Take A Number

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I heard a joke many years ago about a visitor being shown through the penitentiary. It was lunchtime, and the warden took his guest to see the prisoners eating. They ate in silence, except that from time to time a prisoner would stand up and shout a number. "Twenty-four!" Then they all burst into laughter. This went on for a while: "Fifteen!" Guffaws. "Thirty-eight!" Knee slapping and clapping. "What was going on?" asked the visitor. The warden explained that the men enjoyed a joke while eating, but had heard them all so often that, to save time, they were assigned numbers, so that a prisoner could tell a joke simply by announcing its number.

The recent election campaigns — jokes themselves — reminded me of this story. I’ve heard all the usual political Pablum so often — so have you, no doubt — that, in the interests of saving time, the candidates should simply announce, "Claim 18," or whatever. I’ll present a few of the commoner banalities, and you can assign your own numbers. Perhaps an election committee can decide which numbers to employ officially. The result should be much greater efficiency, next campaign.

First, there is dreaming. Listen to the radio or TV during the rutting season, when the bull-shooters lust for election, and you will surely hear repeated references to the candidate "having a dream" for America. A variation of this snoozing scheme is the candidate with a "vision." I suppose the two could be lumped under the same number. In any event, the picture that comes to mind is of the candidate either sleeping or having a hallucination. It drives me to distraction, not the polls. Their dreams are my nightmares.

Then there is fighting. Although the candidate is smiling and unbloodied, he invariably insists that he is fighting, but rather than fighting against someone, you see, he is fighting for someone, which happens to be you and me, not to mention freedom-loving individuals everywhere in the world! This is evidently considered a favorable image for the candidate to wrap about himself, provided that the listener gives it no more than a millisecond of thought. (The fighting candidate, you see, is also peace loving, and abhors war.) To fight without an opponent is the stuff of mimes; should we favor the candidate who fights his own shadow? Of course, we can assume that the actual opponent in the fight is the other candidate, but should that candidate be the incumbent, who was duly elected by the very same sacrosanct process now espoused as essential to our liberty and well-being, how could that process have resulted in the election of such an obviously incompetent, venal, and ignorant nincompoop? Well, never mind. Vote for the guy who’s fighting hardest for you, and hope that it turns out better this time.

Integrity gets a big play, also, and is often linked with vision. The candidate is a man of integrity and vision! Integrity means one, integral, not divided. A man of integrity is not of two minds. In a sense, this term adequately describes most candidates, who are single-minded about being elected. Indeed, this single-mindedness, or integrity, compels them to promise X to one voting bloc, and anti-X to another. In practical terms, the candidate with integrity is one who hasn’t been found out yet, or at least hasn’t been indicted. Again, best not to think about it. Believe, accept, trust!

Let’s not ignore direction. In the recent election, there was probably not a single candidate who did not promise to take us in a new direction. Which direction would that be? To the left? But all the other candidates have been going that way for decades. To the right? Well, hardly! That’s the way of Hitler and Mussolini! Forward? All the candidates promise that; it’s axiomatic. Backward? Absurd! It’s OK to reminisce about the good old days (of low taxes and little crime!), but no politician wants to go back there. Up? Down? The candidate who is going to lead us in a new direction is as vague about his headings as the fighting candidate is about his opponent. Sure, he’s promising health care, but so is his opponent, although the opponent’s health care plan is sickly. Better education? His opponent promises that also, but not as much. More jobs? Greater security? All the candidates seem to be going in those same directions. Less government, the abolition of a half-dozen cabinet positions, for a start, and the sale of government lands? Now that would be a new direction, but not a single candidate promising new direction wants to go in THAT direction. Of course, it depends on what NEW means! (It means the same old direction as before).

For candidates seeking direction, my first suggestion would be north or south: don’t stop until you get to Canada or Mexico, and if possible, keep going even then. Aim for Tierra del Fuego, or Greenland. For good swimmers, like Senator Kennedy, trans-oceanic destinations (Manila, the Azores) can be sought. The farther away the candidate, the greater his appeal, as far as I’m concerned. My preference would be to cast an absentee ballot for the absent candidate. That’s a brave new direction for a man of integrity and vision to fight for. What a dream!

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.

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