Obama's 'Sesame Street' quip: That's l'esprit!

And fie on the Cellini 3

President Barack Obama got off a smart rejoinder to challenger Mitt Romney's assertion during Wednesday night's presidential debate in Denver that if elected he would defund PBS.

"I just want to make sure I got this straight," Obama said archly. "He'll get rid of regulations on Wall Street, but he's going to crack down on Sesame Street."

Pow!

Only problem was, he delivered this snappy comeback some 15 hours too late — at a noon rally Thursday in Madison, Wis. — and thus reminded many observers of the many zinger opportunities Obama missed during his hesitant performance during the actual debate.

It recalled the handy French idiom "l'esprit de l'escalier," literally "the spirit of the staircase," used to describe the common experience of thinking too late of the perfect thing to have said. Eighteenth century French writer Denis Diderot coined it, and "staircase" alludes to the fact that many high society gatherings of his day took place on the second story.

In translation, Diderot explained, "A sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument leveled against him, becomes confused and can only think clearly again when he reaches the bottom of the stairs" on his way out.

Team Obama later explained that its strategy was not to engage in "serial fact-checking" of Romney's assertions, as though noncombative serenity in response to an opponent's pointed challenges is "presidential." And as though undecided voters are more impressed by mild expressions of astonished reproach than indignation and sharp refutation leavened with humor.

We want our presidents to be tough, even angry when the stakes are high. Forceful. Quick-witted. Incisive. Cool, perhaps, but not necessarily calm.

During the debate, Obama concluded by saying he'd kept his promise to "fight every single day on behalf of the American people and the middle class and all those who are striving to get in the middle class" and promised to "fight just as hard in a second term."

But he'd shown so little fight that the pledge fell flat.

The next presidential debate is a week from Tuesday at Hofstra University on Long Island, N.Y. If Obama doesn't bring l'esprit de Madison to the stage, a different French expression will apply to his re-election hopes:

Fin.

Shame on the 'Cellini 3'

"I hope none of you take this personally," said acting U.S. Attorney Gary Shapiro, speaking to reporters in the lobby of the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse Thursday, "but I'm not going to set journalists aside as some sacrosanct, pure body of people. Like politicians and lawyers and doctors and clergy, they're entitled to state their opinions."

He was answering questions about the startling aside during the sentencing hearing for William "Bill" Cellini in which Judge James Zagel mentioned that he had received "letters from three prominent journalists" in support of leniency for the former political power broker.

Who are these three? No one is saying, and their names are in a sealed file.

Added Shapiro, "I would never condemn them for taking a position they actually believe in."

Well, I'd condemn them — or I will, if their names ever become public or they choose to come forward and show us copies of their letters. Assuming they're working journalists, not retirees, they crossed a serious line when they intervened in a court case on behalf of a defendant.

Yes, sometimes journalists, particularly opinion writers, do take sides — stake out advocacy positions on legal matters based on research. But we always do so in public, to the public and on behalf of what we believe to be the public interest.

Our entitlement to state our opinions on private matters to advance private or personal interests is far more limited than that of politicians, lawyers, doctors and the clergy. Living with this limit is part of the bargain we strike when we decide to become journalists — not so that we can pose as sacrosanct and pure, but so that we can stake a plausible claim on your trust.

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