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Fork in the logic


WHITE man speak with forked tongue," observed several generations of Hollywood Indians, all of whom seemed to know what they were talking about even though present-day moralizers would probably convict them of political incorrectness in the first degree.

To this day, the words come back to me whenever I contemplate the history of American racial relationships. All unwhite Americans would surely be better equipped for survival if they had grown up in homes with that Hollywood-Indian wisdom framed in needlepoint over the velveteen settee.

It is my belief that nothing is so politically incorrect that childhood's uncorrupted mind cannot extract a nugget of enduring wisdom from it. For years, among the bits of wisdom tacked up on the inside of my skull has been a warning from that hopelessly politically incorrect Chinese detective, Charlie Chan.

Chan was afflicted with an impetuous son who habitually jumped to the wrong conclusion about whatever his father happened to be investigating. Reprimanding this silly young man one Saturday afternoon at the Capitol Theater, in Belleville, N.J., Chan said:

"He who speaks before thinking is like man who fires gun in dark room."

"Words to live by!" I must have instantly said to myself, mounting them in the back of my skull, for they still come back to haunt me whenever I feel the urge to tell the world why some wretched president simply won't do or, as in today's case, why the present president's wife may think with forked brain.

Heeding the wisdom of Charlie Chan, I have thought about this matter in minute detail, including the difficult question whether to refer to the president's wife as the first lady. My decision: absolutely not. The word "lady" is odious to language watchers of the feminist movement.

Feminist lingo usually resolves these difficulties with the word "person," but it would be silly to call the president's wife "the first person." As every survivor of sixth-grade grammar knows, the first person is "I" -- "we" in the plural -- and the instant you, dear reader, suspect another sixth-grade grammar lesson is afoot, you will turn this page into a paper airplane and sail it out the window.

In short, this subject has been thought out according to the precept of Chan. This emboldens me to suggest that the president's wife needs to get the fork out of her thinking about health matters.

She is, of course, in charge of creating a sensible health-care program. It is a costly proposition, and speculation encouraged by the Clinton people is that new taxes on tobacco and alcohol will be required to finance the program.

Why, then, has the president's wife banned smoking in the White House? The inevitable publicity flowing from her example is bound to be yet another blow to cigarette sales.

She obviously hopes to reduce cigarette consumption while counting on increased tax revenue from smokers to pay for health-care reform. Raising the tax while simultaneously trying to cut the number of people who will pay it suggests that the health-care financing problem has not been thought out with the thoroughness Charlie Chan would have insisted on.

In Hollywood-Indianspeak, it is forked logic.

Its political wisdom is also questionable. If the health-care program is to be financed by cigarette smokers and cigarette smoking is forbidden in the White House, what are we to think except that the White House is unwilling to pay its fair share of the bill?

Fairness, Stephanopoulos! What about fairness? Fairness demands that the White House smoke its fair share.

Charlie Chan might suspect there is more afoot here than meets the eye. It is comforting to think that clean-living, non-smoking, non-boozing folks can get a nice new health-care program free by riding on the backs of smoky and vinous sinners.

It's doubtful that the Clinton people really believe this. Surely they are toying with us on the matter of health-care costs, hoping to hold down the bad tax news until their economic program can be enacted.

Meantime, consistency might impel the president's wife not only to drop the cigarette ban in the White House but to urge all Americans to lighten their tax burden by lighting up.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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