On the Good Ship Lollipop

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No one knew it, but this column offers an award — annually, semi-annually, monthly, or whenever it feels like it — called the Shirley Temple Prize for Saccharine Speech. Yeth, it doth; and today’s award goes to former FBI Director James Brien Comey. Ohhhhh goodee!

On May 3, Comey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Huma Abedin, cupbearer-in-chief to Hillary Clinton, had “forwarded hundreds and thousands of e-mails, some of which contain classified information,” to Huma’s unclassified and unclassifiable husband, Antony Weiner. Six days later, the assistant director of the Bureau notified Congress that Comey was (as usual) in error; there were only 12 email chains, presumably not hundreds and thousands of items long.

I’ve known many people who violated the law, and some who went to prison, and none of them carried a sign that said, “I know I’m violating the law.”

In itself, Comey’s misstatement wasn’t worthy of any award, except the one that President Trump presented on May 9, when he fired James Brien Comey. It’s worthy of notice that Comey’s investigation of Huma’s emails, an investigation that determined, some think, the presidential election of 2016, should have been so misleadingly characterized by him. But the really impressive, award-engendering feature of Comey’s remarks was his contribution to legal and moral philosophy. It’s this contribution that puts him in the Shirley Temple class of child stars, or at least childish ones.

Explaining why he didn’t think of prosecuting Huma Abedin Weiner, who was in manifest violation of the law, no matter how many classified messages she supplied to her husband’s computer, Comey said:

With respect to Ms. Abedin in particular, we — we didn't have any indication that she had a sense that what she was doing was in violation of the law. Couldn't prove any sort of criminal intent. Really, the central problem we have with the whole e-mail investigation was proving that people knew — the secretary and others knew that they were doing — that they were communicating about classified information in a way that they shouldn't be and proving that they had some sense of their doing something unlawful.

Here is a way of emptying the federal prisons: insist that people who commit banking fraud, for example, or write off their real estate investments as charitable contributions, or use their positions in Congress to operate phony charities, cannot be prosecuted unless it is proved that they have a sense that what they are doing is in violation of the law.

In Hemingway’s short story “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife,” a man has a nasty quarrel with someone who is trying to cheat him, and his wife, a reader of consoling religious books, says:

“Dear, I don’t think, I really don’t think that any one would really do a thing like that.”

“No?” the doctor said.

“No. I can’t really believe that any one would do a thing of that sort intentionally.”

I’ve known many people who violated the law, and some who went to prison, and none of them carried a sign that said, “I know I’m violating the law.” They just went ahead and did it. So I guess they’re innocent, though not as innocent as Former FBI Director James (“Jim”) Comey, who like those sweet little girls that Shirley used to play is unable to see anything consciously wrong in the strange doings of other people.

Comey’s sunny disposition is something that we may all wish we had. It would save us a lot of trouble with certain situations. I caught you cheating on a test. Maybe I should do something about it. But gosh, maybe you didn’t intend to cheat. Maybe there’s no indication that you had a sense that what you were doing was in violation of the rules. You took money from the company’s accounts and spent it on yourself? Maybe you were just trying to stimulate the economy. You took secret documents and gave them to your friends? It’s good that you have friends, honey. You operated a foundation to fleece people who want government influence? Well, nothing to be done about it. Maybe you didn’t know it was wrong. And after all, who’s to judge? I can’t see your heart. Here — have another lollipop.

In the Shirley Temple movies there was always someone whose crusty, judgmental attitude was reformed by contact with little Shirley’s beneficent naiveté. Crusty ol’ grampa, or whoever it was, soon started babbling endearing comments so fast that Shirley could hardly keep up with them. Comey, the former Tough Prosecutor, callin’ ’em as he sees ’em, has also experienced this Hollywood reform. The current angel of light is the former mean bastard who, in the words of the Cato Foundation’s Alan Reynolds, sent Martha Stewart to prison for “having misled people by denying having committed a crime with which she was not charged.”

You took money from the company’s accounts and spent it on yourself? Maybe you were just trying to stimulate the economy.

It’s true that Comey’s conversion from hanging judge to sweetiekins might have resulted not from spiritual impulses but from a desire to act as kingmaker on the national stage without incurring the hardship of running for office or saying what he means. It could also be that Comey is like Addison as portrayed by Pope: “Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike.” But Comey’s analysis of Huma & Co. is so astonishingly warm-hearted, so amazingly insipid, as to transcend all churlish skepticism. To use the vernacular of Shirley Temple’s time, Comey is a sap, pure and simple. He’s also a chump. And if he did have dreams of glory, he pursued them like a sap and a chump.

Join me, therefore, in congratulating James Comey on his selection as the May 2017 recipient of the Shirley Temple Prize. It’s the culminating award of his career; he won’t get any better ones. And as Shirley would say, he weally, weally desewves to get it.

But what’s a first prize without a second prize? The question answers itself. We proceed then to the Second Prize for Saccharine Speech. And the winner is . . . (drum roll) . . . the President of the United States, Donald John Trump!

