A Refreshing Jolt of Bile by a Rattler with Attitude

March 30, 1995|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- It is about as hazardous to be on Florence King's good side as on her bad side, but here goes: If Mencken were alive, he would be her.

She can like that praise or lump it, but it fits this caustic wit who last August wrote: ''If, as countless elegies to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis claimed, 'she taught us how to behave with taste,' how come it didn't take? If 'she taught us how to grieve LTC with dignity,' why is everyone crying on television?''

Before we are buried beneath a mudslide of routine blather, let's pay attention to Ms. King, who knows why someone has actually said, ''We can't balance the budget on the backs of the Titanic.'' Hey, ''the backs of the poor,'' ''the deck chairs on the Titanic'' -- what's the difference? When civic life is saturated with cliches and banalities, Ms. King believes, public speech becomes fungible noise, as when someone protesting restrictions on the entry into this country of HIV-positive people says, ''Travel doesn't cause HIV.''

Florence King is a pistol-packing belletrist whose books have titles like ''Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye'' and ''With Charity Toward None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy'' and now a collection, ''The Florence King Reader.'' Her family arrived in Virginia in 1672 and she lives, appropriately, in Fredericksburg, the site in 1862 of a particularly bloody episode of national fratricide, featuring especially ghastly generalship by the forces of the federal government. Ms. King, you see, is a conservative.

And not the kind who cares about seeming to be ''caring.'' Such soft-shell conservatives sound to her ''like transfer students trying to be popular fast.'' Even her book editor compares her to ''a rattler with an attitude,'' and he actually likes her. He has even met her, which is not easy to do -- she likes her privacy and is a good shot -- and he swears ''she wouldn't hurt a piranha.''

She was born in 1936, when Shirley Temple was everyone's idea of a Darling Little Girl. Young Florence never aspired to be a sunbeam. She never made the mistake that she alludes to in her exquisite one-sentence explanation of Richard Nixon: ''Nothing is more stressful for a misanthrope than trying to be nice with no end in sight.''

In her novel ''When Sisterhood was in Flower,'' a scathing send-up of 1970s women's-liberation follies, she expresses most of her political philosophy when her protagonist is urged to heed the surgeon general's warning. The protagonist says: ''The federal government has three duties. Print the money, deliver the mail and declare war. Give me my cigarettes.''

Naturally she finds today's obsession with health sickening. Her credo is, ''If whiskey or salt won't cure it, then to hell with it.'' Although she says ''I'll sit up all night nursing an ailing paragraph,'' she discerns morbid narcissism in the New Hypochondria, which is unhealthily preoccupied with both sickness and ''wellness.''

The author of ''Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady'' is especially hilarious about the South -- not the New South of Newt Gingriches and Al Gores, but the South of ''300-pound sheriffs named Vonnie or Beverly who split heads and infinitives,'' and little old ladies with genealogical fixations, researching ''the maiden name of the wife of Thomas Jefferson's overseer's grandfather's cousin.'' But nothing strikes her as weirder than contemporary America, where people ''have gotten the message that life is easier if they don't think straight.''

We are, she thinks, becoming barbaric in the name of sensitivity. In this kinder, gentler America, where people -- men especially -- want to be praised as ''vulnerable,'' a politician abandoning his principles is said to be ''growing in office,'' an interesting description of moral collapse. Small wonder, says Ms. King, that you can't find the Spartan virtues celebrated even in the military nowadays, when a secretary of defense rhapsodizes about finding in Somalia ''the interaction we're accustomed to seeing between American troops and the people we help.''

Says Ms. King, ''A country that thinks Andy Rooney is a curmudgeon can't take too much unpleasantness.'' Such a country sinks into ''interminable, maniacally detailed investigations of emotional affronts.'' Ms. King, whose reviews and essays appear here and there (for example on the back page of every other issue of National Review), probably is, and certainly wants to be, at the top of the sensitivity police's Most Wanted list, an honor she has earned by a life lived in fidelity to John Wayne's signature line in ''She Wore a Yellow Ribbon:'' ''Never apologize, mister, it's a sign of weakness.''

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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