President Clinton, no funky chicken, may have crosed the road to oblivion

September 27, 1995|By MIKE LITTWIN

As we all learned many years ago in school, those who ignore history are doomed to, well, bring up the subject of funk. Not funky chicken and not funky Broadway. But actual, down-in-the-dumps funk.

We're talking of our president, of course. Except he's not just your president anymore. He's Bill "Sir Funk-A-Lot" Clinton. (Watch for him in Part 8 of the PBS Rock and Roll retrospective.)

In an interview on Air Force One the other day, Clinton said - and I'm not sure whether he had backup singers - that among his many duties as president, he was "trying to get people out of their funk." He made no mention, though, of funkadelia.

My immediate response was, of course: boom shakalakalaka, boom shakalakalaka.

I thought that might do it. In the Newt Gingrich era of politics, the American people generally pay no attention whatsoever to what Clinton says. He could say - and this is just a hypothetical - that Pat Buchanan looks like a toad and not a single head would turn.

But this is different. At a time when our nation is preoccupied by closing arguments in the O.J. case and, incidentally, the complete reversal of the New Deal, Clinton says the word funk and it's prime-time news.

The reason is clear to even the casual student of politics. When you say funk, you might as well say malaise. And, so far, every president who has almost said malaise has very quickly become an ex-president.

You could look it up.

For example, according to his biographers, George Washington, even when tortured by his wooden teeth, never said either malaise or funk.

Ronald Reagan, our only two-term president since the '50s, was so wary of malaise, he would never even say a word that started with the letter "m," except of course Mommy.

This is the lesson of Jimmy Carter, of course, who gave the infamous "malaise" speech, in which he never actually used the word malaise (I think he said "bummed") but you got the idea. All it did was cost him the presidency. It was that and the hostages and the attack of the killer rabbit.

You'd think Clinton would know better. And yet, there he was, decrying America's funk quotient. This is inordinately brave of our president, who was trying to say that people should be happy with the job he's doing. But, to tell you the truth, I'm not sure we are in a funk.

Yes, there are some things to be down-in-the-mouth about. The Orioles season. Ross Perot's return to politics. Kato's acting career.

But funk?

The last time I was into funk was with the Grand Funk Railroad (now known, officially, as Amtrak). We came to your town. We helped you party it down.

But that was the '70s. When we were funky, but not funk-y.

We were basically mentally and emotionally exhausted (the only possible explanation, by the way, for disco) from the '60s and Vietnam and Watergate and the Partridge Family. We elected Carter because he seemed so calm, although not quite as calm as Gerald Ford, who seemed possibly stuffed.

One malaise speech, and he was gone. (Or so we thought. The truth is, it is impossible to be rid of Jimmy Carter. When he wasn't monitoring elections in Guatemala or building houses for the poor, he was writing a children's book, illustrated by the long-lost Amy. The book, just out, is called "The Little Baby Snoogle-Fleejer." To borrow a line from Dorothy Parker, who was never afraid, by the way, to say malaise, the title alone makes this tontstant weader want to fwow up.)

I can't see Clinton writing children's books after his presidency, any more than I can see him lusting only in his heart. But, if you look closely, you can see him in full retreat.

No sooner had he uttered the f-word and Bob Dole had said, "Hey, I don't know about you, pal, but I'm happy," than the spinmeisters had the president working on an explanation.

"I feel very optimistic about the country," Clinton said the very next day. He couldn't be happier, he said. The American people couldn't be happier, he said. And that's with a Republican Congress, too.

And besides that, he said, malaise and funk aren't exactly the same thing.

"Malaise," he said, "is a state of mind. Funk is something you can bounce out of."

Or, with the right beat, dance to.

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