Comey is a sap, pure and simple. He’s also a chump. And if he did have dreams of glory, he pursued them like a sap and a chump.

As in his race for the White House, Trump has achieved a come-from-behind victory in this contest. He is identified more with aggressive, accusatory, pseudo-masculine, look-on-the-worst side utterances than with girlish insipidity. But he is a man of many roles, a man who is just as productive of empty compliments as of empty bombast. “You’re doin’ great, just great, just absolutely great” comes as easily to his lips as “Send her to jail.” And while less perceptive columnists attend only to his performance in Ranting Man roles, Trump has many unrecognized achievements playing the Sweetly Bewildered Youth.

The one that is, to my mind, the conclusive example is an interview broadcast on May 12. Entertaining the question of whether James Comey would be “honest” in discussing their failed courtship, the president said:

I hope he will be. And I’m sure he will be. I hope.

Think about it: President Trump doesn’t just speak his lines; he writes his own material and directs his own performance. Now consider what a huge, incredibly unbelievable, really unbelievable accomplishment that you won’t believe is apparent in those 13 words. Everything comes together: the loose, wandering syntax, so like the prattle of a six-year-old; the invocation of hope at the beginning and the return to hope at the end, with an inspirational rise to surety in the middle; the subtle insistence on the idea that all relationships are personal, that they are all I and he, I’m OK, you’re OK, let’s shake on it. Again we see the child mind at work, perfectly reproduced both in the sentence and in the naïve spontaneity of the speaking voice, which constantly seemed to be crafting the very ideas it was speaking forth.

Trump is a man of many roles, a man who is just as productive of empty compliments as of empty bombast.

Was this childlike performance planned, or was it literally spontaneous? No matter; all the great masters of language have had the heart of a child — J.K. Rowling, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama. So for this, and in the hope of still more remarkable achievements, I am proud to congratulate Donald J. Trump, winner of the Shirley Temple Prize for Saccharine Speech (second place). Mr. Trump can pick up his award at any time I’m in the office.

But what’s a second prize without a third prize? Nothing. And, to coin a phrase, three’s a charm. So, without further ado, I am pleased to announce that third prize in this competition goes to (you children will never, never guess, so I will have to tell you): The New York Times.

It’s an odd thing about the Times: from the paper’s own point of view, it would be a preposterous insult to common decency for it ever to be ranked as third in anything; while from the point of view of most attentive readers — indeed, most people with a brain — it would be distressing to think that anyone could rank it that high. We can agree that the Times is always thought-provoking, just as it claims; the difficulty is merely that it provokes various people in various ways.

Again we see the child mind at work, perfectly reproduced both in the sentence and in the naïve spontaneity of the speaking voice.

On May 13, the Times provoked even me to thought. It set me thinking about the special kind of childishness that actually does not see beyond its teddy bear, its little toy horse, and its doll named Pie. Isabel Paterson was concerned with this kind of naiveté when she described the childishness of government planners who go about ruining other people’s lives, never having a clue that those dolls are real:

We feel toward Planners as the heroine of the old-time melodrama felt toward the villain. After having pursued her through four acts with threats of a fate worse than death, which he emphasized by shooting at her, setting fire to her home, and tying her to the railroad track just before the down express was expected, he inquired reproachfully, "Nellie, why do you shrink from me?"

The innocence of Nellie’s antagonist is akin to that of the alcoholic who has no recollection of the bottle of whiskey he’s consumed every day for the past ten years, but who notices his wife cracking open a beer: “Honey, didn’t you have one of those just last week?” And it is akin to the innocence of the New York Times, which on May 13 ran this headline:

Election Is Over, but Trump Still Can’t Seem to Get Past It

No, he can’t. But the marvelous thing isn’t the president’s continual awareness of his victory; it’s the Times’ complete lack of awareness of itself. Every day, sometimes every hour, during the past six months, the New York Times has run headlines attacking Donald Trump. The Times doesn’t require any actual news; its assumption is that of Charles Foster Kane: “If the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough.” Gleefully has the Times amassed a mountain of evidence that, far from getting past the election, it is becoming more and more obsessed with it. But now the same paper sits an’ thinks an’ scwatches its wittle head an’ says, “Golly! Ain’t it funny? Mistah Twump jus’ can’t get ovew what happund las’ Novembuh!”

You have to be sincere — sincerely blinkered — to come out with a headline like that. You have to be functioning with as little insight into yourself as the kid who smacks another kid and then is baffled when the kid smacks back.

Every day, sometimes every hour, during the past six months, the New York Times has run headlines attacking Donald Trump.

And so, for a truly classy exhibition of childlike simplicity, the Shirley Temple Prize (third place) is given to that paragon of papers, the New York Times. Let this award be exhibited next to the Pulitzer that Walter Duranty won when he was the Times’ star reporter.

This is the end of the awards ceremony. Good night to all, and to all a good night.

But before you go —  I just want to stipulate: despite my strained attempts to imitate Shirley Temple’s dialect, and my slighting remarks about her movies, she was a great talent, and at least one of her movies was very good. I refer, of course, to Little Miss Marker. Heidi wasn’t bad, either.




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