10/02/2012 12:45 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2012

'Limp Wrist': Bolton and Romney v. Obama

Comes now John Bolton, the former Bush Ambassador to the UN and one of the right's more focused and more hysterical (more on this below) Obama critics. Barking as loud as he can in the right-wing echo chamber, Bolton characterized the Obama response to the murder of American diplomats in Libya as "limp-wristed."

All sorts of risible responses come to mind. What policy does Mr. Bolton embrace, with a firm, manly wrist? Is there an objective scale of limp-wristedness to be consulted by world leaders who may want to keep their options open? Can an entire administration have a sexual orientation? Do we really want to open the door to irresponsible metaphors?

I'm not one for verbal strictness. We should all cut each other a lot more slack as to what constitutes acceptable language, even when we ourselves dislike a certain word or phrase. For example, my description of Mr. Bolton as "hysterical" can be deconstructed right back to the roots of "hysteria" and it's gender-centered origins. We've lost a lot of piss and vinegar (there I go again) in our private and public discourse out of fear of giving offense.

But America's come through four years of genuinely bizarre descriptions of Obama, both personal and political. There was, and is, a conscious effort to describe him as an alien, not-one-of-us, and it has had an effect. It's not that Mr. Bolton should be punished, it's that what he said is worthy of comment and critique, and response.

If the point that he was trying to make was that the Obama response in Libya was insufficiently aggressive and tough (the antithesis of limp-wristedness in the view of many) then it is worth noting that previous "exercises in toughness" brought us Iraq, Afghanistan and a host of other misadventures. Presidents must be willing to use violence as a part of national policy. Obama did in the killing of bin Laden, and Lincoln and Roosevelt understood their responsibilities. But Bolton shouldn't reduce these actions down to an attitude and a swagger. Even worse than giving offense, that kind of thing can kill people.

There's a legitimate inquiry into what happened in Libya and what our response to the Arab Spring and Islamic rage should be. And Romney, to his credit, mostly shies away from the ferocious rhetoric his Republican base demands. We can engage in that debate without debasing the public discourse.

Bill Safire took upon himself the mantle of custodian of the language. He wasn't always right but he forced an examination of what words mean, especially in public life. He was a Republican, an old-style conservative and a gentleman. Somebody send Mr. Bolton one of his books.