Who Gets To Be "Solomonic"?

Language and how we use it.
Aug. 27 2001 11:30 PM

Who Gets To Be "Solomonic"?

Though observers roundly disagree about the merits of President Bush's decision on stem cells, commentators on all sides do seem to concur on one thing: The decision was Solomonic. For some, like Newsweek, a Solomonic compromise seems to be a good thing, a deft political maneuvering. Soon, the magazine writes, "it should become clear if Bush's decision is a Solomonic compromise, or a cruel blow to millions of patients."

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For others, like the New York Observer, a Solomonic compromise seems to be a bad thing, a split decision that leaves neither side happy. "In another corner are the worthies who praise Mr. Bush's wisdom, even though his Solomonic compromise will enable scientific activities they supposedly abhor."

Summing up the apparent views of many, the Rev. Christopher E. Burcham wrote in the Orlando Sun-Sentinel that, from now on, the president should "simply be known as 'Solomon' Bush!"

Bush is hardly alone in being compared to Solomon. The Israelite king has been popping up a lot lately as the paradigm of sage, if unsatisfying, political hair-splitting. A quick Nexis search reveals countless solutions to tricky problems being called Solomonic, everything from the South Carolina state flag to exhaust regulations for light trucks to Jerusalem. Norman Mailer and George Will have both invoked the term. Even Ken Starr pleaded with John Ashcroft earlier this year not to pursue an out-of-court settlement with Microsoft, warning against "a 'Solomonic' solution, the mushy middle ground."

The term has become so ubiquitous that it would seem to apply to any situation that presents someone with a vexing moral dilemma. This would seem fitting, as Solomon himself faced such a situation when presented with two women who claimed the same baby. The only problem: When Solomon faced this situation, he wasn't wishy-washy, namby-pamby, Clintonian, or Rove-like at all. In fact, he made no compromise!

To review. Solomon is the 10th of David's 17 sons, who succeeds his father in a disputed coronation to become the third king of Israel in the 10th century B.C. With the legitimacy of his reign in doubt (Bush-like!), Solomon pleads to God for help, saying he is a "young lad, with no experience in leadership" (1 Kings 3). Immediately thereafter, two prostitutes come to the king bearing a baby. Both women recently gave birth to a son, but one of the boys died. Each woman claims the living child. "Fetch me a sword," the king announces. "Cut the live child in two, and give half to one and half to the other." Faced with this radical gesture, one woman urges him to split the baby in two, while the other pleads, "Give her the live child; only don't kill it." The king instantly realizes that the woman who wants to protect the child must be the real mother and rewards her with the baby.

And now comes the most important part of the story. Soon, in what is surely a tribute for his bold decision, God rewards Solomon "with wisdom and discernment in great measure, with understanding as vast as the sands of the seashore."

So Solomonic, it turns out, should be held up not as a paradigm of splitting the difference but of using political maneuvering to flush out posturing and do what's right. If that happens, then the term can be used in the sense of its dictionary definition—"showing wisdom or discernment." But until then, we shouldn't dress up compromise as the art of Solomon when, in the end, it's just politics.

Bruce Feiler is author of four books, including Learning To Bow and Under the Big Top. His most recent book, Dreaming Out Loud: Garth Brooks, Wynonna Judd, Wade Hayes, and the Changing Face of Nashville, was published last month.

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