I WAS going to bash Bush until the latest poll figures arrived. You have to bash somebody these days, and bashing Bush sounded like an amusing idea. The alliteration of the two "b's" combined with the paired "sh" sounds made bashing Bush almost irresistible.
What's more, the cruelty of the bashing would be softened, even made to seem harmlessly comical, by those two terminal "sh's" with their suggestion of air hissing out of a flat tire. It did not sound at all like a typical press mugging of the day's more bashable politicians. It sounded like a Laurel-and-Hardy exercise, which is to say, like a bashing that would make witnesses feel jolly rather than sour or homicidal.
That pleased me, for while I realize one must bash with a will these days in order to keep the columnist's franchise, bashing does not suit my temperament. In the higher reaches of journalistic power they say of me, "He does not bash well and he lunches even worse."
This has hobbled my rise to the journalistic apex where there is little room for either the bush-league basher or the man who consistently avoids the three-hour feast at Maxim's for a lunch of yogurt and grapes in the company cafeteria, not to mention -- now that I think of it -- the windbag who constantly insists on digressing into endless discussions of his own boring habits.
In any event my plan for a hearty Bush-bashing had to be dropped when CNN reported that its own poll showed the president's approval rating had dropped to 44 percent. Considering that just a few weeks ago all polls showed the public rating him right up there alongside champagne and four aces, the drop to 44 percent seemed a bashing far worse than any mere journalist could give him.
A bashing from me would be worse than superfluous; it would be bashing a man when he's down. So where was a columnist to find a suitable bashee? There were always the liberals, of course. President Bush himself has been traveling around bashing the liberals.
Still, if bashing Bush just now amounts to bashing a man when he's down, bashing the liberals is like bashing a vampire after the stake has been driven through its heart. If bashing some wretched president who is already too bashed to bash back is sport only bullies can enjoy, what can be said of somebody who would bash the dead?
Yes, to be sure, Bush bashes them, but political necessity requires that he pretend they still live, still battening on the nation with their schemes for spending us into a bankruptcy even more magnificent than the bankruptcy President Reagan left us for sound, honorable, peace-loving, conservative reasons.
The reason Bush must bash them is this: Patrick Buchanan and David Duke are about to start bashing Bush with charges defined in the Encyclopedia of Bashing under the heading "Liberalism, selling out to." To offset this Buchanan-Duke Bush-bashing, Bush must bash liberals as though he really believed they were not crushed, buried and given the stake-through-the-heart treatment by the conservative triumphs of 1980, 1984 and 1988.
Presidents threatened with heavy bashing may be justified in defending themselves by bashing the dead, but it is unworthy of journalists. And so I thought of bashing Washington. That's right, the entire nation's capital, as the license plate calls it. Ed Rollins, one of the higher-level Republican political wizards, suggested this to Bush the other day in an article in the New York Times. Bush should bash Washington, he said.
Being a wizard, Rollins cannot be lightly ignored, but if Bush is not Washington, who in the world is? There hasn't been a president so completely marinated in Washington since -- well, since Washington himself. Since politics seems to operate nowadays, and successfully too, on the principle that you really can fool all of the people all of the time, I suppose Bush really could get re-elected by bashing himself.
Columnists, however, should rise above the temptation to make sport of the poor voter. Hence I refuse to bash Washington. Not because it would sound as silly as washing Bashington. Not at all. It's because bashing Washington would amount to the same thing as bashing Bush. Or, to put it more plainly, it would be as undignified as bashing Bushington.
Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.