'Poke the Bear': Political quip isn't just about Russia anymore

During the Soviet era, folks loved to talk about 'poking the (Russian) bear.' But with Washington's current penchant for confrontation, the phrase is now an equal opportunity bit of political slang.

Alastair Grant/AP
According to news reports, Mary Pat Christie (c.), wife of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (r.), did not tell Britain's chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, to not 'poke the bear' on a recent trip to London. It is likely that Mr. Osborne had no intention of doing so.

Poke the bear. To antagonize someone or something to provoke a reaction.

Given how often politics now devolves into confrontation, it’s no surprise that this phrase is becoming more popular among the punditry.

The expression “poke the bear” is more than a century old, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer. It didn’t take off until the cold war, when it often was used as a warning not to rile the nuclear-armed Soviet Union. (The bear has been a longtime Russian symbol.) A 1981 column by Joseph Kraft about then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s efforts to sell weapons to China to increase leverage on the Russians argued: “The world … now believes that American policy toward Russia – if so high-sounding a term can be used for such an empty reality – consists of poking the bear.”

With Russian President Vladimir Putin drawing international condemnation for his ultra-hawkish moves, “poke the bear” still gets used in that context quite often. But Mr. Putin is getting plenty of company for ursine comparisons – including famously combative New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a likely Republican presidential candidate. After Governor Christie got into one of his widely publicized shouting matches with a protester last fall, CBS News’s Gayle King noted the angry reaction from Christie’s wife: “She sort of looks at the guy like, ‘You should stop talking, sir. Don’t poke the bear.’ ”

But Democrats aren’t immune from the tag. In a comprehensive new analysis of President Obama’s relationship with the news media in the Columbia Journalism Review, Susan Milligan described the president’s news conference after Republicans walloped Democrats in last November’s midterm elections: “Ed Henry of Fox News asked Obama why he was ‘doubling down’ on his approach to Congress, and followed with a poke-the-bear question about whether there was something about Obama’s leadership that was the problem.”

USA Today’s Paul Singer, discussing a Republican Party initiative last month called “Hillary’s Hiding” to goad Hillary Rodham Clinton into becoming an actual presidential candidate, headlined the item “Poking the Bear.” Singer wrote: “Of course, given Clinton's ability to draw media coverage, it is possible Republicans may someday pine for the days when she was so hard to find.”

And in waging a highly unusual contest for a state Senate seat in a predominantly Democratic district in and around Raleigh, N.C., conservative filmmaker Molotov Mitchell (who changed his name from Jason Alexander Mitchell) defended his earlier video commentaries questioning where Mr. Obama was born: “It was to poke the bear on the left. It doesn’t matter where Barack Obama was born.” Mr. Mitchell’s tactics worked, but not to his benefit. He lost by a 2-to-1 margin.

Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark write their "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Politics Voices.

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