweet remembrance
of hysteria past | The rap on generals is that they're forever preparing to fight the previous war, but sleepy generals have nothing on Democrats.

Bill, Tom, Al and the guys are in headlong retreat to the past. Al is leading the way, clumsy as always, introducing the latest New Gore, followed by Bill Clinton, brazen as always, crying that he's never gonna stop thinking about yesterday and loosing a scathing attack on George W. Bush from a platform abroad. Nobody can remember when a former president had ever done such a thing.

These new Old Democrats are obsessed with resurrecting the anti-war hysteria of their youth. It's not working.

David Bonior and Jim McDermott, dim bulbs amidst the bright lights of the House minority caucus, are home from Baghdad, where they did amateur-night impersonations of Jane Fonda to the applause of nobody. Saddam Hussein, who can recognize a third-stringer when he sees one, wouldn't even let them get their picture taken astride one of his anti-aircraft batteries.

You have to be either (a) nuts or (b) a '60s Democrat to retreat into this kind of nostalgia for catastrophic times on the eve of congressional elections. Gary Hart, the architect of the '72 McGovern campaign that defined the nadir of Democratic fortunes ("I will crawl on my knees to Hanoi"), is aghast at what his party seems determined to do in this reprise of its celebrated retreat from reality. "Once again the Democratic Party finds itself on the defensive on defense," he writes in the New York Times. " The Vietnam era divided the nation but not as severely as it divided the Democratic Party. The party of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy still seems incapable, more than 25 years after the war's end, of collectively addressing America's defense in coherent and creative ways."

The rush over the past fortnight toward November suicide, in fact, is all but inexplicable. After months of slowly winning the argument over the economy, when polls showed, consistently, Democratic fortunes improving as the economy tanked and voters became obsessed with the 401(k) and the shrinking stock-market portfolio, Bill and Al and Tom and David and Jim have turned to challenge George W. and the Republicans on the one issue where Democrats not only can't win, but can't get any satisfaction.

Bill Clinton's performance at the British Labor Party's annual conference in Blackpool, where he was treated like the rock star he has always wanted to be, would have shamed his 41 predecessors, Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. (Even in private, off-the-record conversations, I never could lure George H.W. Bush to criticize Bill Clinton's pornographic presidency.)

But on the eve of war, the man of the bordellos and casinos and massage parlors of Hot Springs mocked his successor with the taunt that only Tony Blair is capable of leading the Anglo-American alliance to triumph in Iraq. You could feel Tony Blair, a decent man with an appreciation of the decencies, squirming with embarrassment. When Mr. Clinton remarked, after listening to Tony Blair address his colleagues, that "the speech was one that I'd like to make when I grow up," you could feel Dr. Freud looking for his notebook.

The man famous for feeling the pain of others could have shed a tear along with Tom Daschle after his performance in the well of the Senate, when the majority leader choked up, or pretended to, and demanded that George W. apologize for saying the Democrats, who have worked hard at being soft on the war, have been soft on the war. Columnist Mark Steyn called this the most moving performance since Al Jolson dropped to a knee and broke up Broadway with "Sonny Boy."

The former president's loyalty is of course not in question; he has never had any. You could ask anyone who has ever worked for him. But what is in question is why and how his party has so bollixed the election prospects that only yesterday looked so bright. The meltdown of Democrats in Congress, and particularly in the Senate, is all the more remarkable since most of them will vote, probably next week, to support President Bush and regime change in Baghdad.

The Democrats are lost in the pursuit of the streetcar named nostalgia, driven by doting remembrance of the politics of protest. It's Golden Oldies time for the party determined to redefine itself once more as the gang that can't shoot straight. They're dreaming dreamy dreams of the armies of the night, of the day they levitated the Pentagon, of a million malcontents marching down Pennsylvania Avenue under the banners of self-contempt and in a mist of tear gas to the chants of "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, Ho Chi Minh Will Win." In their dreamy dreams they've scribbled in the names of new villains, substituting GWB for LBJ, and chanting of new heroes: "Saddam, Saddam, Saddam has got 'um."

Ah, those happy, golden days, when the world was young (and before it was gay) and there was sex, revolution and friendship even for nerds, geeks and dorks. Now the world has grown a little older, a little colder, the revolution is a little moldy around the edges, and sweet passion has surrendered to Viagra.

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

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© 2002 Wes Pruden