Death by Chutzpah

Susan J. Douglas

You know what I’m tired of? Chutzpah. Defined as utter nerve; effrontery,” chutzpah can be admirable, especially when people impolitely speak truth to power. But what about when power thumbs its nose at the truth? 

Those now brandishing the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld chutzpah torch threaten to derail the very policies that might save us.

Chutzpah remains one of the most significant legacies of the Bush administration. From the blaring Mission Accomplished” banner while U.S. soldiers and Iraqis were still dying, to Donald Rumsfeld’s cocky assurance that he could say stuff happens” in response to the looting after the U.S. invasion, Team Bush elevated chutzpah to new levels. And they got away with it for six years. 

The message? Chutzpah works. Despite the fact that, at the end of the day, chutzpah often backfires, the current playbook seems to be that you at least have to try it. And so now we are awash in chutzpah.

I live not far from Detroit, which was, for a while, Chutzpah Central. Its mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, was caught – and I mean caught, like with evidence and everything – having lied under oath about his affair with his chief of staff. He refused to step down and dragged the city through months of a destructive psycho-drama, and this in a recession-battered city that still hasn’t recovered from the riots and white flight of the 1960s.

Of course the Queen of Chutzpah is Sarah Palin, utterly shameless in her insistence that a person who could not name one newspaper or newsmagazine she had read, could not identify the major foreign policy doctrine of her own party, but who could detect Putin’s flying head over the Bering Sea, had the requisite qualifications to be the leader of the world’s largest superpower. 

The Republican base sure loves that chutzpah. You betcha.” So the House Republicans asked her to address their Virginia retreat at the end of January, which she declined, citing pressing state business in Alaska. Then, oops, turned out she was actually in D.C. to attend the super-elite party at something called the Alfalfa Club,” reportedly founded to celebrate the birthday of Robert E. Lee. 

At the same time she was lying to (and snubbing) her own party, she set up a Political Action Committee – in Arlington, Va., no less – which proclaimed that the Republican Party is at the threshold of an historic renaissance” because its key goals are – get this – healthcare, education” and energy independence.” You got to hand it to her, that’s chutzpah.

Speaking of the Republicans, they are pretending not to notice that they lost the election, because the economy is in the crapper, people have lost their jobs, are desperate for healthcare, and are really pissed at the rich people who got us into this mess. You want chutzpah? Check out House Minority Leader John Boehner, or Sen. John McCain, who said, in his opposition to the Obama stimulus plan, We need to make tax cuts permanent, and we need to make a commitment that there’ll be no new taxes.” 

Oh yeah? You think most people want all those tax cuts favoring hedge fund managers and CEOs made permanent? And as for opposing the stimulus packages, as New York Times columnist Frank Rich succinctly put it, The [Republican] party has zero leaders and zero ideas.”

But the real finalists in the chutzpah sweepstakes are, in this corner, Rod Blagojevich, and in the other corner, Wall Street bankers. What is so pathetic about Blagojevich is that he really drank the chutzpah Kool-Aid. He actually seemed convinced that if he remained defiant, did a media blitz and let Joy Behar tousle his hair on The View” that he would not be impeached. 

The ultimate chutzpah whores, though, are the Wall Street bankers. Nearly 2.6 million jobs – the highest number since 1945 – were lost in 2008, and an additional 200,000 in the first month of 2009. What did Wall Street bankers do? Gave themselves $18.4 billion worth of bonuses. 

Well, why not? Just days after getting their federal bailout, A.I.G. executives spent $440,000 on a retreat at the splendiferous St. Regis resort just south of Los Angeles. 

We’ve all had it with chutzpah. Well, except for the media. They give much more face time to chutzpah harlots like Blagojevich and Rush Limbaugh than they do to digging into the bailout and bonus scandals. It is the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld chutzpah that got us into this mess, and those now brandishing the chutzpah torch threaten to derail the very policies that might save us. This kind of chutzpah is not amusing or harmless; on the contrary, it is threatening to do us in.

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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.

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