Shootout in the Sky


This has not been a good week for George W. Bush. The market took a beating after the president attempted to goose public confidence in Wall Street by promising to lock the bums up . His multiple-heart-attack victim veep came under legal attack by a frothing conservative watchdog group, further fueling speculation that Cheney might resign. And now, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has given him the legislative equivalent of a 21-finger salute by overwhelmingly passing a bill that would allow airline pilots to be armed.

The Senate is likely to give this legislation the St. Valentine's Day Massacre treatment, but it's hard to understand why Bush, a Texan with supposed cowboy instincts and a lightning rod attorney general came down on the side of anti-gun activist Sarah Brady and Sylvester "I used to be a contender" Stallone on this one. The White House line that pilots should leave defense up to air marshals and stewardesses doesn't really fly.

Many of the prez's fellow travelers are none too happy about this (though one character from Little Green Men did inveigh against "imprudent bravery"). As one conservative wag put it, while pilots fighting back is verboten, "allowing them to be stabbed in the back with box cutters seems to be okay." But any House vote that goes 310 to 113 is evidence of what some politely call an issue's "resonance" i.e., it's an issue worth stealing.

Though piously pronouncing himself in favor of gun control "like all reasonable people," Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen opined that pilots should be armed to the teeth. Cohen asked why Bush, who signed a concealed-carry law as governor of the Lone Star State, thought it was appropriate to arm "every Tom, Dick and Harry" but not people who control some of the most potentially explosive projectiles known to man. Even the lefty American Prospect, after learning that hijacked planes will now be shot down, thought really hard about changing its position on pilot pacifism. And now, in what The San Jose Mercury News coyly calls a "surprise announcement", liberal California Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer has linked arms with Neanderthal New Hampshire Republican Sen. Bob Smith to pronounce arming pilots "a matter of life and death."

Like most political statements, that can be parsed a number of ways. One way concerns Bush's political prospects and his party's chances in this year's mid-term elections. The elephants are not terribly likely to pick up many seats by running to the left of the arguably the most liberal member of the Senate.