POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

What is the news this morning?

by David Trumbull

November 2, 2007

Tuesday is Election Day in the City of Boston. I know this, because Mary, who will be out of town on Tuesday, got an absentee ballot in the mail. It came as a surprise. I suppose I should have been aware of the election. But I can’t be the only one who was more interested in the Red Sox than candidates. I pity the candidates competing with the World Series. Besides, you really can’t blame a person for losing interest in politics these days. Those almost-nightly snooze-fests, the presidential candidates debates, seem calculated to promote vote apathy.

Me, I took a total break from reading news about politics in October. Outside of my day-job, my October was occupied with attending humor conventions.

“What is the news this morning, Mr. MacGregor?" I asked, peering around from behind a hangover.

That's the opening line from the Robert Benchley essay, “MacGregor for Ataman!” It’s also how I opened my talk at the biennial convention of The Wodehouse Society.

The Mr. MacGregor in question was a real person, a bit of an odd duck, and a good friend and personal secretary of Robert Benchley. Benchley knew many odd ducks; and he had an inexhaustible supply of friend. If we conceive of twentieth-century American humor as a city full of witty, funny people, Benchley would be the intersection of 42nd Street and Broadway in that town. Or perhaps he would be the corner of Hollywood and Vine, which, by the way, is where Benchley's star is placed on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It seems that just about every witty or humorous writer crossed paths, but never swords, with Sweet Old Bob. Benchley knew everyone. And he was friends with everyone.

Humorist Will Rogers famously said, “I never met a man I didn’t like,” but when you read his comments on the men of his age, especially politicians he disagreed with, you will find that he had a pretty low opinion of many men, or at least of their intelligence and integrity. Still, Rogers always kept a sense of humor when regarding politics. Just what, do you suppose, the man who said

A fool and his money are soon elected.

would make of our current crop of multi-millionaire candidates?

Benchley, on the other hand, really does seem to have never met a man he didn’t like. It is true that the bias, as Benchley believed it, displayed by Judge Thayer during the infamous Sacco-Vanzetti trial, could work Benchley up to a righteous anger worthy of the Old Testament Jehovah. But Benchley, even when roused to the strongest of emotions over the actions of men, never indulged in personalities. A registered Republican who usually voted for Democrats (he called himself a “confused liberal”), Benchley analyzed the two-party system thus:

" must bear constantly in mind the fact that there are two separate and distinct parties, the Republicans and the Democrats. The trick comes in telling which is which. As a general rule, the Republicans are more blonde than Democrats."

I suppose I am open to the charge that I do not take politics seriously. That’s okay. Taking politics too seriously is one a mankind’s greatest follies. The Germans and Russians took politics very seriously in the 1930s and look where that got them.