Saturday, January 7, 2017

Quote of the Day (James Thurber, on News Management of ‘The Greatest Man in the World’)

“The necessity for printing some account in the papers of the young man's career and personality had led to a remarkable predicament. It was of course impossible to reveal the facts, for a tremendous popular feeling in favor of the young hero [aviator Jacky Smurch] had sprung up, like a grass fire, when he was halfway across Europe on his flight around the globe. He was, therefore, described as a modest chap, taciturn, blond, popular with his friends, popular with girls. The only available snapshot of Smurch, taken at the wheel of a phony automobile in a cheap photo studio at an amusement park, was touched up so that the little vulgarian looked quite handsome. His twisted leer was smoothed into a pleasant smile. The truth was, in this way, kept from the youth's ecstatic compatriots; they did not dream that the Smurch family was despised and feared by its neighbors in the obscure Iowa town, nor that the hero himself, because of numerous unsavory exploits, had come to be regarded in Westfield as a nuisance and a menace. He had, the reporters discovered, once knifed the principal of his high school -- not mortally, to be sure, but he had knifed him; and on another occasion, surprised in the act of stealing an altar-cloth from a church, he had bashed the sacristan over the head with a pot of Easter lilies; for each of these offences he had served a sentence in the reformatory.”— American humorist James Thurber (1894-1961), “The Greatest Man in the World,” in The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935)

This 1931 satire by the New Yorker legend James Thurber came to my attention within the last three or four months. Readers at the time would have recognized his young aviator as Charles Lindbergh pushed to the point of what seemed like absurdity:  the clean-cut American hero as a juvenile delinquent, made palatable for a mass audience by a press corps that should have known better.

(Lindbergh’s real faults—the anti-semitism that blinded him to the ultimate terror of Nazism, not to mention the hectoring of wife Anne and secret fathering of children across the Atlantic with a German woman—would not become apparent at least until the end of the decade—or, in the case of his surprising transatlantic paternity, nearly 30 years after his death.)

But a September 2015 article in The Los Angeles Times by Patt Morrison put a considerably more contemporary spin on this. She wrote this in the early GOP primaries in this last, lamentable Presidential cycle, when a “better-class Jacky Smurch”—matching the aviator in vulgarity and far surpassing him in his bank account—was emerging: Donald Trump.

What could the other Republican White House aspirants, like the most powerful men in the nation in Thurber’s story, do to stop him? Thurber had them rush en masse at Jacky, when the public wasn’t around, and toss him out the window. The Republican establishment, instead of taking him head-on when it could have made a difference, chose to believe that The Donald, most un-aviator-like, would fall of his own weight, and one lucky fellow among them would be around to pick up his disconsolate followers.

Only they waited too long—first through the primaries, then the convention, then the election, and now all the sweet executive-branch appointments to be had. And now they—and, starting January 20, America as a whole—must face the consequences.

(The image accompanying this post shows Brad Davis as Smurch in a 1980 PBS adaptation of the piece.)

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