Norman Mailer Bites George Will

I have witnessed the wrath of nature, and it is not a pretty sight. When a mighty predator makes a meal of a slow-witted, defenseless, helpless creature, one can hardly help but cringe. It can be almost impossible to restrain one's sympathy for the poor victim, whom natural selection has chosen for extinction. The springbok fallen prey to a pride of lions; the plankton and krill sluiced into the mighty maw of the baleen whale; George Will when he pisses off Norman Mailer.

Alas, poor George, he hardly knew what hit him.

It goes without saying that Mr. Will's days as a right-wing wunderkind belong to that twilit past when giants like James Watt, Anne Gorsuch, and William Casey roamed the earth. Today, he is mostly known as a member of the Hair Club for White Men, the Sunday morning ABC chat show during which George Stephanopolous tries every week to prove that he can make real hair look every bit as weird as Mr. Will's and Mr. Sam Donaldson's. But, even as he waits for his species to finally fall victim to natural selection, Mr. Will must be thinking fondly of the glory days when he would meet Nancy Reagan to dish dirt over lunch at Maison Blanche -- and be routinely written up by the gossip columns as the most powerful commentator in Washington.

Mr. Will, you may remember, self-destructed in Republican circles by churlishly -- and publicly -- referring to George Bush the Elder as a "lapdog." During President 41's administration he had a social cachet that only Gary Condit could envy. Apparently, he is determined not to make that mistake in the era of President 43. Consider his recent words in praise of the Younger Bush:

"President Bush's rhetorical style -- syntactical minimalism: Midland, Texas, meets MBA-speak -- is what it was before Sept. 11, but it suits the new sobriety. Were Bush to attempt the Ciceronian flourishes of John Kennedy ("Now the trumpet summons us again -- not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are . . . ") it would be like Handel played on a harmonica. Bush's terseness is Ernest Hemingway seasoned by John Wesley."

Now, I will not be so mean-spirited as to point out that the Kennedy quote sounds far more like the Greek orator Isocrates than the Roman Cicero, but the Hemingway reference raised better (and bushier) eyebrows than mine. Mr. Norman Mailer, you may remember, helped re-invent American post-war literature, and shape the cultural discourse of an age. He may even know something about writing. In a marvelous piece of invective, he wrote to the Boston Globe:

"Well, one is hardly familiar with John Wesley's sermons, but I do know that to put George W. Bush's prose next to Hemingway is equal to saying that Jackie Susann is right up there with Jane Austen. Did a sense of shame ever reside in our Republican toadies? You can't stop people who are never embarrassed by themselves. Will's readiness to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse can be cited as world class sycophancy."

Mailer's letter is much longer, and I commend it, as well as Will's column, to you on the Boston Globe Web site. But he has put his finger on the problem of the mainline Washington commentariat: a plodding devotion to the ordinary, a near-neurotic need for the social acceptance of their political betters, a knee-jerk predictability that makes most columns coma-inducing, a waste of perfectly good trees.

Or, as my old friend Cicero once said, Quo usque tandem abutere patientia nostra? Which, roughly translated, means, "Shut up and get out of my face."

Michael Ryan has written, directed and produced films, television, and theater, published several books of humor and satire, and worked as a Washington and foreign correspondent and editor for major magazines.


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