HAVRE De GRACE -- Everybody loves an inept villain.
In children's literature, and especially in comic books and cartoons, the ill-fated plots of such scalawags as Uncle Remus' fox, Sylvester the Cat, and Red Ridinghood's wolf are a durable theme. Audiences never fail to snicker as the enemy concocts his ludicrously elaborate plan, and then they cackle with glee when it inevitably blows up in his face.
These aren't morality tales. The villains don't seem that much wickeder, or less likable, than their intended victims. They're just stupider. More often than not the victims appear to deserve a good scare, and we're glad to see them get it. But the real hoot comes as the plotter's sure-fire scheme fails, exactly as we knew all along it would and as we know it will once again in the very next episode.
That's why there was so much mirth this week as seven confused politicians, good liberals all, were caught trying on various disguises in order to recapture the attention of an electorate which had turned its back on them. Shades of Wile E. Coyote! Look out, Republican roadrunners!
In their awkward "centrist" camouflage outfits, cut to a conservative pattern and dyed an environmentally pure shade of green, the seven seemed awkward and uncomfortable. They looked as ridiculous as the Beagle Boys did in those rented duck suits they sometimes used to wear when trying to burglarize old Scrooge McDuck's mansion.
According to Time magazine, the costumed ones -- most of them out of office or about to be -- have been having regular Sunday-morning strategy sessions on the telephone, trying to figure out how to save the country and get themselves back in again, not necessarily in that order. Transcripts of these high-powered conference calls haven't been made public, but it's fun to imagine them.
The Sincere Seven agree, says Time, that the nation wants leaders who are fiscally conservative and socially liberal, as well as in favor of the environment and new campaign-finance laws. Logically, of course, this means the nation wants them. Their only problem is explaining this logic to the voters.
Explaining where they stand on the issues should be easier.
No doubt they can use Lowell Weicker, a former Republican who's most famous as the father of Connecticut's new and widely detested income tax, to explain their fiscal conservatism. And they can use Richard Lamm, the former Colorado governor most famous for his suggestion that old people have a duty to die and get out of the way, to explain that Newt Gingrich's Republican Party is compassion-deficient in its policies on Medicare.
Marylanders will be thrilled to know that one of the seven fellows in the funny costumes is Paul Tsongas, the former Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential candidate who was publicly much admired by William Donald Schaefer back in 1992. Mr. Tsongas believes in a balanced budget these days. He has discovered that many other Americans do, too, and wants to help them do something about it without the trauma of having to vote Republican.
On the environment, the spokesman for the Seven Concerned White Males should be former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, well known as one who believes in doing what comes naturally. He would also make a good press person, because of his understanding of the media. (Remember how he dared reporters to find out what he was doing with a young woman named Donna Rice? They did, proving perhaps that he shouldn't have played chicken with Rice.)
The most luminous of the Seven Points of Light, however, is Bill Bradley, the earnest former basketballer and Rhodes scholar who is giving up his Senate seat in New Jersey because public life hasn't lived up to his expectations.
The fact that Senator Bradley almost lost his last election and was not likely to survive the next one may have contributed to his disillusion. So may his recent tour of California, in which he discovered an electorate in such despair, and so tragically benumbed by apathy, that it didn't even notice him.
Rounding out the Seven Centrists are Tim Penny, a former congressman, and Angus King, the governor of Maine. But there's always room for more, whether it's in the dynamic political Center or in the Beagle Boys gang. There are all sorts of people out there who'd be glad to put on a centrist costume, or anything else, if it would give them a chance to get back where they once were.
Former Maryland Congressman Michael Barnes, give Lowell Weicker a call! Ted Venetoulis, send an e-mail to Paul Tsongas. Tom McMillen, here's your chance! Chat up Bill Bradley about basketball, and maybe he'll help you bounce back once more.
The important thing for all of you guys is, don't give up, no matter how hopeless it seems. Remember Sylvester the Cat. Every time Tweety defeats him, he gets up and comes back for more, while the audience roars.
Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.