Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Play's the Thing, Huckleberry

Was it mere coincidence that after spending the week basking in the theater of what passes for democracy in the morally and intellectually arid zone of the American Southwest I should pick up this month’s Harper’s magazine and find the post-millennial master of sarcastic socio-political analysis, Louis Lapham, waxing warmly about the post-civil- insurrection master of satire, Mark Twain against the background of an America that is at pretty the same low point on the well-being graph as it was 100 years ago? [Aside: Should I find it even more eerie that the 100 years coincides with the Arizona centennial?] I think not.

Even as the production numbers morphed from the dance floor to the stadium and the playbill was tossed in the bin leaving the audience to gape in wonder of what would happen next, I remained much more naive than those masters of the big picture, for I was cut to the quick upon learning that the denouement would reveal that even more earnest among us are merely mortal in the end.

Lapham relates his interaction with the initial dose of Twain’s autobiography, held under wraps for 100 years after his death, in the context of being asked to conjure some soothing words of salvation by the gentrified set who were panicked at the complete disarray they had made of each and everyone of our institutions. Apparently, in desperation, they were looking to Lapham to drag them back from the precipice with some raw but soothing words of hope. Oddly, they came to the one fellow who, unlike everyone else, has no compunction for telling it like it is and was (for he surely knows his history, unlike most of his contemporaries) --at least as he sees it.

Likewise, Twain has the same reputation, but his autobiography smashes the facade that Twain now admits never really separated him from the “poor, cheap wormy thing” that is humankind. Turns out, he could not even write the story of his life as the introspection became an exercise in disgust; instead he chose to dictate the multi-volume work, which apparently kept him from staring back in horror at himself from the written page.

Lapham chooses Twain’s take on Teddy Roosevelt to illustrate the point. Twain never takes out after the otherwise likeable fellow, Roosevelt, for his spin-doctoring of the massacre by General Leonard Wood of the Filipinos during the American occupation. In a letter to his daughter years later, Twain regrettably confesses that his own moral fortitude failed him as he succumbed to the pressure of a favor paid him by Roosevelt and as a result was never able to honestly speak to the acts of the man, rendering him disgusting to himself (and, worse, causing his superb command of the art of sarcasm to lay fallow).

    Lapham’s selection of Twain’s summation of the source of his shame  is well-taken if not poetic:

       “The gods value morals alone; they have paid no compliments to intellect, nor offered it a single reward. If intellect is welcome anywhere in the other world, it is in hell, not heaven.”   

How fateful that I should read this article right after reviewing a draft editorial my husband wrote  about the role of Grant Woods in the Arizona scandal du jour, the Fiesta Bowl fiasco.

Serendipity surely played a role as well in the fact that April Fools Day 2011 saw the hottest temperature on record-- breaking 100, spoiling the diversion of gambling on the exact moment of that first occurrence for the year and providing a Twain-like backdrop for the next act in the state of degradation otherwise called Arizona.

This is not just another guy caught up in a scandal. Unlike the majority of today’s “leaders” Grant was one part politician and one part regular dude. About the same age, we both grew up in what nostalgia now informs us was a carefree, romantic and quasi-rural lifestyle of mid-century Valley of the Sun; a sparsely populated but multicultural spot still in its formative stages as a place for people to actually live, air conditioning being a relative newcomer. [Aside: My pre-a/c grandfather opened every story–and there were many–with: “It was hot; god damn it was hot....”].

Our Dads were both in construction and we were the first people in our families to go to law school. Being a small place, people who were not honest, hard workers did not have much of a chance of lasting in business if they wanted to stay around. Our families and the unfettered freedom of our unique Southwestern childhood instilled in us a common sense approach to the bigger picture and a strong sense of fairness, a socially liberal attitude and a fear of too much government. These traits immediately attracted me to want to align my legal career in his direction. I was thrilled to be a bit player in Grant’s first big political solo (he had previously worked with McCain) as Arizona Attorney General.

He is consistently a straight-talking, pragmatic and principled guy who loves music and having a good time. He gained a national reputation as a go-to person on several issues and knows how to pick the battles that would put him on the moral high ground. And he had the right idea about public service. Get in, do a great job and get out. He returned to the private sector and was doing his second act as a solo as well, but always remained in demand at the political level. Almost every time a political leadership opens up, his name appears at the top of list.

Although a star, he never forgot his regular guy roots. This came through in his banter on his radio show and the glimpses into his personal life one would get from his Twitter and Facebook posts, and through his musings on music and sports. And in his disarming approachability. He loves his wife and his kids and takes great joy in just being a regular person.

But for the larger audience, while he was the theater usher who would always be there to get you out safely if the building caught on fire, he would also cackle as hard as anybody at the goofball in the back row creating a sideshow by falsely yelling that it is on fire. At a time when the building is starting to smolder and the entire crowd is part of the joke, the laughter is starting to fade and we are groping for someone to show us the exits.

But Grant is no longer that guy. Taken down by the hubris that spreads like a cancer among those with even the slightest legitimate reason to have a slightly elevated ego, it is a tragedy that could have been a delightfully meaty comedy. Like Twain, Grant is no god, for he is a mere intellectual.

And for me, he can never again be my Huckleberry.