Bring back the cowboys!


April 23, 1992|By Russell Baker

AS PRESIDENT I'd have television kick the lawyers out of prime time and put back cowboys.

In the 1950s when America was on top of the world, television had almost nothing but cowboys. Now television has lawyers up to here, and America is not on top of the world, though it could be if it stopped acting like a drunken riot on the street corner and went for dignity and self-respect.

I don't necessarily blame TV lawyers for America's descent into squalor. I merely point out that it didn't go that route as long as the cowboy ruled the tube. And the tube, after all, is where we learn how to live our lives.

Nowadays there are so many lawyers in prime time that you can be finicky in choosing one. I know a woman so addicted to TV divorce lawyers that she no longer watches "L.A. Law" unless Arnie the divorce lawyer is the center of the hour.

Arnie, as you may not know if you shun divorce lawyers in favor of public defenders or bond lawyers, is a poor model for a nation that needs to lift its gaze from the mire. His is a dreary form of human corruption -- the conviction that a little sleaziness is not only human, but also slightly charming. This was the kind of stuff of which Matt Dillon, back in the 1950s, purged Dodge City week after week.

Prime time was unknown in Marshal Dillon's America. It wasn't needed. Thanks to all those hip-holstered, cayuse-straddling straight-shooters, children and even grandmothers could tune in safely at any hour.

Under the hard cowboy discipline, even a TV cop like Sgt. Joe Friday minded his manners, politely addressing women as "Ma'am." If he were back on the force today, Friday's commendable civility would probably make him the butt of other TV cops' cruel jokes, just as Howard's gentlemanly style made the other cops on "Hill Street Blues" treat him like an imbecile.

Whenever there is a display of politeness or good manners in today's lawyer-dominated television, the purpose is usually to suggest either a dumb comic innocence or a feeble-minded inability to adapt to social realities. The social realities, of course, are assumed to be vulgar, meretricious, corrupt and possibly bestial, and anybody capable of the routine decencies is assumed to be ridiculously ill equipped to deal with them.

Big boffolas on the laugh track will drive home the point that a cop saying, "Just the facts, Ma'am," can only be a nerd.

One of the best modern TV cops, Mick of "Hill Street Blues," was given to addressing particularly loathsome felons as "Dog Breath." This, doubtless, contributed to the authenticity of the show, but not to the viewer's grasp of decorous conversation.

Much as I admired Mick's truly fine character, I think he would have felt ashamed about speaking so coarsely on TV if Marshal Dillon had been around to give him that cold, disgusted eye and say: "Remember, Mick, America is watching us to learn how to live its life. You don't want your mom to think she's out of date because she doesn't talk nasty and ugly like TV people, do you?"

So, as president, I'd have the TV bosses into the White House and tell them about the civility gap, or the manners crisis, or the politeness shortage. I'd have my campaign handlers (wordsmith division) come up with a suitable ear-pleaser to make the public worried about the rising tide of rudeness.

I'd say TV sure would be doing America a mighty big favor if they canceled a bunch of lawyers and got some cowboys back in the old telesaddle again, back where a horse is a friend and a cowboy calls a woman "Miss Kitty" instead of -- well, never mind that. And none of those modern cowboys either, because America already knew more than it needed about sadism, sodomy and rape. I'd want the kind of cowboys who'd run Arnie out of Dodge fast if he didn't clean up his act.

After the TV people refused, I'd call in some lawyers of my own and, like any normal American educated by television, I'd say: "I want that TV mob leaned on hard. I want them leaned on until you can hear their stinking guts gurgling for mercy. I want them leaned on until they put cowboys back in the parlor so we can save America from heroes so vile that they can say 'stinking guts gurgling' in polite company, order hired guns to lean on people, and cheapen our noble law by calling its agents 'hired guns.'"

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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