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He’s a comedian in his 70s and he’s good at making people laugh, but he’s not so good at laughing himself. “I can’t wait to retire and get out of all this,” he complained. And why? “When I started,” he explained, “the audience was so much smarter.”
I needed more. “In those days you could make it with good, high-class material,” he explained. People knew things; like Charles de Gaulle was French, Peru was in South America. We were allies with the Soviet Union in something called World War II. Today,” his lament continued, “They don’t know. They don’t care. They just want hard-core filth on sex and drugs.”
Is it any different in politics? In Oregon, an attractive Republican candidate for Congress named Art Robinson is making life tough for 12-term incumbent Peter DeFazio, who last time got 82 percent of the vote. My point has nothing to do with that race, although Mr. DeFazio and Mr. Robinson will inevitably think it does. I’m just holding it up as an example.
One of the colorful charges DeFazio’s friends and supporters have lodged against Robinson is that he’s a racist. OK. I’m from the South. I’ve experienced racist candidates. But if you call a candidate a racist, you owe me a galaxy of N-words spoken with feeling, open and unsubtle disparagement of black people, cruel jokes and maybe even a flaming cross and a noose. Otherwise, don’t bother me.
Can you guess what’s behind the charge of Robinson’s racism? When Robinson’s wife died in 1988, he homeschooled his six children, all of them now Ph.D.s, as is Robinson, veterinarians or well en-route. Robinson also developed a homeschooling curriculum that sold well and enabled all six children to go to college. An ancillary feature of Robinson’s homeschooling program is a bibliography of over a hundred suggested books. In one of those books, written and set in the 1800s in Africa, a white person says something like, “These tribal people act like children. I don’t think they’re very smart.”
And that’s it! The fact that the hero of that book is a black man fighting slavery apparently did not deter the pro-DeFazio dirt-diggers from declaring “Mission Accomplished.”
I wouldn’t march even a baby ocelot across a rope bridge that flimsy. Too insulting to the voters’ intelligence. But here we are. Robinson the racist! What intensifies the hurt is, I suspect DeFazio and his proxies know Robinson is no racist. And I’m the world’s foremost authority on what I suspect.
In 1952 Florida attorney George Smathers unseated venerable Sen. Claude Pepper by launching a whispering campaign across the rural parts of the state to the effect that Pepper was a well-known “homo sapien” all over Washington. And it got worse! His daughter, the whispers continued, “was a ‘thespian’ who performed before paying audiences.”
Mad Magazine many years ago ran a hilarious piece entitled “The All-Purpose Political Attack Speech.” It bristled with lines like, “As a boy, my opponent masticated at the dinner table!” “He frequently emulated the older boys at a nearby playground.” “He once tried to interest a teenage girl in philately.” And, my favorite, “He was photographed committing a piscatorial act from a boat bearing the American flag.”
I understand that comedian’s complaint. Twenty years ago I would have read that entire “speech” on the radio without a thought of “translating.” Not advisable today. America’s a few quarts low on mentality. If you’re a talk host who’d like to use those lines, find a way to point out – without appearing to grovel – that “masticate” means “chew,” “emulate” means “to ape or copy,” “philately” is stamp collecting, and a “piscatorial act” is anything involving fishing!
It may still be hard to find someone who literally never heard of World War II, but researchers tell us it’s extremely easy to find college grads who can’t quite tell you whether Germany and Japan were on our side or not.
As for having never heard of World War II, let another comic named Henny Youngman have the last word. It was one of those Hollywood parties where all the sisters were fair and all the brothers were valiant. And some of the sisters were a lot better-looking than “fair,” and as stupid as a barrel-full of hair. The subject of World War II came up and one of those leggy beauties asked quizzically and out loud, “World War II?”
There was a hush in the room. Better than an American hush. It was what the French call a “frisson.” For torturous seconds nobody said a word. Finally Henny Youngman broke the tension by saying, “Yes, Honey. You remember World War II. It was in all the papers!”