As President Barack Obama's mouthpieces panicked and blamed the tea party for the nation's economic downgrade, I closed my eyes and thought of happier days.
Happier days with my grandfather and his heartwarming story about the politician and the donkey.
Papou Pete was a rascal and something of a philosopher. His last business before his death was running a poolroom. But he'd had other businesses. He ran a shoeshine parlor with a sports book, then a luncheonette and a diner, he pushed a peanut wagon, then another restaurant, and so on.
Naturally, he understood politicians, and so he wasn't all that critical of the things they said, since he was a practical fellow and realized that politicians talked for a living.
But sometimes, when politicians would insist on releasing hot air at the wrong time, Papou Pete would become aggravated. And so, at these special moments, he had a favorite saying:
Af-TOS mee-lye, ke o GUY-thou-ros KLA-nee.
Loosely translated, it means:
"When he speaks, the donkey breaks wind."
And so, as frightened Democrats tried to blame conservatives for Standard & Poor's downgrading of America's credit rating, I thought of my grandpa's words.
"The fact of the matter is that this is essentially a tea party downgrade," said Obama's mouthpiece David Axelrod on CBS' "Face the Nation" over the weekend. "That clearly is on the backs of those who were willing to see the country default."
As he spoke, I could hear men arguing politics in some village coffeehouse of old, and a few donkeys on the edge of the dusty town square. One fellow pushes his coffee aside, rising, accusing, passionate.
And that is the precise moment the donkeys commence with their nonverbal editorial commentary.
Obama wanted the debt ceiling raised without conditions. He lost that argument because the tea party Republicans demanded spending cuts in exchange for extending the debt ceiling. And they refused to raise taxes.
And once the deal went through, and S&P downgraded America's credit anyway, the politics were obvious: Blame the other guy.
Axelrod understands this better than many. He plays politics for a living, and he's very good at it. He's been the mouthpiece for Obama for years, and for the Daleys of Chicago.
So he knows that accusing someone loudly is important when you're trying to shift blame away from your candidate. And with Obama busy at fundraisers, Axelrod has a lot of shifting to do.
This slap-in-the-mouth tactic comes right out of Chicago's City Hall, where Axelrod has long had friends on the mayoral throne. His "tea party downgrade" slogan was catchy enough for Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, to use it, almost spontaneously.
"This is the tea party downgrade because a minority of people in the House of Representatives countered even the will of many Republicans in the United States Senate who were prepared to do a bigger deal," Kerry said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
It pains me to say so, but Kerry is correct. There were other establishment Republicans willing to do a "bigger deal." And to their credit, the tea party types refused to go along. If they had, their voters would have tossed them out in the next election.
But there was no hiding the desperation in the voices of Axelrod and Kerry. It is the sound of fear that carries farthest.
A year or so ago, the grass-roots tea party conservatives were just called weird. When weird didn't work, they were called crazy. When crazy didn't work, they were called racists.
When racists didn't work, some Democrats called them terrorists and worse.
All the donkeys making noise because the tea party doesn't want the government to grope you at airports or spend your money? Amazing.
Now if Axelrod and Kerry wanted to lump the establishment GOP along with the Democrats, I wouldn't have argued. Who could argue?
Not even the donkeys would raise a fuss.
The Republican establishment has been there, accommodating the Democrats in one way or another, for decade upon decade. The Republicans spent and spent under President George W. Bush, and spent some more. And then, when Obama was elected, the Republicans found fiscal religion.
So they talk of fiscal responsibility when it comes to programs for the poor, but the one constant is the federal government keeps growing. The difference is, the GOP establishment spends on defense, and they never seem to find the waste and redundancies in all those fat defense contracts.
Either way, finally, the money's gone, the music stops and everybody scrambles to find a chair.
And in this, establishment Republicans in Washington are behaving awfully like establishment Republicans in Illinois.
Illinois Republicans have long been ready to accommodate their Democratic friends across the aisle. A few Illinois Republican silverbacks have been so accommodating to Democrats that they've got themselves on the wrong end of federal corruption indictments.
And in Washington, the tea party conservatives are the irksome ones. They can't spend like the liberals, or they won't be returned to office. And even so, they're being soothed by the establishment Republicans who'd like to help them navigate in the upcoming presidential elections.
My advice for the tea party?
Get a few donkeys, tie them up on Pennsylvania Avenue. Make sure you feed them on the way to work. Listen to them.
And remember the words of Papou Pete.
John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may send him email at email@example.com.