'Probe with bayonets': Why so many politicos are cribbing from Lenin

Richard Nixon popularized the term 'probe with bayonets – If you encounter mush, proceed; if you encounter steel, withdraw.' But others are picking it up. 

Lance Iversen/AP
Republican presidential candidate, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, speaks at the Inaugural Basque Fry at Corley Ranch in Gardnerville, Nev., on Aug. 15.

“Probe with bayonets” A maxim attributed to Lenin that is used in politics to describe a method for dealing tactically with opponents.

Former President Richard Nixon appears to have brought the phrase into popular political use. He wrote in his 1978 autobiography “RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon”: “Communist leaders believe in Lenin’s precept: Probe with bayonets. If you encounter mush, proceed; if you encounter steel, withdraw.”

The idea is that a bayonet stuck in the soil can detect a land mine without setting it off; it’s designed to detonate under heavier pressure. The 1970 cult-classic war comedy “Kelly’s Heroes” features a scene in which Clint Eastwood, Don Rickles, and the rest of their platoon undertake just such a task after one of their buddies steps on a mine and is killed. (When Rickles’s character, Crapgame, encounters a buried explosive and is asked what kind it is, he retorts: “The kind that blow up! How the hell do I know what kind it is?”)

Prominent antitax activist Grover Norquist became known for employing a variation of “probe with bayonets,” though he denied it was an endorsement of Lenin’s tactics and definitely not of communism itself. Other Republicans have quoted it as a way of placing current Russian President Vladimir Putin in an established communist tradition of constantly searching for opponents’ vulnerabilities. The most recent has been Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has invoked it repeatedly.

“You know, Putin believes in the old Lenin adage that you probe with bayonets, when you find mush you push, when you find steel you stop,” Walker said at this month’s GOP debate. “Under Obama and Clinton, we found a lot of mush, over the last few years. We need to have a national security that puts steel in front of our enemies. I would send weapons to Ukraine. I would work with NATO to put forces on the eastern border of Poland and the Baltic nations, and I would reinstate ... the missile defense system that we had in Poland and in the Czech Republic.”

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R) of Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, also used the expression to refer to Putin in a June speech. “It seems that Mr. Putin and those around him don’t see economic sanctions and [U.S. military] training exercises as steel,” Thornberry said.

But Democratic strategist Paul Begala, about as far from a conservative as you can get, also brought up the expression in a 2003 article about how his party had come to be perceived as weak, especially when compared to GOP President George W. Bush and his then-highly regarded political mastermind Karl Rove.

“The adjective that comes to mind is ‘toothless,’’’ Begala said of Democrats. “What we need is some attitude. Karl is an old friend. I love Karl and admire his toughness. When someone takes shots at Bush, he hits back with greater force. Which means you can’t run and hide. You have to answer these people with steel. Probe them with bayonets, look for weaknesses, then stick ‘em in.”

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

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