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Opinion >  Column

Spin Control: Biden’s ‘Neanderthal’ jab has a familiar ring to it for Washingtonians

Former Washington state Gov. John Spellman.  (Cowles Publishing)
Former Washington state Gov. John Spellman. (Cowles Publishing)

If he hasn’t already, President Joe Biden may come to regret using the word “Neanderthal” to describe decisions by a couple of Southern governors to drop their states’ mask mandates.

True, he didn’t accuse Texas Gov. Greg Abbott or Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves of being Neanderthals, but rather of engaging in “Neanderthal thinking.” That distinction hasn’t stemmed the outrage on the part of critics who prefer to live in the moment rather than compare insults of the previous administration.

The next step will probably be for Republicans in those two states to adopt “Neanderthal” as a badge of honor, or for GOP members of Congress to form a Neanderthal Caucus, as a senator from Tennessee has hinted.

Something similar happened in Washington in 1982, although the sniping stayed within the GOP. Gov. John Spellman, who took the reins of state government in the middle of a serious recession, faced a budget deficit that some fellow Republican legislators wanted to handle with significant cuts rather than a tax increase.

Spellman thought the proposed cuts to schools, colleges and state pensions were a backward, caveman-like approach, he said in an interview some 30 years later. One of his aides said he shouldn’t use “caveman,” that “troglodyte” sounded better.

“I think a group of troglodytes could have gotten together and drafted that kind of plan,” he told reporters before calling the Legislature back into session.

Note that Spellman didn’t call anyone a troglodyte. He also didn’t name any names when pressed by reporters. But two dozen no-new-tax Republicans had signed a letter to the House speaker, so it was pretty clear who was in the Paleolithic caucus, including six from Spokane-area districts.

They created “Join the Trogolodytes” lapel buttons and got a fair amount of media attention during the first half of the special session. In the end, the budget gap was filled with a combination of cuts and temporarily reimposing the sales tax on food.

“It was not intended to be quite that negative. But I used it and I shouldn’t have,” Spellman said in the later interview.

One could argue whether “troglodyte” or “Neanderthal” is the bigger insult. Technically, a Neanderthal is a species distinct from homo sapiens, while a troglodyte is any cave dweller. Some Neanderthals lived in caves, so they were troglodytes, but so have some homo sapiens. So not all troglodytes are Neanderthals and vice versa.

As an insult, “Neanderthal thinking” might not be as derogatory as Biden intended. Some new studies of cranial capacity suggest that as a species, they probably had more brain power than the way they are portrayed in B movies and “The Far Side” cartoon. They may have interbred with homo sapiens, because some people walking around today have some actual Neanderthal DNA.

Bringing kids and guns to protest a bad idea

The Legislature is moving forward on a bill to ban openly carrying firearms at protests, particularly in and around the state Capitol. Having reported on a fair number of such protests, I would propose a possible compromise if the current legislation stalls in the House.

The bill could be rewritten to say people who bring their firearms to a protest cannot bring their children. Those who bring their children must come unarmed and leave if weapons are being displayed.

While this may seem like common sense, it’s not unusual to see people at gun-rights protests with small children in tow. Kids show up with protester parents at other Capitol demonstrations for voting rights, supporting or opposing abortion, demanding more money for schools or less money for taxes. Strollers make a convenient holding place when placards get heavy and photogenic kids holding a cute sign can get the cause some exposure on the evening news or the next morning’s paper.

But children usually couldn’t care less about what the adults are protesting and are being used as props. Gun rights protesters have plenty of other props, like military style semiautomatic rifles, camouflage vests and a wide variety of flags daring people come and take their guns. In some cases they’ve even arrived on the Capitol grounds with broadswords or Spartan helmets.

I’m no attorney, but making gun-rights protesters leave the kids home doesn’t seem to violate either their First or Second Amendment rights.

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