WHAT AN EERIE time. Natalie Wood alive, stray bullets, insolent foreign rulers' "asses" threatened with American kicking. And by a president, no less, of the United States.
The quotation marks above are, yes, self-conscious. They betray a fuddy-duddy. Shameful but true it is: I wince when presidents express war aims in schoolboy bluster.
Unfit for this dynamic, nitty-gritty, down-and-dirty, pulsing-with-passion, tell-it-like-it-is age, you might say of me, and rightly so. Like Miniver Cheevy, unresigned to the wonders of modern times, I too assail the tide of history, denouncing mighty progress itself for giving us presidents who fancy themselves fierce international ass-kickers and, even worse, say A closer attention to duty might produce more presidential concern about the stray-bullet crisis at home and less rodomontade about putting boots to butts abroad. Hardly a day passes without news of some romping toddler, dozing grandmother or casual pedestrian wounded or killed by a "stray bullet."
Cowboys of old had to deal with stray cattle and city people with stray dogs. Now, a new age: the age of the stray bullet. Oh, it's a hard age to love. Miniver Cheevy had a point. No, it doesn't matter who Miniver Cheevy was. Like poor Natalie Wood, Miniver is long dead. Unlike lucky Natalie, however, he is not living secretly in a hot climate. I read it in the grocery press while waiting in the checkout line just this morning: Natalie Wood Alive. Reports of Natalie's Long Ago Death Greatly Exaggerated.
Here is one of the age's cheerier marvels: the rising incidence of eternal life for famous stars. Glamorous but dead Americans recently found by the grocery press to be alive include Grace Kelly, Elvis Presley and President Kennedy.
Now Natalie Wood. Of course this is nonsense, and so what? What's exciting is the appeal this story has for modern America, so widely and ungenerously accused of having lost its faith in miracles.
It's pretty clear that a lot of Americans are ready to believe in a kind of secular eternity capable of giving the lie to the obituary page, even though you can't qualify for it without being a famous celebrity of film or TV. President Eisenhower, for instance. Though President Kennedy has been found alive, the grocery press never finds President Eisenhower alive, hunkered down at his old Gettysburg farm having faked his death to get out of the limelight so he can sit around playing chess in his head to relieve the boredom of being thought dead.
The explanation: Modern America's will to believe in eternal life extends only to film's greatest stars. Mere competence, like Eisenhower's, is not enough to relieve people of the deceased's normal obligation to stay dead. Can this explain President Bush's use of colorful vulgarity when discussing war? Low talk, let's admit it, confers glamour nowadays. (See Eddie Murphy films, Nick Nolte films; see any film playing at your neighborhood movie, or on your favorite TV channel.)
Bush goes to the movies. He knows about glamour. You can imagine him talking it over with somebody vital. John Sununu, maybe: "Did you ever notice when you go to the supermarket, John, that the newspapers at the checkout counter never have a story about George Washington being found alive in the Andes or living in a barn down around Mount Vernon?"
Sununu: That's because George Washington lacked the glamour necessary to qualify him for eternal undeath, Mr. President.
Bush: And do you know why he lacked that glamour, John? Because he never said anything macho about the American Revolution. He just fought the darned thing.
Sununu: The vision thing, you mean?
Bush: The revolution thing, for gosh sakes. He should have said something a little Nick Nolte like, "King George III is going to get his ass kicked."
Sununu: Now you're talking big show biz, Mr. President.
Bush: And the same applies to that Lincoln fellow . . .
Sununu: What applies, Mr. President?
Bush: The ass thing. If Lincoln had said, "If Jeff Davis and Bobby Lee don't get back into this Union thing, they're going to get their asses kicked . . ."
Well, maybe this is far-fetched. Still, it's hard to fetch too far when talking about somebody who, when he was asked to name the next best man to be president of the United States, said, "Dan Quayle."