Attorney General Eric Holder was having a bad day. He was sitting at one of those tables before a congressional panel, looking up at his inquisitors. One of them tossed what should have been a softball. Were the three terrorist attacks that have taken place since Obama's inauguration motivated by "radical Islam"?
Holder lapsed into two minutes of agonizing, anal-retentive quibbling. Was it radical Islam? Well, it was a "variety of reasons."
Could one of those reasons be radical Islam?
"I don't want to say anything negative about a religion ..."
And back and forth, until the questioner, Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, finally gave up.
Why is this so hard for these people? Why does Janet Napolitano have so much trouble saying "terrorism," and instead reaches for gobbledygook constructions like "man-caused disasters"? Why did she say "overseas contingency operations" when what she meant was "war." The administration's latest linguistic contortion is CVE, or "countering violent extremism."
In one interview, Napolitano acknowledged that man-caused whatchamacallits fell a bit short as a descriptor. It was "perhaps only a nuance," she allowed, "but it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear toward a policy of being prepared for all risks that can occur."
Then there's President Barack Obama, who famously cheapened the notion of American exceptionalism by saying, well, sure, he's for it.
"I believe in American exceptionalism — just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism," he said.
All this represents the exposed tip of something larger, an important marker and a classic dividing line between right and left.
Since the '60s at least, those on the leftish end of the spectrum have had an annoying tendency to place themselves above the nation and what it stands for. They have a profound discomfort with the notion that the country must be defended, an effort that sometimes requires military force.
Some of the more exotic of the species, the Jane Fondas and Susan Sontags, blatantly identified with our adversaries. In the late 1960s, both of these characters popped up in Hanoi and blathered about the nobility of the North Vietnamese struggle against the vile imperialist Americans.
It's hard to avoid the conclusion that a lot of the people who came to Washington with Obama carry intellectual residue from this era. How else to explain the comical difficulty they have in coming up with a straightforward term for an enemy that turned airlines into missiles and revels in the slaughter of innocent civilians?
For decades, various people on both the right and left have mined this rich lode. One of the latest is Paul Berman, a member of the editorial board of Dissent, the leftist magazine, and author of the new book, "The Flight of the Intellectuals." Berman is also an increasingly rare species: He is a liberal hawk.
In an interview with the blogger Michael Totten, he marveled at the inclination of intellectuals to dismiss the brutality of regimes that threatened the West and their eagerness to undermine the idea that the West is even worth defending.
Part of it, he said, is that many see a world dominated by cultures that, however impoverished, are somehow "authentic," where the culture of the West is artificial and false and therefore inferior.
"We look at ourselves in the Western countries and we say that, if we are rich, relatively speaking, as a society, it is because we have plundered our wealth from other people," Berman said. "Our wealth is a sign of guilt. If we are powerful ... it is because we treat people in other parts of the world in oppressive and morally objectionable ways."
Bottom line: We should feel guilty about our success and freedom, because these are only symptoms of "how morally inferior we are." The problem with American exceptionalism is that some see it as the assertion of a claim to run the world. Sorry, but our system — separation-of-powers federalism — works for us but isn't for everyone.
It's, well, exceptional. But it has successfully melded a lot of different people into something greater than the sum of the parts.
As the writer Joel Kotkin noted, we are the first "world nation." Virtually every ethnic group and nationality has found a home here. It's hard to see why the president has such a problem with the broad, hopeful, human story that this implies — or why the people he hired are so tongue- tied when asked to explain why it must be defended.
McClanahan is a member of the Kansas City Star editorial board. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.