It has been a couple of weeks now since President Obama committed the political sin of speaking candidly. As you'll recall, he commented at a news conference that the Cambridge, Mass., police had "acted stupidly" in arresting a Harvard scholar in his own home.
Although his spokesman fell all over himself in backing away from such an impolitic observation, further reports revealed that not only had the police acted stupidly but that they had been less than accurate in their accounts of the event. The “beer summit” resulted.
I’m not sure the episode did much to improve the state of race relations, but it did leave us with a formulation that can be useful in critiquing a variety of other actions.
One of the virtues of Mr. Obama’s phrase is that it distinguishes the action from the actor. Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley, for example, doesn't appear to be a stupid man. He just acted stupidly. Who among us hasn't?
Take the incident last weekend behind the Cafe Berlin. Most reasonable people — which is to say people like you and me — would agree that someone who chooses to urinate in a public alley is probably acting stupidly, no matter how intelligent he might otherwise be. That stupid action led to an even more stupid reaction by Columbia police.
They pepper-sprayed the guy, wrestled him to the ground and, as he lay there, hit him with their new weapon of choice, the Taser. The video posted on the Missourian Web site shows eight or 10 officers milling around by the time the poor devil was hauled to his feet and taken away. Now the CPD is examining the officers' actions. An earlier Missourian analysis of such self-examinations suggests that this one, too, will determine that they did nothing wrong. But stupid? I'd say so.
In politics, of course, stupidity is in the eye of the beholder. So actions that look stupid to me probably seem perfectly plausible to our congressman, Blaine Luetkemeyer. Mr. Luetkemeyer, along with most of his Republican colleagues, voted not once but twice against the most successful economic stimulus plan of the year, Cash for Clunkers. Even Kit Bond, our senior senator and himself no stranger to stupid actions, has grudgingly conceded its positive impact in this car-dependent state.
Rep. Luetkemeyer, by the way, is currently on a junket to Israel, a trip paid for by the foundation associated with AIPAC, the Israeli lobbying powerhouse. (I learned the latter from *Jason Rosenbaum's excellent politics blog.)
Acting stupidly is by no means the exclusive province of police or politicians. What can those three young Americans have been thinking when they chose to hike along (and across) the border between Iraq and Iran? What will be the diplomatic and monetary cost of extracting them from the clutches of the ayatollahs?
At least one of the three describes himself as a freelance journalist. We all know that the genre of stupid journalistic tricks is well established. One that I'd put much further up the stupidity scale is the ongoing, baseless questioning, most persistently by CNN's Lou Dobbs, of Mr. Obama's citizenship. There's not a shred of evidence to support the questioning, which brings Mr. Dobbs to the unmarked border between stupidity and malice. Or is it just unprincipled opportunism?
The roster of stupid actions is almost endless: DNR withholds a report of pollution in the Lake of the Ozarks for fear of hurting tourism. Missouri legislators remove the requirement for motorcycle riders to wear helmets, earning Gov. Nixon's wisest veto so far.
I'll close with our president himself. He invited Sgt. Crowley and Professor Gates to the White House for a beer. And what did Mr. Obama drink? Bud Light. Now that's just stupid — and a bad example for beer drinkers everywhere.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.