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Warthen: The failed hyperbole of the past eight years

QUICK, WHO said this?

“Americans have watched in horror as President Bush has trampled on the Bill of Rights and the balance of power.”

I’ll give you some hints:

A. Oliver Stone


C. An overexcited intern at the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee

D. The New York Times

The answer is “D.” Yes, I’m sorry to say that overwrought purple prose was the lead sentence last week in the lead Sunday editorial of the paper I was so recently congratulating for having the good sense to back the Columbia Free Trade Agreement. (And they made so much sense that day.)

Editorial writers — particularly at one of the best papers in the country — are supposed to use words with care and discrimination. Some say I occasionally fail to do that. For instance, some say I was mean, nasty and ugly to Gov. Mark Sanford in my column last week. Go read the letter to the editor from the governor’s press aide that ran in Wednesday’s paper (as always, you will find links to that, and the NYT piece, and any other linkable item mentioned in this column, in the Web version on my blog — and the address for that is below). An excerpt:

This editorial page was once respected as a voice for good government. Now, thanks to Brad’s childish screeds, fewer and fewer people are reading.

And yet... I challenge you go find anything that I said in that column that comes anywhere near the unsupported, gross hyperbole of “watched in horror” or “trampled on the Bill of Rights.”

So does President W. get all excited and whip off a letter to protest to the NYT? I doubt it. Nah, he just spends the week working with Barack Obama as though he were already in office, as though they were co-presidents — which, by the way, is exactly what he should be doing, in this extraordinary economic crisis. (I wonder: If this period of cooperation between the president and president-to-be does not lead to economic miracles, will someone look back on the interregnum in January and denounce “the failed policies of the past eight weeks?”)

Democrats are thrilled that at long last, Bush will no longer be in office. Me, too. He can’t leave soon enough. But I’m even more thrilled that after January, I won’t have to listen to any more semi-deranged yammering about the guy. You know that I never liked him — he’s the guy who did in my guy (remember John McCain?) in the 2000 S.C. primary. But I have never, ever understood why some hate him so much. The Bush haters can’t simply say, “I disagree with Mr. Bush and here’s why.” They have to go way beyond reason in condemning him absolutely in terms that render him utterly illegitimate.

Get a grip, people. It’ll be over soon.

Oh, and for those of you who will say, “But the Times went on to support its statement” — no, it didn’t. Sorry, folks, but his playing fast and loose with federal law regarding wiretapping, to cite one example given, just doesn’t amount to “trampling on the Bill of Rights.” He should have worked from the start to change the law rather than skirting it (as our own Lindsey Graham and others urged), but he did nothing to instill “horror” in a rational person. You “watch in horror” as a gang of thugs rape and murder an old lady — you merely disagree with something so bloodless as monitoring telecommunications without proper authorization.

Not following me? OK, here are some more things one might “watch with horror:” The My Lai massacre. The butchery in Rwanda in the 1990s. Gang-rape and mutilation of victims in Darfur. The Hindenburg disaster. The Twin Towers falling on 9/11. The Japanese reducing Pearl Harbor to a smoking ruin. Men, women and children being herded into the Nazi death camps. The Bataan Death March.

Get the idea? To apply those words, “watched with horror” to, for example, “the unnecessary invasions of privacy embedded in the Patriot Act” (you know, a law passed by Congress, which Congress can change at any time) as the Times did is to suck all of the meaning out of those words. Once you use those words to describe imprisoning terrorists (real or imagined) at Guantanamo (the main sin listed in the editorial), they no longer have force. If you watch that “with horror,” what words do you use to describe the fire-bombing of Dresden?

People should not fling words about so carelessly. As a professional flinger of words, I know.

Now I’ll fling a few more for you Democrats who are watching with horror as I “defend” the outgoing president (when what I’m really doing is defending the language): Folks, settle down. I get it; you don’t like the guy. You like Barack Obama. Well, so do I (he was, after all, my second choice for president). I expect that I, too, will prefer an Obama administration to the past eight years. He’s off to a good start.

But before we say goodbye to this era, let’s resolve in the future to do what Sen. Obama does so well — speak with sanity and moderation, and mean what we say.

Read the Times piece and more at