Another Tack: Keeping the dog

Until Olmert's incredible performance, historians considered Nixon's 'Checkers speech' the ultimate benchmark for sympathy-squeezing.

Last week, in unspectacular Petah Tikva, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert addressed a Kadima audience, padded with hired cheerleaders, in a daring attempt to duplicate Richard Nixon's fantastic feat of nearly 55 years ago at Hollywood's El Capitan Theater. It was no mean undertaking by any stretch of the imagination, because until Olmert's incredible performance, political historians considered Nixon's "Checkers speech" the ultimate benchmark for disingenuous sympathy-squeezing. But already with the self-serving sanctimony-cum-confession of Olmert's opening sentence, our good ole native son eclipsed the hitherto peerless past master of temerity. "I am an unpopular premier," Olmert intoned dramatically, yet just defiantly enough to commend himself for his gallant sacrifices to the collective national cause. Then, with straight-faced aplomb, Olmert artfully proceeded to show us all that not all polls are created equal. Polls deemed advantageous must be portrayed as unimpeachable solid standards of moral justification to prettify any stratagem. These are polls to live by and base policy upon. But polls which cruelly underscore woeful lack of popular support embody fickle superficiality, obliging as upstanding a leader as Olmert to declare his determination not to wallow in distracting and shallow anxiety for approbation. In keeping with this duality of perception, once upon a forgettable long time ago - shortly before disengagement uprooted thousands of Israel's most loyal citizens from Gush Katif - Olmert hoarsely shouted at those earmarked for eviction: "According to the polls, the people want disengagement. You cannot impose your dream on the majority of the population." Olmert's antagonistic and typically aggressive hectoring came in reply to arguments by disengagement's opponents that their position prevailed in the elections (of 2003 against Laborite Amram Mitzna's mini-disengagement plank), to say nothing of the Likud referendum in which disengagement was convincingly trounced. Elected representatives, they asserted, cannot treat the platform on which they run as a disposable expediency to be disdainfully discarded as soon as they rake in the votes. Elections aren't a carte blanche to betray one's electorate. EXPULSION'S most acerbic and vociferous promoter retorted by essentially telling his critics that campaign promises count diddly, that they're canceled out by polls, that polls represent flexible mutable mandates. Polls, according to Olmert's own insistence in that heady summer of 2005, are the be-all-and-end-all. His one - then unmentioned, though obvious - caveat was that said polls must favor his interests. Otherwise, polls become misleading, unreliable and invalid. Unflattering polls inevitably abet sedition and subversion by undemocratic rivals, as Olmert bellyached in his "I-know-I'm-unpopular" tearjerker. Now that polls show his approval ratings down to 2 percent or 3% (depending on the survey quoted), polls seem to have lost their indisputable authority and irresistible attraction for Olmert. They're now truncheons with which to bludgeon him and illegitimately wrest away his power. To win our pity and/or grudging admiration for his tenacity-in-the-face-of-adversity, the stentorian bully from the PM's office posed desperately as the poor, persecuted underdog who, despite unparalleled rock-bottom repute, remains steadfastly unintimidated. What exemplary valor and utter dedication to duty! How can one not admire the true grit and unmatched gumption of our committed public servant's altruistic pledge to ignore the public's judgment and "continue to serve" said public despite its wishes. Olmert's foremost obligation is to not abandon his "workplace," as he put it. Like it or not, Olmert is staying on the job. THE ONLY trifling detail conveniently overlooked is that the voters are Olmert's bosses and these bosses no longer appreciate their employee's dishonorable professional record and sloppy skills. Glitches like last summer's Lebanese fiasco, the looming menace in the Gaza Strip he recklessly vacated or the neglect of civilians, North and South, soured widespread evaluations of his competence. But above all it was his arrogance even in the aftermath of blatant failure. At the very stage-managed Petah Tikva affair that provided the backdrop for Olmert's impersonation of an unfairly maligned martyr, he cynically sicked his vicious rottweiler Roni Bar-On on Kadima's most potent challenger (for now) Binyamin Netanyahu. Bar-On snarled, growled, yowled and snapped with over-the-top ferocity. Yet the more strident his bark, the more Bar-On's shrill sound-and-fury came off as frantic. Olmert's trained pooch plainly failed to make the crucial difference between irrevocable political doom and career salvation. Cuddly Checkers, in contrast, did the trick for Tricky Dickie in 1952, when it appeared that allegations of illicit campaign contributions might lead Dwight Eisenhower to drop his running mate from the ticket. Nevertheless, with the help of his trusted pup, the vice presidential candidate outmaneuvered all political detractors. In one of the first directly televised appeals to public opinion (and the likely inspiration for Olmert's ploy), Nixon astoundingly turned the tables on everyone. He depicted himself as a man of modest means whose wife must make do with a "respectable Republican cloth coat" instead of mink. Almost as good as Olmert's humble devotion to his workplace. But the real clincher came when Nixon admitted to accepting only one unreported contribution - Checkers, the family cocker spaniel. Possible detrimental consequences notwithstanding, Nixon heroically vowed - with the same unfaltering resolve that our Olmert would emulate more than five decades later - not to succumb to pressure, because "the kids, like all kids, love the dog, and I just want to say this right now that regardless of what they say, we're gonna keep it." America's heartstrings were effectively tugged. Ike couldn't now ditch Dick and GOP campaign managers quipped: "We're keeping the dog." Hopefully, we here won't keep our underdog nor the Nixon-wannabe's particularly nasty canine counterpart for charming Checkers. Tricky Ehud and Rottweiler Roni endanger our lives.