Lean and mean

Russell Baker

January 14, 1993|By Russell Baker

IN the spirit of the times, we are downsizing the staff that writes these columns. Thanks to the downsizing, we are at last free to say "downsizing," having downsized Walter Mulmer, whose task was to keep the column free of what he called "mushmouth" words.

Good old Walter. How we shall miss him. He would never have let us say we were downsizing. He would have made us say we were firing people left and right.

Making people say what they mean is a precious service, and Walter will soon be offering it to the nation's greatest corporations as well as to the Clinton administration. Afterward, he will surely find work thawing hamburgers for a drive-through restaurant.

Ansel McCarver is gone too. He had become superfluous. Ansel wrote all our columns ridiculing Dan Quayle.

What an acid word-processor he had. We always said he was made of razors and bile.

Yet when told he was being downsized, Ansel sniveled and whined so pathetically that it reminded Ellen Sumpson of the time James Cagney -- playing Rocky Sullivan, wasn't he? -- went to the chair yellow.

Ellen writes our columns about old movies. Everything reminds her of old movies.

At lunch one day, a bowl of squid soup reminded her of a movie called "Sh! The Octopus," starring Hugh Herbert.

Fired by the memory, she --ed off a column recalling great octopus performances in Edmund Lowe's deep-sea-diving films. Then she accused the animal-rights movement of not trying to save the octopus. Couldn't they at least throw squid ink on people who wear octopus-hide garments?

We decided not to run that column after Selba Maine pointed out that nobody under age 70 had ever heard of Hugh Herbert, knew that Edmund Lowe spent half his movie career under water, or wore octopus-hide clothes.

Selba writes columns idolizing youth. To keep a young audience, Selba warned, we must "cut the geriatric pap" and join the crowd rhapsodizing about Madonna, Amy Fisher and David Letterman. "Youth is the only place it's at," Selba always said.

We remembered that when we started this week's downsizing. Noting that Selba had turned 35 on the weekend, we downsized her.

Ellen Sumpson was downsized last month. That's why you haven't lately had to yawn through a column about how much wiser Bill Clinton would be if he remembered Paul Muni playing Louis Pasteur and Leon Errol starring in Selected Short Subjects.

George Bush's departure left us no alternative but to downsize Al Miffle. It was Al who wrote all the George Bush columns. He had the wide vision necessary for the job. He could see Bush the Gentleman and he could see Bush the Assassin. This enabled him to write a column that was embarrassingly kind to Bush, then turn around and write a column that was brutal to Bush.

When somebody said, "Al, you're selling out to Bush," Al said: "I write what I see." And when somebody said, "Al, how can you be so mean to poor George?" Al said: "I write what I see."

Before downsizing him we talked to Al. A new president was at hand. Could Al do what was necessary? "I will write what I see," said Al.

Because we admire him so, there was some pleading: "Do you absolutely have to, Al?"

"I write what I see," said Al. It left no way out. We downsized him after explaining:

"With new presidents, Al, you can't write what you see. This is only daily journalism. With new presidents you've got to write what we want you to see."

For this very reason we had to upsize by one new writer: Irving Plimka, a buildup expert. We have used Irving before. In early 1969, he wrote our columns announcing what a noble president "the new Nixon" would be; in the summer of 1974, his columns made brand-new President Ford seem like the finest specimen since Lincoln; in 1977, his columns depicted Jimmy Carter as the modern Socrates; in 1981, his columns on Reagan . . . .

Enough. We are talking professional presidential buildup. Irving will build you a Clinton to bust your buttons about. Later for the tear-down we shall surely have to upsize again.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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