"Calibrate me."

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March 28 2003 2:41 PM

"Calibrate Me"

Gulf War II gives us a new phrase.

Every war has a vocabulary all its own. World War II introduced the words "snafu," "flak," and "quisling" to the English language. Vietnam gave us "in country," "grunt," and "fragging." Sept. 11, which kicked off the war in Afghanistan, gave us "let's roll." Now Gulf War II has given us this priceless Rumsfeld-ism: "Calibrate me."

The defense secretary is, of course, someone in need of frequent calibration. His description of Western European countries that weren't supporting the war in Iraq as "Old Europe," his dismissive remark about Britain's significance to the war effort ("there are workarounds"), and, yesterday, his appallingly cavalier suggestion that the United States cares more about nation-smashing than nation-building ("I don't believe the United States has the responsibility for reconstruction") all demonstrate that Rumsfeld has a strong propensity toward bluster.

Given that inclination, Chatterbox was intrigued yesterday to see Rumsfeld say to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, while answering a reporter's question about the position of Iraq's Republican Guard, "Calibrate me, Dick." This isn't quite as insulting as it sounds because the Joint Chiefs chairman's name happens to be "Dick," or, more formally, Gen. Richard Myers. Still, it seemed to convey that Rumsfeld considers precision to be the province of lesser mortals. He has people for that. Indeed, this isn't the first time Rumsfeld has called on Dick to calibrate him. "Dick, calibrate me if I'm wrong," Rumsfeld said at a press briefing in October 2001, when asked if al-Qaida had a role in 1993's disastrous "Black Hawk Down" firefight in Somalia. Chatterbox imagines it takes years of accumulated military discipline to keep Myers from answering, "Calibrate yourself."

Chatterbox fully understands that Cabinet secretaries, like all important people, always depend on subordinates and experts to help them out with the details of whatever they're engaged in. He also recognizes that the phrase, "calibrate me," has some currency within the military. (For what it's worth, there's also a song titled "Calibrate Me" recorded by a group called Atom Bomb Pocket Knife.) But when asked in public a question whose answer one is unsure of, it's usually a matter of common courtesy to express mild humility while referring that question to someone else. "Correct me if I'm wrong" is one frequently used phrase. "Would you care to elaborate?" is another. The humility is often insincere, but modern etiquette is right to require it; the habit of appearing humble can teach others, and perhaps even oneself, its importance. By contrast, "Calibrate me," with its faint echo of Burt Lancaster to Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success ("Match me, Sidney"), is conspicuously arrogant and belittling. It sounds like Rumsfeld's asking someone to help him with some ridiculously menial cosmetic task, like tying his necktie into a Windsor knot. And it's particularly inapt in times of war, when the details can assume monumental importance.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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