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Writer blasts candidates for not lashing out

The Baltimore Sun

Another fine political year is upon us, with seesaw races and fresh-baked dramas daily, high dudgeon, flights of fancy, tireless flesh-pressing, and thanks to the Web, you can feast on it anytime, night or day - no need to sit by a TV and wait for the show to start.

If reality has any bearing on the 2008 election, it should be a Democratic year, but campaigns are romantic ventures and illusion is part of the deal, just as in actual courtship. So anything is possible. And that's what makes a man walk barefoot out on a freezing-cold porch floor and pick up the paper in the morning. While the Democrats are talking wonkish talk about health care and education, you are waiting for three Iranians in a skiff to hurl loose gravel at an American aircraft carrier and for this to become the next chapter in the war against terror and give Rudolph W. Giuliani a chance to talk about waterboarding again.

Before we get to the monster February primaries, however, let's clear the air on the subject of Going Negative.

All of the presidential hopefuls out there, save the ones from the Aryan Party and the Animal Rights Coalition, are locked into a standard of limp decorum such as one would find in a campaign for student council at a Quaker high school. There is less name-calling or mudslinging or true feeling than you'd find in any living room with an NFL game on the TV.

Look at any newspaper story with the verb "blasted" or "lashed out" in the headline and you're astonished at what passes for blasting and lashing these days. If one candidate questions another candidate's version of the facts, this is considered a blast, though there is no explosion, just some light poking.

The Washington Post said Mike Huckabee "lashed out" at Mitt Romney for having shifted positions on abortion and gun control, and ABC News said Sen. Barack Obama "lashed out" at Bill Clinton for mischaracterizing Mr. Obama's record on the war in Iraq, and meanwhile, according to Time, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton "lashed out" at both Mr. Obama and John Edwards in the New Hampshire debate, though it didn't mention what she was lashing about. NPR said Sen. John McCain "lashed out" at Mr. Romney for saying Mr. McCain had voted against tax cuts in the Senate, and the Chicago Tribune reported that Mr. Romney "lashed out" at Mr. McCain for being "pessimistic" about the prospects of job growth in Michigan.

The word "lash" suggests a swift, hard blow and a KRRRAAACKKKKK and probably an "AIIIIEEEEEEEE." A whip might be involved, or bare knuckles. To accuse someone of pessimism does not qualify as lashing. The word is "chiding," or perhaps "fussing at," or "taking to task."

The barefoot man on the cold porch is hoping for bare-knuckle invective, but it simply doesn't exist anymore.

In Britain, they called Margaret Thatcher "Attila the Hen," but that was a long time ago. Someone unfriendly to the former assistant secretary of defense came up with "Wolfowitz of Arabia," which was good, but no cigar compared to Sir Winston Churchill, he of the ringing oratory ("We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender"), who was a pugnacious campaigner. "He is a modest little man with much to be modest about" still stings, even if you don't know who Clement Attlee was. Mr. Churchill did not lash out so much as quietly draw the blade against the throat.

The candidates are hoping to be affable, brave, capable, decisive, electable, etc., but wit and combativeness are not evidently what Americans hope for in a leader; otherwise, the pollsters would have located this hope and measured it, and speechwriters would be assigned to write invective that truly lashes and makes the lashee weep for pain. Personally, I think it would be a blast.

It's up to Republicans. They gave us a president who, with all due respect to fools and idiots, is a fool and an idiot. The least they can do now is be a little entertaining.

Garrison Keillor's column appears Thursdays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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