Some of us still have some growing up to do

“I know you are, but what am I?”

Remember that kid from fifth grade? That little riposte constituted his entire arsenal of comebacks. Slam him with the most devastating putdown the schoolyard had ever seen and he’d always hit you with that same trite retort, a lame bit of rhetorical judo that sought to co-opt your insult and turn it back on you. The sheer feebleness of it rendered it unanswerable.

You do remember that kid, right? Ever wonder what happened to him?

Well, apparently, he’s in charge of messaging for the Republican Party.

Consider last week’s hot-mic moment between President Biden and Peter Doocy of Fox “News.” Doocy, along with other reporters, was being ushered out of the East Room when he lobbed a question: “Do you think inflation is a political liability in the midterms?”

Biden responded with brittle sarcasm: “It’s a great asset,” he muttered into the open mic. “More inflation. What a stupid son of a bi***.”

And here, let’s stipulate a few things. The first is that Biden — who, to his credit, quickly reached out to Doocy to smooth things over — should have kept his trap shut. His cranky-grandpa routine with the press — this isn’t the first time he’s snapped at a reporter for doing his job — is unworthy of his office. Worse, it’s hypocritical: This is, after all, the same Joe Biden who once promised to “fire … on the spot” any member of his administration who treated people with disrespect.

All that said, one is at a loss for words to describe the amnesiac gall of those Republicans who have slammed Biden for mistreating Doocy. As in Amy Tarkanian, former chair of the Nevada GOP, who tweeted that Biden is a “punk.” As in New York Rep. Claudia Tenney, who taunted the president that, “The American people can’t wait to fire you.” As in Indiana Rep. Jim Banks who asked, in apparent seriousness, “Have we ever seen a president attack and malign the free press like Joe Biden has??”

And you’re right back on the schoolyard. “I know you are, but what am I?

There is a temptation to scream the obvious — that the retired game-show host who used to be president did more to attack and malign the free press on any given afternoon than Biden has done in his entire 79 years, and did so with barely a peep of Republican reproof. But to chase them down that rabbit hole is to accord them respect they don’t deserve, to act as if their criticisms are offered in good faith and founded upon moral coherence.

And they are not. As with that lamebrain kid on the schoolyard, they’ve got nothing going for them except their shameless willingness to co-opt a criticism. That’s how you get the party of white nationalism complaining about “racism” when one of its Black acolytes is insulted. It’s how you get the party of climate denialism accusing Democrats of rejecting science. It’s how you get the party whose leader practically lived on the golf course complaining about how many vacations Joe Biden has taken.

“I know you are, but what am I?”

It was frustratingly nonsensical, even in fifth grade. And what was at stake then? Maybe, at worst, the need to defend your mother’s honor.

There is, putting it mildly, much more in the balance now, including the future of the nation and of the planet. You’d hope that would inspire in all of us a recognition of the need to be thoughtful and serious-minded in debating a forward path. But you would be disappointed. Yes, fifth grade was a long time ago.

But some of us still have some growing up to do.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Email him at lpitts@miamiherald.com.