By James P. Pinkerton
Remember the golden apple of discord? That fateful fruit triggered the Trojan War. At his news conference Tuesday, President Bush showed he, too, can lob a mean apple at the Democrats.
In Greek mythology, the gods were feasting when Eris, the goddess of strife, threw a golden apple on the dinner table; inscribed on it was, To the most beautiful. Naturally, all the goddesses thought the apple was meant for them. To settle the controversy, Zeus sought out a mortal, from Troy. Next thing, the Greeks were involved, too -- and the rest is history, of a kind.
OK, back to contemporary American politics. Bush has thrown the apple of discord onto the Democrats table. Yes, he and his poll ratings are down, mired in Iraq, but he figures if the Democrats are also at war -- with each other -- then the donkeys will be in no position to exploit the elephants weakness.
Bushs discordant apple is the home-front wrangle over Iraq. Many Republicans and conservatives are disillusioned over the course of the war, but even so, they dont want to see their president and their party getting hammered by Democrats and liberals. So if Bush is attacked, they must defend.
Thus Ws news conference. For years, he has mostly avoided taking questions from media veteran Helen Thomas, who stands out as the Bush-bashingest member of the White House journalistic corps. Back in 2002, Thomas revealed her approach to punditry: I wake up and ask myself, Who do I hate today? The answer, quite often, is Bush. On the eve of the 2004 presidential election, she prophesied that a victory for the radical right would mean more mindless wars abroad and a widening gap between the rich and the poor. Now 85, Thomas feels completely free to vent. And so when Bush changed his strategy and called on her, he knew he was going to get a blast. Thomas did not disappoint: With Bush having killed so many innocent people in Iraq, she wanted to know why he was such a warmonger.
In response, Bush acted with an above-the-fray good humor that was, well, Olympian. He prefaced his answer with in all due respect to your question and to you as a lifelong journalist. . . . But, of course, even as he was being polite, he was also dishing red meat to his base -- what hard-core Republican is fond of lifelong journalists? As Thomas flailed at Bush, the presidents supporters saw her as the embodiment of all the liberals and all the Democrats who despise Bush. And so the right rallied round its president. On Tuesday, Bill OReilly and Sean Hannity of Fox News devoted segments to defending Bush and/or trashing Thomas.
Of course, Thomas vehemence gained her new fans on the left, too; that same night she was prominently featured on CNN and CBS. Having made herself part of the story with her antagonistic questioning, she found herself feeding the polarization -- and the energization -- of both sides.
The problem for Democrats is that Thomasism, defined as extreme hatred of Bush, plays poorly with Americans as a whole. After all, this is a moderate-to-conservative country; the Democrats can regain power only if they look moderate, too. But dont bother explaining that to the fringe activists who want to censure Bush or even impeach him. In their blogged-up anti-Bush frenzy, they dont care if their extremism dashes Democratic chances in November.
If the Iraq war continues, and if Bush keeps answering Thomas-type questions, the Democrats dilemma is likely to worsen. If party professionals cant restrain them, Thomasite activists will want to nominate one of their own in 2008, someone almost certainly unelectable, such as would-be censurer-in-chief Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.
So yeah, Bush has big problems. But as long as he can throw nasty apples down on the Democrats -- causing discord among them -- he can give them bigger problems.
Special to Newsday