Jeff Jacoby

Random musings to ponder

By Jeff Jacoby
Globe Columnist / June 13, 2010

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PRESIDENT OBAMA has been criticized in some quarters for showing insufficient emotion over the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but resorting to a vulgarism on the “Today’’ show — he told Matt Lauer he was consulting with experts “so I know whose ass to kick’’ — came across as unseemly coarseness, not righteous anger.

Until now, even presidents known for their blistering use of expletives in private had always avoided any hint of gutter language when speaking publicly. Obama’s phrase may not be English at its crudest, but when it comes from the head of state in a televised interview, the potty-mouthing of American culture advances another notch.

Rather than heeding those who urge him to act angry, Obama might consider the example of George Washington, who had a famous temper that he took great pains not to display. Washington kept a hand-copied list of 110 rules of civility, several of which emphasized keeping anger reined in. “In reproving show no sign of choler’’ was one of them. Another advised: “Use no reproachful language against any one; neither curse nor revile.’’ The first president took such counsel to heart. The 44th, like the rest of us, could profit from his example.

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WHEN HELEN THOMAS sniped that Israel’s Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine’’ and “go home’’ to Poland and Germany, she displayed more than just hostility for the Jewish state. She also revealed her ignorance of basic Israeli demography.

Contrary to the anti-Zionist stereotype, Israel is not primarily a nation of Europeans and their descendants: The largest share of Israel’s population is ethnically Middle Eastern and North African. Some Jewish survivors from “Poland and Germany’’ did find haven in Israel after the Holocaust, but a far greater number of Israeli Jews were refugees from the Arab world. “Jews In Grave Danger In All Moslem Lands,’’ reported The New York Times in May 1948, “Nine Hundred Thousand in Africa and Asia Face Wrath of Their Foes.’’ In the years that followed, ancient Jewish communities in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere were decimated as their inhabitants fled from anti-Semitic violence and terror. Israel absorbed most of those refugees, so that they and their descendants — the Jews indigenous to the region — became the core of the country’s population.

■ ■ ■

A NEW Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that only 29 percent of Americans are prepared to reelect their incumbent representative in the US House this fall, while 60 percent say they are “inclined to look around for someone else to vote for.’’ The Post concludes that “anti-incumbent sentiment [is] at an all-time high.’’

It’s a widespread view. “Anti-incumbent mood as US voters pick candidates’’ was how Reuters headlined one story last week. “Anti-incumbent wave has Washington on the ropes,’’ NBC’s David Gregory advised his Twitter followers. Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi conceded at a press conference that “there’s no question’’ about the anti-incumbent resolve of American voters this year.

Don’t bet on it.

According to Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, no more than 100 of the 435 US House seats on the ballot this November can be remotely considered “competitive.’’ Of them, only 24 are rated genuine toss-ups, and only 16 more are held by one party in a district that leans to the other party. Assuming Sabato is right — and granted, anything can happen between now and November — only 40 House seats are truly in play. In other words, roughly 90 percent of US House seats are safe.

Alas, roughly 90 percent of US House seats are always safe. In the 23 congressional elections since 1964, the reelection rate of US representatives dropped below 90 percent only five times — and only once in the last 30 years. In 2006, a Democratic surge swept Republicans from their House majority — yet 94 percent of the House was reelected. In 1994, an even larger Republican surge washed Democrats from control — but the overall reelection rate was still 90 percent.

“Nothing is so essential to the preservation of a republican government as a periodical rotation,’’ declared Virginia statesman George Mason during the debate over the Constitution’s ratification. Voters routinely say they agree, but that isn’t how they vote. An “anti-incumbent wave?’’ Most congressmen won’t even get wet.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at

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