ABOUT 20 YEARS AGO, SEN. ROMAN HRUSKA, A NEBRASKA REPUBLICAN WHOSE NAME I AM NOT making up, rose in the World's Greatest Deliberative Body to endorse one of Richard Nixon's Supreme Court nominees. Responding to criticism that the nominee was "mediocre," Mr. Hruska thundered, "What if he is? There are millions of mediocre people in this country, and they deserve representation on the Supreme Court, too!"
Whether mediocrity finally got its due on the Supreme Court is a matter of opinion. In almost every other sphere of life, however, its triumph seems assured. If the watchword of the 1980s was "excellence," as in "Ohmigosh, Little Muffy is nearly 3 weeks old, and she's not walking yet -- she'll never get into Bryn Mawr," then the lifestyle trend of the 1990s is mediocrity, as in "Hey, life's too short, you know?"
The signs are everywhere. The New Kids on the Block. Microwave popcorn. Bart "Underachiever and Proud of It" Simpson. Home Shopping Club. Decaffeinated coffee. Cher. The Mommy Track. BSO "Pops" concerts. The Republican Party. The Democratic Party. Barry Manilow.
Now I've gone and done it. I might as well have written, "Why
yes, Senor Torquemada, I'd love a hands-on demonstration of your newest thumbscrew." Half of you are now going to grab a crayon and officially Take Umbrage.
Let me save you the trouble. Here's your letter, already composed, mailed and printed for you:
You big jerk, what makes you such an expert, anyway? Who are you to call Barry Manilow "mediocre"? Who died and appointed you critic? If you had even half the sense God gave to aluminum siding, you'd know that Barry Manilow sells more copies of his album in a week than you'll sell in your entire lifetime. I'll have you know that my wife and I fell in love at a Barry Manilow concert. When we marched down the aisle to get married, the organ was playing "I Write the Songs." What do you say to that?
Here's what I say: Don't waste your time writing those letters to me. In the first place, you're supposed to send them directly to my editor, preferably at her home address. In the second place, I don't really have a choice in this matter. As a professional writer, I'm required by union rules to comment at least once a year on Lifestyle Trends.
Those of you who have real jobs and are not involved in journalism may find this hard to believe, but it's no picnic, this business of being a social critic. A non-swimmer in tides of the times, I wasn't exactly eager to dip my toes in the rushing stream of the 1990s. I would much rather have stayed behind my word processor, comforting the afflicted, afflicting the comfortable and accepting under-the-table payoffs from local merchants.
But the union called and told me my number was up. I had exactly one week to take the public pulse and wax philosophical about it in print, or somebody from the American Society of Journalists and Authors would show up on my doorstep and personally rip my membership card in half.
Besides, careful readers will note that I said only that Barry Manilow is mediocre. I didn't say he is bad, awful, terrible, nauseating, dreadful, atrocious, or any of 3,000 other things the thesaurus tells me I could have said. I didn't even say he is boring, or old-hat, or the biggest source of untapped natural gas on three continents. I was talking, after all, about Barry Manilow, not about Marvin Hamlisch.
But that's the trouble with mediocrity -- it's gotten a bad press. People confuse it with wretchedness. Call somebody mediocre, and people think you're ranking them alongside child abusers, murderers and cigarette smokers.
In fact, mediocre means middling, fair, so-so, average or run-of-the mill. Predicting the triumph of mediocrity in the 1990s is not the same thing as predicting global thermonuclear warfare.
Take, for example, the problem of buying a new car. If you're a residual 1980s kind of guy or gal, a yuppie riding the last wave, a Master of the Universe who was born clutching a bond portfolio, then clearly, you grab for Excellence -- or for whatever passes for it in an automobile showroom. You inspect the BMW convertible, the Jaguar sedan and the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud before settling on a Land Rover. "It's so flawlessly engineered," you explain quietly.
On the other hand, if you're the kind of person who's still on the lam from the Excellence police, the kind who thinks Masters of the Universe has something to do with female mud wrestling and whose idea of wholesome family entertainment is a belching contest after dinner, then you're just as unlikely as a yuppie bond broker to do anything mediocre, including buying a mediocre car. You're strictly a 1966 Ford Falcon kind of guy, and you know it.