The most charitable explanation I can come up with for former GOP Rep. Dick Armey's wild retro outburst at me on Wednesday's "Hardball" is that he knows I'm a huge "Mad Men" fan, and wanted to throw me back into the sad straitened sex roles of the early 1960s, but without the afternoon cocktails or Joan Holloway's hot dresses.
Apparently I've been lucky. I've never before had a man try to win an argument -- public or private -- by saying "I am so damn glad that you could never be my wife," as Armey famously did, when he ran out of arguments about President Obama's recovery bill. But I should have known that the guy best known for calling Barney Frank "Barney Fag" would throw me a strange curveball. As far as I can tell, it flew around and hit Armey in the face. Just like the Rush Limbaugh insults we were supposed to be debating, it showed the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the right-wing political project in 2009. Judging from my e-mail and blogosphere reaction, Armey's attack on me was as effective as the House Republicans voting unanimously against the stimulus bill that passed the House overwhelmingly without them. (Glenn Greenwald links Armey's crazy assault with his impotent former House minions' latest moves very well, here.)
Like Barack Obama, I want to be magnanimous, mostly. A lot of people have asked why I wasn't meaner in my comeback to Armey. Mainly, I felt sorry for him; he'd clearly run out of arguments, and he wasn't raised to know how to argue with female opponents as well as male. The thing is, for guys of Armey's generation and backward political views, once you've rigged the world so that women and non-white people can't compete with you on equal terms, life is easy: You're always up against a bunch of white guys you've grown up with, and you know how to win. When late in life the game changes, and you find yourself having to argue with a whole new cadre of smart, opinionated women, black people, Latinos, Asians, gays, well, it's gotta suck.
That's what led to Rush Limbaugh's whine about the real outrage of Obama's presidency, which is what ultimately drove Armey over the line with me: "We are being told that we have to hope he succeeds, that we have to bend over, grab the ankles, bend over forward, backward, whichever, because his father was black, because this is the first black president." Poor Rush! Poor Dick! Rush and Dick are finding they have to bend over forward and backward, whichever, and debate blacks and women and god knows who else, and who can blame them for their frustration, Rush looking around for his Oxycontin and Viagra and babbling about grabbing his ankles; Dick spouting off idiotically, "I am so damn glad that you could never be my wife." (Something upon which Armey and I, by the way, thoroughly agree.)
My heart goes out to Rush and Dick, seriously. And even more to poor, de-pantsed Phil Gingrey, a Republican congressman from Georgia. A few days ago Gingrey tried to tell Rush to back off, to stop criticizing congressional Republicans because he can't know how hard they have it, but within 24 hours he'd phoned in to the radio host's show to apologize to Limbaugh. "I clearly ended up putting my foot in my mouth on some of those comments (laughs) and I just wanted to tell you, Rush, and -- and all our conservative giants who help us so much to maintain our base and grow it and get back this majority, that I regret those stupid comments." Talk about grabbing your ankles.
Limbaugh, Armey and Gingrey are lost. They have no ideas for the economy (Armey kept babbling "tax cuts, tax cuts" on "Hardball" yesterday), they're captives of a narrow base ("real people" who love Limbaugh, Armey called them; narrow-minded people mysteriously obsessed with who might make them grab their ankles, is how I'd put it). Guys like Gingrey can't get reelected in their districts if they do the right thing for the country. But in most of the country today, they can't get elected if they don't. Their time has passed, and they know it.
The only person I felt sorrier for than Dick Armey Wednesday night was his wife. In 1998 he made her semi-famous by saying, during President Clinton's impeachment, "If I were in the President's place I would not have gotten a chance to resign. I would be lying in a pool of my own blood, hearing Mrs. Armey standing over me saying, 'How do I reload this damn thing?'" I wonder what she thought Wednesday night.
In related, happier news: President Obama just signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. I can't think of a better rejoinder to the Dick Armeys of the world.