Heller catches Potomac fever

During the early 1970s when Vice President Spiro Agnew drew protestors, he had a habit of blowing a whistle into his microphone and pointing at the protesters. He seemed to be trying to egg the crowd on against the protesters.

A couple of days before the 1972 election, Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern was in Battle Creek, Mich. At the airport he was walking along a fence shaking hands with members of the public when he encountered a young man who shouted at him: “Four more years, four more years. We’ll beat you so bad, you’ll wish you never left South Dakota.”

McGovern leaned close to the fellow and said, “I’ve got a secret for you.” When the fellow leaned toward McGovern, the candidate whispered in his ear, “Kiss my ass.” The exchange would have gone without notice if a reporter had not been standing close enough to overhear.

Author Bob Greene later wrote that it was noteworthy that McGovern didn’t try to embarrass the fellow, didn’t point him out to the crowd or whistle at him.

That brings us to the behavior of U.S. Rep. Dean Heller of Nevada. We’re accustomed to reading about protesters acting boorishly toward congressmembers at public meetings. In Carson City, it was the other way around. According to Geoff Dornan in the Nevada Appeal, Heller was speaking to the Carson City Rotary when he asked if anyone in the room had used the “cash for clunkers” program. One man raised his hand, whereupon Heller told him, “Congratulations. Everybody else in the room paid for your car.” The man, angered, walked out of the room after telling Heller, “I have better things to do than be insulted by a man who hasn’t learned anything. I’ll never vote for you again.”

Heller later said, “I know I embarrassed someone, and I apologize for that, but I don’t think everybody has a right to own a new car.” As apologies go, that one stinks. Either he is sorry for his bad manners or he isn’t. There is no but.

Dornan reported, “Heller said the comment wasn’t intended as an insult, but was aimed at the program he says is an improper use of government money.” What does he consider an insult? Heller was invited to a Carson City service club, accepted the invitation, used his speech to insult one of its members or guests in front of the entire club, and rationalizes it by saying he was trying to make a political point.

Is Heller so intellectually shallow being rude was the only way he knew to make his point? How about if, instead of singling someone out, Heller had simply told the club, “All of you here are paying for the cash for clunkers program”?

Instead, he chose to be uncivil and ill-mannered toward one specific citizen—not another public figure—which tells us a lot about his attitude toward the public. This is not the Dean Heller this state knew in the Nevada Legislature and the secretary of state’s office. Whatever valid point Heller wanted to make does not license his abusing a citizen. The conduct we so often observe in Washington, D.C., has rubbed off on him. A couple of terms in federal office have certainly had an impact on Heller. They’ve made him a lout.