When a sitting president debates a chicken


New York - THE GRAVITY of the 1992 presidential election has finally been driven home to the heretofore turned-off American electorate. It was the chicken that woke everybody up. Or, more to the point, it was when the president started talking to the chicken.

What I mean is, when some guy showed up a few weeks ago in a chicken costume to heckle the Republican candidate, that by itself was pretty routine political prankishness by the other side. But when the leader of the whole, entire free world decided to debate the chicken, people bolted straight up from their couch positions and started shaking their heads at the television. This was serious! A president so rattled that he was taking on a chicken.

"Read my beak," squawked the chicken. "Chicken George is afraid to debate."

President Bush, always quick on his feet in free-style debate, shot back at the feathered costume: "You talking about the draft-record chicken or are you talking about the chicken in the Arkansas River? Which one?" When the chicken just cackled, Bush skewered him with his ultimate, droll riposte: "Get out of here!" The chicken stayed put. George, seeing the cameras focused on the chicken, stayed rattled.

This plot to unnerve the president was, forgive me, hatched in a neighborhood bar in Detroit on Sept. 9, when a group of young men disgusted with the Reagan-Bush years decided on their own to rent a chicken costume and follow the president around.

The guy inside the costume was Derrick Parker, 24, a veteran of four years in the Navy who had to drop out of college in January because federal funding was withdrawn for the program that was aiding his education. Accompanying Mr. Parker was Corbett O'Meara, 26, a college graduate whose plans to raise the money for law school were cut short in March when he was laid off from his job as a paralegal because of the recession.

Mr. O'Meara's role was to play Jim Baker to the chicken's George Bush. The chicken would make chicken sounds, and his handler, O'Meara-Baker, would translate. So, to keep the record accurate, it was really O'Meara-Baker, and not the chicken, who said, "Read my beak."

On the phone Thursday, Mr. O'Meara explained that "We were just doing it for fun. We thought it would be just a one-time thing." But when they appeared outside Mr. Bush's speech to the Economic Club of Detroit on Sept. 10, the press gave them a lot of attention, so they decided to keep showing up wherever the president did in the Michigan area. And the Clinton campaign staff, taking quick note of this amateur team's success, decided to put chickens at Mr. Bush's campaign stops that The Original Chicken, owing to Messrs. Parker and O'Meara's limited funds, couldn't get to.

For the first couple of weeks, Mr. Bush would just stare at the chicken and look annoyed, but he didn't talk to it. It wasn't until this past Monday -- at a railroad whistle-stop in Grand Blanc being worked by The Original Chicken -- that George went a bit odd and started actually addressing the chicken. I imagine that by now the television footage of the president of the United States talking angrily to a 6-foot stage hen has been shown in countries all around the world. I hope they won't think poorly of us.

Mr. Parker and Mr. O'Meara had merely wanted to drive home their point about Mr. Bush's refusing to meet Bill Clinton in direct debate. They never expected the leader of the last remaining superpower to start talking to their chicken.

"Now that Bush has agreed to debate," Mr. O'Meara was saying with some satisfaction Thursday, "we can return the chicken suit. I guess we actually had an impact. And all on $200 worth of gas and $300 for renting the suit."

Mr. Parker and Mr. O'Meara have a right to be pleased with the fruit of their work. They merit our thanks for bringing much-needed humor to what otherwise has been a doleful campaign.

For aside from this injection of slapstick wit, what it has all boiled down to, with only four weeks to go, is a contest for the leadership of this country between two men who are so desperate for the title that when a barking chihuahua from Texas tells them to send their top aides down to Dallas to take an oral exam as to their bosses' fitness for office, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush do exactly what the Chihuahua asks them to. Anyone watching our election for clues to the future character of Washington's spine must have concluded from Monday's demeaning pageant that the odds suggested quivering Jell-O.

As spectacle, it was disheartening. Those who would be president dispatched to Dallas men who should have better things to do and a greater respect for their personal dignity than to kiss the shoes of a tinhorn tyrant who has shown himself qualified solely to be chief of the security police in a second-rate dictatorship. What in the world was the national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, doing there?

And when these best and brightest got through touting either Mr. Clinton or Mr. Bush to the chihuahua as the man he should support rather than re-entering the race himself, Ross Perot said he'd wait for word from "the people" before deciding. Thursday, he finished off the scam by announcing his decision to run.

Maybe the solution is to vote for the chicken.

Sydney H. Schanberg is a columnist for Newsday.

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