Other presidents 'jawbone,' but Obama 'extorts'

By Al Kamen
Friday, June 25, 2010

Good news for those who think the English language constantly evolves for the better. Take for example the recent flap over President Obama's pressuring BP to set aside $20 billion to help those who've lost income from the company's Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Back in 1961, when President John F. Kennedy, fearing an inflation uptick, threatened to use steel stockpiles to lower prices if the steel industry didn't overturn a recent price increase, it was called traditional "jawboning."

Reaction, as is pretty much always the case, fell along party lines, with the party not in the Oval Office opposing the action. Economists criticized it as bad policy, Republicans criticized it as wrong-headed and unwarranted government intrusion. Democrats naturally hailed the move as an example of strong leadership and a fine use of the bully pulpit.

Lyndon Johnson, a veteran of Senate arm-twisting and cajoling, jawboned to forestall airline and railroad strikes and such.

Richard Nixon decried the Democrats' jawboning but then, with inflation getting out of control, said, "We will have jawboning." And we did, until Nixon tweaked the free market system ever-so-slightly by imposing a wage and price freeze.

Jawboning had become so ingrained as a presidential activity that, in December 1999, candidate George W. Bush criticized President Bill Clinton because he didn't "jawbone OPEC members to lower prices."

Still, "jawboning" is an inelegant, imprecise and old-fashioned term. So after President Obama jawboned BP into setting aside that $20 billion, Republicans decided it was time to come up with sharper, evocative descriptions. Now it's a Mafia "shakedown," and "extortion," a criminal act against an outstanding company.

See? Much better.

Heavy vetting

You can feel the tension building as the long-awaited Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Solicitor General Elena Kagan's Supreme Court nomination begin at 12:30 p.m. Monday. You might even be thinking about paying one of those line-sitters to get there the night before to make sure you get a good seat at the beginning of this historic event.

Don't do it.

Committee Chairman Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) has decreed that the hearing will begin with each member having 10 minutes for an opening statement before Kagan gives her introductory remarks. Let's see. There are 12 Democrats, seven Republicans. So that's . . . three hours and 10 minutes? What with breaks, delays and so on, you'll get maybe four hours of blather and then Kagan's prepared statement and then they might head home.

Surely there's a soccer game or some tennis to watch instead of killing four hours of your life that you'll never get back. Veteran observers can't remember anything of note happening during these opening remarks. Former committee member Alan Simpson said members occasionally have done -- and might do -- impassioned riffs on unrelated issues such as the deficit or ethanol before saying, "Oh, I may have wandered away for a moment, Mr. Chairman," and then droning on about legal matters.

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