For want of a butler

Russell Baker

May 14, 1992|By Russell Baker

IN THE good old murder-mystery days the butler did it. Yet he still hasn't even been hauled in for questioning in the Los Angeles case. He's the only one who hasn't.

In the past week practically everybody has accused practically everybody else of doing it. Here are just a few of the accusations, with learned comment:

1. Lyndon Johnson did it. Though he died in 1973, Johnson cannot hide behind his decease to avoid trial. Long-dead presidents are constantly being tried and convicted for perpetrating situations that defeated us just this morning.

2. George Bush did it. This is a historic accusation, since it is the first suggestion that George Bush has ever played a role of any kind in domestic affairs.

3. The liberals did it. Curiously, this suggests there still exist liberals capable of doing something consequential. Conservatives insist there are, but this may merely be something they say to keep their children sensibly scared, now that the young are so steeped in the rising gore of modern entertainment that the Boogeyman seems tamer than Little Lord Fauntleroy.

4. The media did it. What would a roundup of the usual suspects be without hauling in the media festooned in handcuffs?

5. The judge did it. This refers to the judge who moved the L.A. trial from racially mixed L.A. to white suburbs. Probably because of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's good Judge Hardy, wise old dad to mischievous Andy Hardy, Americans ascribe godlike wisdom to judges and tirelessly abuse lawyers. But what is a judge? A lawyer lucky enough to know a successful politician. Judges can do it too, just like anybody else, and sometimes do.

6. The jury did it. The case against the jury is pretty thin. Since nobody on the jury had ever been black or beaten by the police, it was only natural for them to think the way black men take control when they're being arrested is by rolling around on the ground and getting beaten by police.

7. Police Chief Daryl Gates did it. In some quarters the chief is so disliked that it would be a cinch to get a conviction, whether he did it or not. In others, he is such a favorite he couldn't be convicted if caught with a looted TV set under his bed. Why try a man like this? It could end in another day of the locust, and the object now is to forget the last one with a maximum of obfuscation and a minimum of expenditure.

8. The black community did it. And if so, who shall be brought to the bar of justice? Justice Clarence Thomas? Anita Hill? Bill Cosby? Leontyne Price? Darryl Strawberry? Hammer? Mike Tyson? New York Mayor David Dinkins? The late Paul Robeson? And why not the late Robeson if the late Lyndon Johnson and the late Lee Atwater can be hauled into court?

9. Yes, the late Lee Atwater did it. The mastermind behind George Bush's 1988 campaign with its telegenic linking of Democrat Dukakis and worst-nightmare photo of black killer-rapist Willie Horton, Atwater continued the winning Republican strategy of exploiting racial fears for votes, though it was Richard Nixon who pioneered it. Therefore:

10. Richard Nixon did it. The trouble here is twofold: (1) People are tired of hearing what Richard Nixon did and will lose interest if the case against him is pressed. (2) Loyal Nixon fans will say, "Why the uproar? They all do it." And of course, if everybody does it, it's useless to go to trial because you can't put everybody in jail, especially right now when all the jails are overflowing with merchants and users of narcotics.

11. White racism did it.

12. Black racism did it.

13. Asian racism did it.

14. Poverty did it.

15. Rap music did it. So did the breakdown of the family, not to mention the decline in church attendance among illegitimate children of teen-age mothers, as well as the maldistribution of income, the greed of the 1980s, the savings and loan swindles and Vice President Dan Quayle's use of government planes for golfing trips, along with the talk radio, violence on film and television, cultural illiteracy, the failure of the public-school system, food stamps, government subsidies for dirty art, ridiculously inflated salaries for baseball players, and lots more.

Apparently everybody did it but the butler. It's a pity. It would be so much easier to forget. A mere butler. How silly . . .

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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