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Chutzpa is busting out all over. “Chutzpa” is the Yiddish word for a quality possessed by gutsy characters who bristle with unspeakable effrontery, the kind of person who could walk through a revolving door behind you and come out ahead of you. It takes chutzpa, for example, to shoot both parents and then plead for mercy on grounds that you’re an orphan.
Today’s chutzpa surge may be unprecedented. Former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner, disgraced in a series of sexual tweets with cover-up lies to match, announces he’s going to run for mayor of New York, a much bigger job than the one he was hounded out of.
Chutzpa can be bad, good, pathetic or merely funny. The latest Chutzpa Queen of the World makes it on three of those four counts. Lois Lerner was director of the tax-exempt organizations division for the Internal Revenue Service. She appeared last week before the House Oversight Committee, piously pleading her innocence in all possible wrongdoings, alleged or imagined, emphasizing that, “I have not lied. I have not broken any regulations. I have not done anything wrong.” And then, almost as an afterthought, she added that, after careful consideration, she’d decided to heed her lawyer’s advice and not answer any of the committee’s questions.
Lois Lerner testified to her glowing righteousness, and then took the Fifth Amendment! The stunned committee lost its audio, and the IRS placed Ms. Lerner on “administrative leave with pay“!
That’s bad chutzpa. Chutzpa can be good. Remember when Dustin Hoffman desperately needed a job in the film “Kramer vs. Kramer” and, instead of going through channels, brazenly invaded the Christmas party of a big ad agency and cornered the right people and walked out with a job? How about actor Edward G. Robinson, being offered a low-level “tough guy” part in the 1931 movie “Little Caesar,” which featured entire mobs of tough guys? Robinson staggered Hollywood by proclaiming the only role he would consider in that movie was the lead! He got it, and we all got Edward G. Robinson in a never-to-be-forgotten characterization.
Pathetic chutzpa? Let me back up just one column ago and cite Heinrich Himmler’s tragicomic effort to “negotiate” with a Romanian rabbi for the release of some Jews from a Nazi concentration camp long after Germany’s war was obviously lost, and Himmler’s transparent attempt to save his own life evoked nothing but acidulous laughter.
Funny chutzpa? She was old. She was widowed. And she supported herself by selling bagels (actually bialys, but so many more readers know what bagels are, I say let it go!) from a cart in midtown Manhattan. A nice man who worked in the neighborhood heard her story and was touched, and made it his business to leave a quarter on her cart as he passed by every single workday, but he never took a bagel. It was his charitable donation.
For years the aging woman would unsmilingly acknowledge his gift and that was that. One morning just after he’d plunked down his quarter and moved on, she stopped him – and, yes, stunned him – with her announcement that the bagels were now 35 cents each!
Are you aware that some charitable donations aren’t real donations? They’re contributions that must be made for charitable foundations to maintain their tax-exempt status. (Are you listening, Lois?) And this column, in that same way, is not really a column. It’s a commitment. I long ago promised to let you know if my favorite practitioner of chutzpa ever got displaced. And, yes. Lois Lerner has finally bested him!
The world’s chief holder-of-chutzpa until last week when Lois Lerner took the Fifth Amendment, the House Committee’s breath away and the world’s Chutzpa Championship Title, was the black evangelist Daddy Grace, in the earlier part of the last century.
Sweet Daddy Grace, as he was known, toured the southlands with a caravan of Cadillacs and dozens of beautiful young black women in diaphanous white gowns. No one knew what their role was, but Daddy Grace called them “my angels”! Sweet Daddy, at the conclusion of his spiritual message, would say, “You may now throw me your contributions. I shall close my eyes and I don’t want to hear any noise!”
That meant paper money only! Do you know what a dollar meant to an Alabama sharecropper back then? One day in Alabama, Daddy Grace ran into a town where the white authorities weren’t fans. They threw him into a jail cell.
“What are the charges?” asked Daddy Grace. “We’ll do all the paperwork tomorrow,” muttered the jailer.
With all the dignity of a Libyan camel, Daddy Grace reclined on his cot and went to sleep.
Early the next morning, the jailer came to Daddy’s cell and told him, “We have to let you go. The judge who signed the order for your arrest died during the night.”
Without hesitating an instant, Daddy Grace told the jailer, “I know. I know. I hated to do it!”
And now poor Daddy Grace isn’t even second in the chutzpa department.
The runner-up to Lois Lerner is whoever in the government put her on administrative leave with pay!