Freighted With Insignificance

Paul Greenberg

10/2/2007 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg
It happened years ago in the grocery store line. A lady introduced herself, politely told me that she thought my columns about morality were great but (there's always a but) those about politics were something else.

"Thank God, " the lady said, "in America, we separate morality and politics."

Think about it - if it doesn't make you too dizzy: "Thank God, in America we separate politics and morality."

After a confused moment, I didn't want to think about it any more. It was like staring too long at a picture by M.C. Escher, or trying to decode Yogi Berra's prose. It makes sense and it doesn't.

Do you think the lady's prayer of thanksgiving was just part of the ordinary, unthinking detritus of American conversation? Or was it pure Zen? And is there a difference?

Hey, what a country!

Or as that great poet and uneven pitcher, Joaquin Andujar, once said in a moment of pure inspiration: "There is one word in America that says it all, and that one word is, 'You never know.' "

I won't ever know what the lady meant, but I can't get her comment out of my head. It goes 'round and 'round up there like the lyrics to a bad song - as unkillable as the words to that old rhythm-and-blues standard, "Louie, Louie."

Certain high-minded critics, you may remember, claimed the Kingsmen's version of "Louie, Louie" was obscene when played at slow speed, and even made a federal case out of it. After a thorough investigation, the G-men reached their solemn conclusion:

"We found the record to be unintelligible at any speed we played it."

Much like, "Thank God, in America we separate morality and politics."

The lady's observation brings to mind what Bill McCuen, Arkansas' erstwhile former secretary of state, said in defense of a nativity scene at the state Capitol one year: "We're not celebrating the birth of Christ, we're just celebrating Christmas."

Uh, OK.

Such language leaves behind it a blank uneasiness. But it can be revealing in its own way. More revealing than the speaker intended. Much like George Stephanopoulos' classic summation of Bill Clinton's fidelity to his campaign promises: "The president has kept the promises he meant to keep."

Can't argue with that.

All such language brings to mind the lady who once proudly explained that her late husband, while not a lawyer, "had a legalized mind." Maybe that's what it takes, a legalized mind, to understand the distinction between celebrating Christmas and celebrating the birth of Christ.

Various justices of the Supreme Court of the United States have been known to make as much sense when they discuss nativity scenes, and have to decide when celebrating the birth of Christ (a religious rite) becomes only celebrating Christmas (now a cultural festival, as with the Japanese) and therefore is constitutional.

There is actually something to be said for confusing an issue so thoroughly that nobody could possibly fight over it. It's a way of preserving the peace. Dwight Eisenhower was a master of that tactic; he could do it at every press conference. When it came to statesmanlike incoherence, the man was a natural.

During one of those recurrent crises with the Chinese back in the '50s over the offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu, his press secretary, James Hagerty, worried that his boss would say something so conciliatory the Communists on the mainland would take it as an invitation to seize the islands - or, conversely, something so provocative we'd find ourselves in World War III.

No problem. Ike took his press secretary aside and assured him, "Don't worry, Jim, I'll go out there and confuse 'em." Which he did. At length. Like the master he was. The man was inarticulate like a fox.

As for the lady's comment about the blessings of separating morality from politics, it sticks in the mind - like a marble going 'round and 'round in a clothes dryer. It's definitely a quote worth keeping in my collection of the unconsciously metaphysical.

Still, that comment may not rank up there with my favorite conundrum - an observation that appeared in a letter from a mental patient to the Pine Bluff (Ark.) Commercial some years ago: "It gets boring not having peace of mind all the time."

I'm still thinking about that one.

Rolling it over in my mind has much the same disorienting effect as being immersed in the news 24/7/365. Everything begins to spin. I know.