For once, the Democratic Party showed a little imagination (and plenty of balls) by crossing up the conventional wisdom and selecting a DNC chairman who actually has some leadership skills and something substantive to say. It's quite an astonishing leap to go directly from the Clintons utterly amoral bag man, Terry McAuliffe, to the man that both Republicans and Democrats-posing-as-Republicans love to hate, Howard Dean. I must confess to being a tad shocked that he was selected. I predict that with his penchant for saying what's on his mind, however politically incorrect it might be, he's going to shake up the slumbering party in the same way that Harvard prez Larry Summers is roiling the formerly smooth academic discourse in Cambridge. But he also showed that he's learned something since last year about crafting a message that straddles various positions. Even before he got the DNC nod, he came up with this brilliant little formulation about religious faith, which leaves the party's weak Congressional leadership duo of Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Harry Reid in the dust: "We can talk about our faith, but we cannot change our faith. We need to be people of conviction." Amen, Howard.
Helen's House. During the Reagan years, a writer named Mark Hertsgaard wrote a fine book about the toothless White House press corps. Entitled On Bended Knee, the cover photo said it all: dozens of human lapdogs huddled together, with microphones and cameras outstretched, waiting for their morsels of gruel from the designated press handlers. For 40 years, one of the leading figures of that corps, the now-elderly Helen Thomas, stood out for her singularly aggressive, independent-minded questioning. To her everlasting credit, she quit the venerable United Press International wire service five years ago when it was purchased by the Moonie Church. Today, even at 84, she remains a thorn in the Bushies' side, speaking out forcefully as a columnist for Hearst News Service. She has decried the administration's "bullying drumbeat" and pointed out in her writing and her public speaking that in 40 years of covering several presidents, she had never before encountered a president who was eager to go to war. "Where's the outrage?" she keeps asking. Where, indeed.
But I think all of that was mere prelude to her most telling encounter yet. It occurred a few weeks ago, and unfortunately it wasn't covered anywhere that I noticed. In a testy exchange with White House press secretary Scott McClellan, the Bush mouthpiece tried to intimidate her with the suggestion that she had insisted that that U.S. is not better off with Saddam Hussein out of power. She cooly countered that she had said no such thing, but had asked why so many Iraqi civilians had to be killed. McClellan responded by saying that it was his briefing, and that she could offer her viewpoint from somewhere other than the White House press room. The elderly Lebanese-American lady, who's been crossing swords with far smarter flaks than this in the last half century, won the encounter with the simplest, truest answer she could offer--by noting that this was her White House, too. I say good for Howard Dean and Helen Thomas, each playing a role their citizenship permits. It's good to see that brass balls are available in both genders.