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Jewish World Review March 14, 2001 / 19 Adar, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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A record broken: The delights of awful prose -- THERE'S nothing quite so delightful as truly awful prose. I used to collect samples of it strictly for their entertainment value.

It was a harmless habit, like amassing old Marx Brothers films. For those times when you're weary and depressed, and there's not a James Thurber book around, there's nothing like perusing an oh-so-solemn article written by a lawyer or a professor of education. The latest proceedings of almost any Association of Professional Educators is usually so full of mindfog it beats the heck out of nine out of 10 supposedly comic novels. (There are real teachers and there are educators, and the twain seldom meet.)

But with the deterioration of the language -- indeed, its replacement by electronic substitutes like television, e-mail and political spin -- my folder of barbarous usages threatened to take over the whole filing cabinet. Space was becoming a problem. What to do?

Rather than rent a storage shed, I settled for what newspapermen used to call the Snake Photo Solution. It seems that, on country papers, editors have a hard time turning away folks who show up with a really impressive rattlesnake in the back of a pickup. And the proud owner just knows that the paper would be delighted to run a front-page picture of it, and maybe of him, too, in an heroic pose. What's a hard-pressed editor to do?

Some journalistic genius -- if that is not a contradiction in terms -- came up with the perfect response: Print the snake's picture only if the paper had never carried a picture of a longer one. The sure result: Snake pictures would grow rarer. Until one day they might disappear altogether.

Between record-length snakes, each issue of the Jones County Clarion or whatever would no longer be graced by pictures of dead ones. Ditto, deer kills. It was a welcome answer to a recurring problem. And a way for the American press to finally become viper-free.

The same useful principle might well be applied to watermelons. Or gourds that, in just the right light and held at just the right angle, bear an all too canny resemblance to some human figure, usually a personage in the news.

The Snake Photo Solution could also be applied to Clinton Scandals, which refuse to go away even in this, the ninth year of William the Slick's administration. His doings continue to dominate the news -- along with the inevitable, strained defenses of them from the few Clinton apologists left. Plus the now obligatory statement from Senator Clinton that she was certainly not involved. Meanwhile, lesser matters -- the economy, world peace, the fate of mankind -- are relegated to the inside pages.

My suggestion: Why not adopt a version of the Snake Photo Solution? Only if the newest Clinton Scandal is longer, slicker or has more rattles than any previous one should it rate front-page space with foto. Otherwise, ignore it. Leave it to Heaven and the supermarket tabs.

Of course some will argue that the latest Clinton Scandal is always the most outrageous. And the latest apology for it even more so. For example: "That was no fugitive financier, but a perfectly innocent businessman who left the country to take the waters in Switzerland. He wasn't fleeing justice but merely taking an extended vacation.'' That one ought to be on somebody's wall next to the eight-foot bass.

Alas, Clinton Scandals are not susceptible to objective measurement, and fanciers of clinton clauses will continue to disagree over which is the longest and trickiest. Was it his definition of is, or his last-day-in-office confession of perjury that wasn't? Every fan probably has his own favorite entry in this depressing game.

The principle involved in the Snake Photo Solution has saved me a lot of trouble. Because years ago, a generous friend gave me what surely had to be the most awkward specimen of prose in the English language. And I decided to save no more till I found one that surpassed it.

This little gem came in a book that I still keep near should a sudden need arise for comic relief. As it regularly does when half my desk is covered by government reports and the other half by little pink slips with

messages from irate readers. This remarkable little book (121 small pages) is a handsomely bound artifact of the early 1950s, when it was widely distributed by the American Legion. As a bonus, it contains a brief preface by Norman Vincent Peale, the Robert Schuller of his time. In it, the Reverend Peale avers that this "is one of the greatest books in all my reading experience'' -- which says less about the book than about the limits of The Rev. Dr.'s reading.

This slim volume ought to be as readily available as the aspirin, Maalox or bottle of bourbon in any well-stocked editor's desk. It is doubtless out of print by now, as it richly deserves to be, but when it comes to relieving tension, I've found its wobbly flights of eloquence far more effective than any over-the-counter medication.

Naturally the book was written by a lawyer -- indeed, the dean of a law school: the late Clarence Manion of Notre Dame, a minor but memorable pamphleteer whose obscurities were widely advertised as profound insights.

One can scarcely open any page of this masterwork without being dazzled by its political kitsch. Its ornate prose is guaranteed to reduce the discerning reader to laughter, or maybe tears. The finest example of Dean Manion's style, the apogee of his elevated verbiage, is to be found on Page 57. For years it was my own personal winner in the Snake Photo competition for literary creation:

                       There is every reason to believe that Republican forms of government, every branch of which is constitutionally committed to the protection of unalienable individual rights, could and would permanently solve the political aches and pains of the whole world. But there, as here and everywhere, mere form without substance must collapse of its own weight.

It has a kind of Zen quality to it, don't you think? It's been years since I had to save another example of awful prose, for surely this one, I thought, would remain the undisputed champion. Picture it, if you possibly can: Mere form without substance collapsing of its own weight.

Here's the perfect example of unintentionally comic writing. The moral of the story: Some writers should not be allowed near figures of speech. They have no more business playing with them than a two-year-old does playing with a loaded revolver.

Rule No. 1 for amateurs tempted to use visual images remains: Always picture what you're writing. It might have saved Dean Manion.

But now, I hasten to report, this champion of awful prose has been dethroned. By a columnist for The New York Times, of course. He's Paul Krugman, who writes about economics, or maybe around it, and who the other day surpassed even Clarence Manion's masterpiece.

Here is Dr. Krugman's all too vivid criticism of this administration's plan to cut taxes:

                      And when the chickens that didn't hatch come home to roost, we will rue the days when, misled by sloppy accounting and rosy scenarios, we gave away the national nest egg.

Just picture that. All those poor chickens that didn't hatch coming home to roost. And finding the nest egg gone.

No barnyard metaphor is safe from Dr. Krugman. At last, a writer has achieved a vision as improbable as mere form without substance collapsing of its own weight.

I might just frame Paul Krugman's remarkable sentence -- the way others put up bucolic pictures in the den. Or I may just tuck it inside the covers of Dean Manion's masterwork. Records were made to be broken.

It's taken decades, but the once incomparable artistry of Clarence Manion, LL.D., has been relegated to second place -- by a style that's more poultry than prose.

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