I know it means I have the sensibilities of a thug, but I found Ambassador Lichenstein's rejoinder to the complaints of the Soviet ambassador to the United Nations pretty funny last week when I heard it. Its sarcasm and facetiousness seemed to me perfectly suited to the exasperatingly hypocritical assault that has been waged down over the years on this country's fitness as a home for the United Nations. The trouble, of course, was that the remark at once took on a larger life; it seemed to become part of an ill-considered American stomp on the United Nations at a moment when we were most earnestly seeking the members' cooperation and good opinion on matters ranging from Lebanon to KAL 007. We complain like crazy in this country about the boring, bland, two-faced and utterly empty yak-yak that passes for political and diplomatic discourse. But the truth is that those who dare to speak in something other than the prescribed puffed-wheat prose tend to get themselves--and sometimes all the rest of us --in trouble.
Lord knows, last week provided a wealth of examples of the potential treachery of speech and of the various limits on what public people can safely say. The question is worth exploring, it seems to me, because sometimes our revered leaders take too much heat for their verbal indiscretions and adventures--and sometimes not nearly enough. There are distinctions to be made.
Try to imagine for a moment that what you said, critically and worriedly but without malice, about one friend to another last week, appeared on page one of the paper. Or imagine the same of some bluff you made to try to get someone to do something wise and useful. Things can sound pretty raw outside their intended setting. Everything that is said in governmental life tends to be removed from its setting when it is reported, so that it often seems not the reasonable countermove or pressure it was meant to be, but rather an unprovoked and, frankly, somewhat deranged proclamation. You don't need to swoon with pity for Ronald Reagan to acknowledge that he does have this classic problem with respect to Lebanon. He is at the same time trying to tell the Syrians and their proxies that they had better look out for us because we are big and mean and spoiling for a fight while reassuring Congress that, shucks, we aren't planning to do much of anything at all.
The resulting seesaw of aggressive and demure statements reinforces an impression of confusion at best and duplicity at worst. For some reason, although we all understand the need for such conduct in our own lives, we are forever enraged that political leaders and government officials say one thing to one group and another to another. It is cowardly and odious, we say, forgetting that a mild and only mildly disingenuous form of such behavior is basically how human beings and groups and societies get their business done: we push and pull and bully and feint; we connive a little here, flatter (or, more kindly, "bolster") a little there; we demand more, we settle for less. But because we reject such conduct by government, we have helped to create the truly phony world in which it operates now.
The world is characterized by backstairs dealings in which true and understandable and fairly stark things are said while in public forums innocuous one-size-fits-all statements are routinely and cynically issued. If the private dialogue ever gets "out," scores of those who had no objection to it suddenly profess themselves "shocked." This is the unsavory game. It is played habitually and best, incidentally, at the United Nations by numerous members who privately ask the United States to say or do certain things which they know we won't mind their denouncing in public. It is all split-screen stuff. I am sorry to say that there are plenty of people in the press who play the game almost as well as it is played at the United Nations. Afflicted by terminal gotcha-ism, they, too, will pretend to be appalled by a statement whose context they fully understand and which, in truth, doesn't appall them at all.
You were wondering when I was going to get to the incomparable James Watt, and the answer is now. There are many reasons why this country's public figures get in the verbal soup as often as they do--brainwashed, lust in my heart and so forth. Generally, as it was with Ambassador Lichenstein, a fitting riposte in a limited context looks entirely different cast on a larger screen and made to seem like an unsolicited declaration of policy. Experienced politicians know this and usually resist provocation and enticement to say things they know will look baroque in tomorrow's headlines. When their human nature gets the best of them and they succumb, some even know how to get out of it. My favorite such episode was last February when Secretary Shultz, who in a Lichensteinian excess had suggested that American businessmen who didn't like U.S. trade policies "move to Japan or Western Europe," got out of it this way: "I wasn't tough. I was just a little bit annoyed and tired. No big deal."
The thing about Watt is that neither missing context nor unaccustomed pressure could be called to the rescue. I remember when Earl Butz's friends sought to justify his ghastly "joke" by saying it had been reported "out of context." That was when, having pondered it, I realized that there are some remarks for which no suitable context can be imagined. Watt's crudity of last week fell in that category. Nor could you plausibly argue that this was but the payoff for society's insistence on all these racial, ethnic and other designations of individuals in our public life today. For Watt has brought a coarseness of mind and a sniggering contempt to the subject that betray what seems to be a fixation, a need to return to the scene of the crime again and again. It has been his favorite subject. And he was clearly neither "annoyed" nor "tired." He was having fun.
My thought is this: if we are going to make public discourse into so tricky and perilous a venture for our leaders, we owe it, if not to them, at least to ourselves, to work out some standards for distinguishing among those who are caught in a hopeless bind, those we are merely ragging for a verbal lapse and those who have shown they are no damn good.