The insult stands tall as ever in today's U.S...


August 26, 1991

THE ART OF the insult stands tall as ever in today's U.S., judging by the newspaper columns entered in The Sun's annual Mencken Contest. (The winner will be named and the $2,500 prize awarded next month, at Pratt Library.) After all, one of 1990's events, there for columnar commentary, was the opening of "another roadside attraction," attended by "a barbershop quartet of four more-or-less-living presidents." What is the formal title of this (when its site was still undecided) "incredible hovering monument" and "theme park"? The Nixon Presidential Library.

Today's columnists (going by an exit poll of the judges) chew a lot, swallow slowly if at all, and write well. If 1990 had a hero, surely it was Ken Burns with his PBS Civil War series. But one voice out there rebuked him for allowing Shelby Foote to rhapsodize over Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry sword. Forrest was a prewar slave trader; a war criminal whose men slaughtered 300 black prisoners at Fort Pillow, and the first head of the postwar Ku Klux Klan.

But the best part, as always, was the view of life across the nation. In Iowa, game wardens, nabbing a man with three illegally caught fish, confiscated his boat, outboard motor, boat trailer, depth finder and trolling motor. West Virginians mulled over the political candidacy of a football-hero carpetbagger. Legislators in Wyoming favored the beating up (no weapons, fellows) of flagburners. How many lobbyists are there per state legislator? Nationally, 5.7; in Florida, 36. That sound you hear is the Ghost of Hollins Street, rubbing his palms together.

* * *

HOW SWEET it is for certain elitists in this country. Even when they are forced to step down from their elevated positions of power, they manage to do so with little immediate pain. In business world, it is known as a "golden parachute." In the public and academic sectors, it might be called the "silver umbrella."

Take, for instance, Los Angeles police chief Darryl Gates, who ineptly dealt with a police brutality case that was filmed on videotape for all the world to see. He succumbed to public outrage and resigned -- effective next April. What a pleasant way to lose your job: you take the next eight months to wrap up loose ends, send out resumes and bring home that fat public paycheck.

Or look at the situation further up the coast. Stanford University President Donald Kennedy was tied to a scandal in which the university overcharged Washington millions in "overhead" for federal research projects. For that monumental gaffe, Mr. Kennedy gave himself the boot -- next August. He'll collect a year's worth of additional paychecks, figure out what he wants to do and then quietly fade into the sunset.

What ever happened to the pink slip? Are some folks in our society now immune from the harsh reality of instant unemployment?

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