The Silly Season is Here Again

Some call this the silly-season when news about presidential candidates is still being invented. Between jokes about Donald Trump’s comb-over and Joe Biden’s borrowed speeches, the pundits are scrambling to decide for us, even before the candidates have spoken, what they will say and what their campaign themes will be. Observations that sound like facts zoom through the media circuit, confirmed, if at all, by persons who remain anonymous because they are not authorized to speak. And we, pawns that we are, listen because we don’t want to be out of the loop just in case the breaking news is important.

Muddled in with the weariness of ongoing election politics is the phenomenon of public speakers repeating lines constructed for them by campaign advisors and speech writers. As if politics were not corrupting enough, because it has always been despite idealized views of the noble polis, we now have media making news for us. And candidates terrorized by media try to get out a catchy line now and again hoping that reporters will take the bait and broadcast it. If it is only one line that gets reported, it has to be a good one. Absolutely intentional. Nothing spontaneous.

It’s not hard to tell constructed lines. As an accommodation to the limited intelligence of voters they must be easy to remember: a few words in a catchy cadence. They stand out because they do not sound like the way ordinary people speak. They are slogans designed for chanting at demonstrations or printing on bumper stickers. If these lines are repeated often enough in speeches and echoed often enough in media accounts, candidates begin to believe themselves. And if they don’t believe themselves, at least they hope voters will believe them. This is the silly season.

It reminds me of a story I used to hear when I was young. It was told by what in those days was called “an old codger.” He was not very political, but he was very observant. And best of all he was a good storyteller. He had a nose for deceit, and was not taken in by pretense. His stories about “the old country” had the common sense of someone who had grown up in a village where the truth about everybody was already known. In his world there was not much use for lies. There was more use for forgiveness. Sometimes on just the right occasion he brought out the story of Mijne for the kids. At other times he put his elbows up on the bar and repeated it again for the other old guys.

Driving the honey wagon was Mijne’s unenviable job. That was in the days before the porta potty and tanker trucks equipped with suction systems. In their village poor Mijne steered his horse-drawn cart from house to house where he emptied the outhouses and then drove to the edge of town where he spread the contents on the fields. In addition to his high tolerance for the “ick factor” Mijne’s most remarkable characteristic was that he liked to chat.

While going from house to house to empty the privies Mijne sometimes also picked up bits of news to distribute along the way. One might say that he was a gossip, but he was not a malicious gossip. Seeing him coming was bad news enough; so he tried to compensate by being the bearer of good news. He liked to report who had a baby, whose dog had pups, or whose cow had calved during the night. Or he would gladly spread the word about whose relatives were visiting and who had just purchased a new ice box.

The neighbors were not disinterested in the tidbits of neighborhood gossip that Mijne collected. But despite this most people who saw him coming crossed the street. Housewives stayed away from the windows when Mijne entered their yard so that he would think they were not home. Men going about town doing their own work would dodge into the hardware for things they didn’t need when they saw Mijne coming in their direction. There was just something unappealing about chatting with Mijne on the porch or pausing to visit with him on the sidewalk. Seeing his cart rumble down the street and out to the fields was odious enough.

Mijne was not a quitter. The more his neighbors ignored him, the harder he tried to come up with good news. He honed his sense for what would hook attention. That is how it happened one day that Mijne was going through town reporting that the baker had baked too much bread and that he would be selling two for the price of one until the day’s batch was gone. At first some thought that this was another of Mijne’s “fish stories.”

As the morning wore on some began to wonder if this time Mijne might have picked up some real news. Afterall the woman from the end of the street who always was slow about getting her errands done was off to get bread earlier than usual this morning. Another neighbor who usually did her other errands first was seen going directly to the baker. So one by one the neighbors joined the trickle of customers going to the bakery until it became a stream of customers crowding the street as if it were the last shopping day before a holiday. And, although a little off to the side, there was Mijne too also hurrying off to get his own free loaf.

So the silly season is nothing new. Maybe the stories are more sensational now. The sources of them more sophisticated. The stakes higher. The crowds repeating them larger and the news cycles spinning them faster. I just wish that in the end I did not have to vote on them.

Mr. Sillypants Goes to Washington

In a folder of papers at my desk there are reminders of things to do sometime, although they aren’t urgent. Waiting to be filed is a copy of Billy Collin’s poem called Child Development along with a program for an event at which he read his poetry more than ten years ago. Now and then when I sort through the folder, I pause to read Collin’s poem, which is as good a statement as any I’ve even seen about name-calling. Each time I read it, I chuckle as if I’ve never read it before and feel grateful that our nation has Poets Laureate as gifted as Billy Collins. It gives me hope.

There are endless fine ways to interpret a poem; that’s the point of poetry, isn’t it? My own amusement with this poem by Billy Collin’s begins somewhere in the neighborhood of being reminded that children are fresh and adults pretentious. How playful the little people are whose name-calling includes “Dumb Goopyhead” or new variations on references to poop. With growing expectation, I follow Collins line after line, like a listener waiting for the punch line of a good joke I’ve heard before. I’m readying myself to laugh at the delicious moment when I’m reminded that beneath the surface of propriety and adult indignation, when we stoop to name-calling, we are all three-year-olds.

courtesy of of M. K. Brown

Recently when I read Billy Collin’s poem again, I found it more serious and less funny, although no less clever. Perhaps it is because nationally we are at a high tide of humorless name-calling, much of it artless Mr. Sillypants pot-shots that, beyond being brash or crude, add nothing new to the conversation. Even the comics have lost track of the funny-bone and settled for the grotesque and vulgar. Our current civic name-calling isn’t nearly as inventive and insightful as the creations of children who call each other “Big Fatty Stupid” or “Dopey Dopehead.”

For just over thirty years we have had a Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress. Has the time come to extend the lubricating genius of art across the street to the Capitol and appoint a professional Congressional Fool to help those “giants…talking baritone nonsense to other giants” take themselves a little less seriously? Or might there be added to the long list of appointments made when a new President assembles a team, the office of West Wing Jester? Bear in mind, the office might never get filled if its approval requires the advice and consent of the Senate.

In the absence of the honorable offices of West Wing Jester and Capitol Fool we leave the responsibility to poke and niggle the powerful to the reporters and pundits who run commentary on the President, the Congress, and anyone else important enough to make us worry. But what if, as it so often appears, the masters of breaking news only believe it is their high calling to “devastate some fatuous hack,” and meanwhile themselves have lost touch with their own inner fool? How can we trust any of them, the powerful and their critics, if they no longer “know in their adult hearts” that sometimes they too are little more than “Mr. Sillypants?”

Originally published on Front Porch Republic.