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Rumsfeld's Dictionary Standpoint

This column was written by Charles P. Pierce.
Still more baffling moments from life in these United States, as Reader's Digest likes to say. Ralph Reed's connection to the Gospels, to name one.

You may remember Reed -- the tiny-domed, replicant-looking fellow who used to front for the Christian Coalition. (Look at him quickly, and you'd swear you were seeing Frank Luntz's inner child.) Anyway, it seems that just as Ralph's campaign for lieutenant governor of Georgia was beginning to roll -- "Look! Sean Hannity's here! Look! Zell Miller's got tiny bats flying around his head again!"-- he got himself caught up in all this sticky business regarding Indian gambling money.

Now, I never ran Jesus for Congress disguised as a Rotarian, the way Ralph used to do, but I know my Scripture pretty fair for a fallen sportswriter, and I'm very sure that the verse does not read, "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which is God's, and everything else goes to the Choctaws." In any event, Reed now may well turn out to be the first Georgia pol to get run out due to Indian trouble since the Creek War of 1836.

(It should be noted for the historical record that the casus belli for that particular war happened to involve the displacement of the Indians and the disposition of their vacated land by a dubiously conducted lottery. Indian gaming has come a long way since then, and if Jack Abramoff had been alive back in 1836, it's possible that the Creeks would own Augusta National today.)

On the subject of keeping really thick books out of the wrong hands, just as it's clear that Ralph and the Bible seem to have roughly the same relationship to each other as a short person has to a footstool, it's pretty obvious that we'd better keep Donald Rumsfeld away from dictionaries. Just last Sunday he was on "Meet the Press", trying vainly to explain to Monsignor Russert what Dick Cheney was talking about when the veep said the Iraqi insurgency was in its "last throes," considering that all kinds of things still appeared to be blowing up in Baghdad. Later, Rumsfeld engaged in a spirited argument with himself when he speculated that American troops might be in Iraq for 12 more years, which is an adult-sized throe, no matter how you slice it.

Anyway, Rumsfeld looked gravely at Russert, who seemed to be thinking dreamy thoughts about Jim Kelly, and he explained, "The last throes could be violence, as you well know, from a dictionary standpoint."

And, thus, did both "Funk & Wagnalls" -- to say nothing of "The American Heritage" and "Old English" -- join the "coalition of the willing."

Somehow, perhaps because he was wondering what his father had once told him about the respect due to secretaries of defense, Russert let this one slide unremarked. And I have to admit that my first reaction was to look upon Rumsfeld's words from what I have come to call the "thesaurus standpoint." To wit:

"Nonsense, poppycock, folderol, bunkum (or buncombe), bilge, balderdash, piffle, flummery, trumpery, rubbish, trash, moonshine, fiddle-faddle, flapdoodle, tommyrot, hogwash, malarkey, bushwa (or bushwah), huftymagufty, whoopla, hoopdedoodle, monkey-doodle, applesauce, baloney, tripe, horsefeathers." And I quickly moved on to look at Rumsfeld from the same perspective: "hoaxer, deluder, beguiler, humbugger, bamboozler, dissembler, Machiavel, cockatrice, sharper, jackleg."

And so on.

Now, of course, in the strictest possible sense, I must admit that Rumsfeld is correct. A last throe could be violent. Indeed, just before I put "The American Heritage" in an unarmored Humvee and sent it on its way, I noticed that "throe" inevitably is defined as "a violent pang" and, secondarily, as "a condition of agonizing struggle or effort." However, the "dictionary standpoint" is not a basis for consistent governance, and certainly not the foundation for a sophisticated public dialogue.

For example, Rumsfeld is often described as being in the president's cabinet. Using the "dictionary standpoint," then, it is not incorrect to speculate that perhaps Rumsfeld has taken to secreting himself away with Lucy Hayes' china in "an upright, cupboardlike repository with shelves, drawers, and compartments," and to point out that he's in there with, among other people, Condoleezza Rice. Speculation as to what may be going on is probably best left to Ed Klein.

The "dictionary standpoint" is a shortcut to anarchy. Consider that, according to Rumsfeld and this standpoint, it is not incorrect to state that, as "president," George W. Bush is "one appointed, or elected, to preside over an organized body of people, as an assembly or meeting." Appointed or elected? Bush has been both, and does Rumsfeld really want to open up that humidor of worms again? Doubtful.

It's impossible to overestimate the kind of peril in which Rumsfeld has placed his boss by demanding that we live by the "dictionary standpoint." Consider what the president famously said in his October 4, 2004, debate with John Kerry: "I hear there's rumors on the Internets that we're going to have a draft." Is it possible that the president meant that we're going to have "a narrow line chiseled on a stone to guide the stonecutter."

(Doubtful.) "The drawing in of a fishnet"? (Unlikely, except metaphorically as regards the Republican base.) Or was the president just inviting us all out for a couple of cold ones:

I hear there's rumors on the Internets that we're going to have "a drawing of a liquid, from a cask or a keg."

At least there's some precedent there with the man. Using the "dictionary standpoint," a couple of drafts and we might all understand what the hell was going on with that crack about "the Internets."
By Charles P. Pierce
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved