4,000 Periods and One Comma

As the U.S. death toll neared 4,000 in Iraq – four more killed this weekend – President Bush gave the country another pep talk this week on staying the course, while continuing to argue that history will wash the blood off his hands. Nothing has changed in his claim that when humans, or God, look back at this episode, it will seem like only a "comma."

Back in September 2006, I was first to trace the derivation of this "comma" reference (and a chapter about it appears in my new book on Iraq and the media). CNN had aired an interview with President Bush conducted by Wolf Blitzer, who asked about the latest setbacks in Iraq and indications that civil war may be at hand.

Bush, with a slight smile, replied, "Yes, you see – you see it on TV, and that’s the power of an enemy that is willing to kill innocent people. But there’s also an unbelievable will and resiliency by the Iraqi people…. I like to tell people when the final history is written on Iraq, it will look like just a comma because there is – my point is, there’s a strong will for democracy."

Even for Bushisms, this was an odd one. Maybe he meant "coma." No, that would be too negative.

A comma as a metaphor perhaps? If so, for what? All that bloodshed as merely a comma – a pause in a long sentence – leading to a hopeful phrase or conclusion? Comma, "and they all lived happily ever after"? Or maybe, comma, "and then we bombed Iran"?

Of course, one can think of other punctuation that might be apt, including "?" for the 150,000 Americans still deployed there, "!" for the cries of the gravely injured, and "$" for Halliburton and other contractors.

Or perhaps, as in the comics pages, when an angry character really wants to curse: "!@#%^&*()#*"

Like many others, I was initially confused – though appalled – when President Bush stated that the Iraq war will be viewed as "just a comma." Perhaps he meant to say "asterisk" but did not know how to pronounce it. Or maybe he meant "blip" or "footnote" – though that wouldn’t make the sentiment any less revolting, especially for the thousands of dead.

That sent me Googling in search of an answer, which I soon found. This is it: He didn’t quite finish his thought, and meant to state that the Iraq war will be viewed as "just a comma, not a period."

Not surprisingly, this is rooted in current Christian teaching, often in reference to Jesus’s death, or more generally as "Don’t put a period where God puts a comma." Where does this come from? Not directly from the Scripture, apparently. A quote by comedienne Gracie Allen is cited on many religious Web sites: "Never place a period where God has placed a comma."

United Church of Christ parishes in Massachusetts were recently urged to put that quote on banners during Lent and color in the words as the weeks went by. Of course, many of us of a certain age remember Gracie Allen, the actual and TV wife of the legendary George Burns. Memo to the president: She was the batty one who often talked nonsense.

Or as a minister at a United Church of Christ in Los Angeles recently put it, admiringly: "She would have said whatever came to her mind in a full voice, and lived out its conviction." Sound familiar?

An article in the St. Petersburg Times in November 2005, described a new TV commercial by the UCC – not a conservative, but a progressive church – which featured a large comma. "Weighing in on the commercial," the article concluded, "evangelist Pat Robertson is said to have remarked, ‘Never place a comma where God has placed a period. God has spoken!’"

And so has the president. Did he fail to finish his thought – linking the comma to the period – for fear of invoking his Christianity in discussing a murderous war? Or did he want to avoid being linked to Gracie Allen? In any case, the death toll represented by this little old "comma," now stands at almost 4,000. Period.