Wanted: a John Q. for the '90s


October 29, 1991|By MARK LANE

Daytona Beach, Florida. -- One of the witnesses vouching for XTC Clarence Thomas, J.C. Alvarez, wanted to make sure people knew she had fled Washington, D.C., and was living virtuously Outside The Beltway, as people Inside The Beltway call the rest of the planet.

She was speaking, she assured the committee, ''as John Q. Public of Middle America.'' While I groped in the hidden recesses of the couch to find my remote control, she evoked ''John Q. Public'' four times.

I always remember John Q. Public as the confused, bulbous-headed guy with a mustache I saw in the cartoons reprinted in the My Weekly Reader I read in seventh grade.

Hanging off his suit like a price tag was the label, ''John Q. Public.'' Usually his hat was popping off his head in reaction to the latest political outrage.

The little guy now is largely relegated to the Museum of Old Political Cartoon Characters in a musty display case next to the leering Mr. Atom Bomb. Yet Mr. Public's name lives on in all manner of political talk. He appears every time someone wants to be extravagantly and ostentatiously average or when someone in Congress believes he speaks for the 51 percent.

Maybe this is because there are few alternatives available, at least in off-the-shelf form.

Sure, there's Joe Lunchbox and his earlier incarnation, Joe Lunchbucket. But Joe Lunchbox is more condescendingly blue-collar than John Q. Public. Nobody claims to speak as Joe Lunchbox. He's more of a warning: one of the folks outside the beltway who won't get it even when it plays in Peoria.

He's in the bleacher seats of the public arena. Probably sitting next to Joe Doaks, his less-known and aging brother. Near the more contemptible Joe Blow and the puzzling John Doe. All rooting for the underdog, while Joe Sixpack watches at home on television.

Joe Lunchbox, Sixpack, Doaks, Blow and Schmo lack the dignity of John Q. Public, although I suspect they are all the same composite twisted different ways. Maybe it's the middle initial. Joseph Q. Lunchbox sounds more dignified, but it's only Joe Lunchbox in a clip-on tie. At least that's the view of the man on the street.

But what's a person to do who wants to identify himself quickly as one with those of us who lead regular old lives? When Joe Expense Account tries to appeal to Joe Lunchbox, he has no one to turn to but John Q. Public.

John Q. first leapt from the editorial pages of American newspapers sometime in the 1930s. He had muscled John Citizen out of political cartoons by the 1940s. ''There is no 'public,' '' groused Stuart Chase, already weary of the device by 1937, ''and calling it John Q. Public does not help.'' The complaint went unheeded. Public demand was too great.

But in these 1990s everyone could use a better Everyman, or Everyperson. Ms. Alvarez should not have needed to take a guy's name to let us know she's regular folks. Still, Jane Q. Public wouldn't have sounded right, and besides, Joe Lunchbox would object. Jane Carpool? No, too suburban.

All these names exclude more people than they include. So maybe Mr. Chase was right, there is no public. It's a problem, all right. But I doubt that it bothers Joe Lunchbox.

Mark Lane is an editorial writer for the Daytona Beach (Fla.) News-Journal.

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