'Apologize," demands Walter Mondale of George Bush and Ronald Reagan. Some chance. Bush, in his debate with Geraldine Ferraro, charged that "my opponents" suggest that the American soldiers killed in Beirut "died in shame." The Reagan-Bush handlers have come up with no verification of that charge, but that hasn't kept Bush from refusing to apologize.
While he was piling up stones in that wall, the vice president said of his debate with Ferraro that he tried "to kick a little ass." That drew another demand for an apology, this time from Ferraro's campaign manager. No again. Nor will any regret be expressed by a Bush aide for his assessment of Ferraro as "bitchy."
Haven't the Democrats figured it out yet? They are dealing with an administration that has consistently and unapologetically traded in insults, trashings and character assassinations. Bush's slurs were no momentary lapses, nor was the "bitchy" jibe an off-color slip of the Republican tongue. This is their one-dimensional attitude, one that tells as much about the administration's collective character as its public policies.
Mondale and Ferraro should take comfort. They have a forum. At least they can talk back. They can get attention, though not justice. The Reagan bullyism has often been inflicted on the defenseless poor. The president, living in the White House mansion with a half-dozen soup kitchens and public shelters within two miles of it, said that people sleeping on heat grates "are homeless, you might say, by choice." Ed Meese, the noted behaviorist waiting to become a noted attorney general, has also been suspicious of the choices of the poor: "People go to soup kitchens because the food is free and that's easier than paying for it."
Meese has been the most unguarded of the Reagan insulters. He labeled the American Civil Liberties Union a "criminals' lobby." Of those who are out of work, he said that "when unemployment benefits end, most people find jobs very quickly after that point."
Reagan, the leader of the free world, has assumed leadership in the free-wheeling slur. He put down an entire nation -- the Soviet Union -- by calling it "the focus of evil in the nuclear world." Nearly 500,000 refugees have fled the violence of Central America. Reagan called them "feet people." His taste for snideness came out in his appraisal of the right-wing's conjectures that Martin Luther King Jr., was a communist: "We'll know in about 35 years, won't we?"
Reagan's talent for the insult persists even when he drifts into a state of mental goofiness. When in Brazil, the largest nation in South America, he called for a toast to "the people of Bolivia." When he met his secretary for housing and urban development at a conference of mayors, Reagan asked, "How are you, Mr. Mayor? How are things in your city?"
The president has still a third style of offending people with words: the indirect belittlement. He told some junior-high-school students in a poor section of Washington not to be overly concerned about such handicaps as having no school library. "I attended six elementary schools myself," said Reagan, "and in none of them was there a library." Reagan belittled the international community when saying why he didn't sign the Law of the Sea treaty: "I kind of thought when you go out on the high seas you can do what you want."
Who can examine this record of insults and say that here is a man of class? Reagan's reputation for distorting or botching the facts has dominated public awareness, but his recklessness with people's feelings has sent a message to his underlings: Do the same. Good soldier Alexander Haig surmised that the four churchwomen slain in El Salvador were running a roadblock. James Watt depicted environmentalists as "a left-wing cult which seeks to bring down the type of government I believe in." T.K. Jones, a deputy undersecretary of defense, said that "everybody's going to make it through nuclear war if there are enough shovels to go around. Dig a hole, cover it with a couple of doors and then throw three feet of dirt on top. It's the dirt that does it."
The standard defense for all this witlessness is that this or that comment was yanked out of context by the press. But this is a context of four years of relentless assault, a context from which the statements cannot be yanked because they are as imbedded as habits of mind.
For the Reagan administration to apologize for one insult to Walter Mondale would mean an apology for all of them to everyone. Such an order is too big. As Reagan, Bush and the others have been saying for four years, we think small.