How's Your War?

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, December 5, 2006

I am of two minds about what Virginia Sen.-elect James Webb did at a White House reception for new members of Congress. After first trying to avoid speaking to George W. Bush altogether, he was forced to respond when the president approached him and asked, "How's your boy?" Webb replied, "I'd like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President." (Webb's son is a Marine serving there.) "That's not what I asked you," Bush said. "How's your boy?"

"That's between me and my boy, Mr. President," Webb said, ending the conversation right there. Bad manners? Yes. Understandable? Yes, again.

For this act of consummate rudeness, Webb was roundly reprimanded. George F. Will offered him a magisterial rebuke, and so, less magisterially, did some editorial pages. (Why did Webb go to the White House in the first place?) Not only is such behavior rude, but it is usually counterproductive. We don't want to get where we were in the late 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson became a virtual prisoner in the White House, avoiding antiwar demonstrators by simply staying home.

Even that sometimes does not work. Eartha Kitt confronted Lady Bird Johnson at a White House reception, telling her, "You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed." The next day's Post reported that the first lady went pale. Still, the war ended no sooner -- and not, I should note, before an impassioned opponent of the Vietnam War tried to throw Robert McNamara, the Don Rumsfeld of his day, off the Martha's Vineyard ferry. Much as he did while at the Pentagon, McNamara hung on.

Yet the dastardly act, aside from being oh-so-satisfying to the perp, can have its uses. In this case, it might have jarred Bush into appreciating the fact that many of his critics actually feel keenly about the war in Iraq -- that they are not mere political opponents but people who are morally appalled by a war that continues for no apparent reason. Maybe also the incident made him wonder about Webb, who, after all, hardly fits the demagogic antiwar stereotype constructed by Bush, Karl Rove and Fox News. Webb is a pugnacious sort, a former college boxer, Marine officer in Vietnam and secretary of the Navy under, of all people, Ronald Reagan. I would not, to his face, impeach his patriotism or suggest a dreamy liberalism.

Washington is a bad marriage with monuments. Just to get through the day, it's necessary to lower voices, modulate tempers, eschew insults, voice soft lies -- compromise, compromise, compromise. Quaint parliamentary rules have their utility -- no name-calling, please, and lots of grandiloquence about the "eminent gentleman" who in actuality is a skirt chaser who needs to trim his nasal hair. It is all necessary, like the rules of war or journalistic ethics. Sans manners, nothing would get done. Even with them, precious little is accomplished.

Still, there is accumulating evidence that Bush is talking to mirrors and taking instruction from his dog. He makes no sense, saying he's amenable to change one day and digging in his heels the next. "I'm not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete," he said recently. Yes. Absolutely. But what is the mission? Please, ask the dog. Lives are being wasted.

That, of course, is the whole point. This imbroglio about Webb and manners is, at bottom, about the (very) premature deaths of young people in Iraq -- the sons and daughters of people much like Webb. Their only hope is that Bush is a liar rather than a fool. There is ample evidence for both propositions. He vowed enduring loyalty to Rumsfeld while interviewing his replacement, and he has overseen the administration of the war with an incompetence that will earn him a special place in American history.

Maybe the president has a plan for disengaging in Iraq. Maybe, though, he is disengaged himself. If that is the case, the thought occurs that it would take a polite version of a Cagneyesque grapefruit in the face to get his attention. If Webb did that, then a medal, not a rebuke, is in order.

Now, Jim, behave yourself.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company