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Jewish World Review March 28, 2000 /21 Adar II, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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The news from Arkansas; weirder than usual -- SURELY IT'S ONLY MY OVERWORKED IMAGINATION, but the news out of this small, ever wonderful state seems weirder than usual.

It's not enough that the state's Supreme Court and its committee on professional conduct is considering the disbarment of a president of the United States.

Over at the federal courthouse here in Little Rock, some of the state's legislators, past and present, are on trial for their part in a scandal dubbed Grabfest.

They're accused of dipping into funds that should have been used to provide legal representation for needy children and handle workmen's compensation claims.

The most fascinating testimony so far has comes from secretly recorded conversations between two movers-and-shakers: a former state legislator and powerbroker named Nick Wilson, who's already been convicted on tax charges, and Neal Turner, a top aide to former Governor Jim Guy Tucker, who had to be pried out of the Governor's Mansion after his conviction of another felony.

Like everybody else in the state, I've read every word of Neal Turner's taped conversations with Nick Wilson, as duly recorded in the small print of the Democrat-Gazette, Arkansas' newspaper of record and delectation.

By now, my magnifying glass is just about worn out, but it's been worth every word, many of which had to be left out of a family newspaper. There is something irresistible about eavesdropping in the name of high-minded civic duty.

What is it about these conversations that so fascinates?

Quite a few things:

First, there's the rottenness at their core. You want to avert your eyes (also ears and nose) but you can't. Like all human folly, it's mesmerizing.

As a teen-ager years ago, I worked at a summer camp, and one of my jobs was to supervise the garbage detail. Making the rounds every week and getting the rotten bags and sagging boxes onto the truck was the easy part, even though half of them would come apart in your hands. Then, driving out to the dump, you could smell the burning Gehenna ahead and, soon enough, on your clothes, on yourself.

All you wanted was to get rid of the load and head back for a shower. But as you tossed the garbage out, inevitably there would be living creatures crawling about in the huge mounds of foul waste: bright, white, slithering maggots. They both disgusted and fascinated.

I was transfixed, caught somewhere between squeamishness, curiosity and awe -- the quality at the root of the word "awful.'' Even then I should have known I'd turn out to be a newspaperman.

And that's just part of the fascination with these tapes. There's also the True Crime aspect of the story. It could have come straight out of the old Police Gazette, complete with big bold headlines and garish color photos. All that's awful, too, but in a different, comic way.

The plot now being outlined by the prosecution is so amateurish, it might be that of a B movie from the Thirties. But to speak of this scenario as film noir would be to dignify it beyond recognition. When they make the movie, it ought to be called "The Gang That Couldn't Steal Straight.''

Listening to the Nick and Neal Show, one is reminded of the scene in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid'' in which our two lovable heroes set out to rob a bank in the Andes but lack the requisite Spanish. (Moral: All Americans need to learn a second language.)

I knew life imitated art, but around here it imitates only slapstick. This whole caper could be some spaghetti Western in which everything goes wrong and the gang scatters at the approach of the federales. No doubt about it, it would make a great movie. It's already a great tape.

When the poet made his wish in "To a Louse,'' -- "Oh wad some power the giftie gie us/ To see oursels as others see us!'' -- Robert Burns could not have foreseen technological marvels like the tape recorder and the wired witness. Those modern innovations let us hear ourselves as others, including the U.S. Attorney's Office, do. And humans write our own, devastating dialogue so much better than any fiction writer could.

Let's hope the FBI retained the screen rights to this script. I'm thinking Peter Falk as Neal Turner, and Nick Wilson, who's inimitable, as Nick Wilson.

Now that there are no longer any screen codes to speak of, there would be no need to clean up their language. That's good, because if you had to edit out the profanity, vulgarity and general obscenity, there would be nothing much left. Not since Richard Nixon have so many expletives needed deleting from a family newspaper.

What's really striking, for someone who still considers cussing an art form rather than a bad habit, is the utter lack of originality in these people's exclamations. Their limited vocabularies seem to contain only your basic scatologies, blasphemies, indecencies ... the everyday detritus that might mark the conversation in an Army barracks or a newspaper composing room. I don't mind cussing, only banal cussing. It's hard to believe these boys are actually Southerners -- where's their mother wit?

We've got a copy editor at the paper with much the same problem. He's got the verve and the volume, all right, but he lacks originality. I'm thinking of sending him to cussing school if I can just get him a scholarship.

As for Messrs. Turner and Wilson, I've known buck privates capable of more inventive language. And a staff sergeant would put them both to shame. It takes only an ordinary acquaintance with Redneck, a piquant variety of Suthuhn, to sum up what's going on in these conversations: Neal is a-pissin' down Nick's back and a-tellin' him it's raining, while a-fixin' to bust his rear and all its fixtures to save his own scaly hide.

The moviemaking Coen Brothers, who gave us "Fargo,'' could take this story and have another hit on their grimy hands. Nick and Neal really should have worn fedoras as they skulked about in parking lots, fighting panic and exchanging not very convincing assurances that they'd never be caught. By then, Neal was already cooperating with the feds -- and taping his confederate for future use. Delicious.

There is always something elevating about watching justice close in on certain types. These jokers would make Arkansas' old two-lanes through the Ozarks look like the straight and narrow.

The talent in this show is clearly the dapper Neal Turner, who is both director and player, and who can't resist making ironic asides from time to time, as if he were addressing not only his co-star, but an unseen audience. At one point, he sagely observes, "Self-preservation is a powerful force.'' Doesn't he know it! Should he ever tire of lobbying as a career, there's always acting.

Let it be said for Nick Wilson, former senator and continuing star, that he makes the other players in this farce look like Jerry Lundegaard, William Macy's poor schlemiel of a car salesman in "Fargo.'' They seem caught up in a spiral of events they can no longer control.

The Hon. Nick can come up with some great lines, too -- entirely unrehearsed. As when Neal Turner tells him, "I've effectively stayed out of the paper for a long, long time.'' To which Nick Wilson responds: "Pleasant feeling, isn't it?'' That line is all the more delicious when you realize you're reading it in the paper.

It's a great show, all staged for our benefit in this small, wonderfully cinematic state. The comedy lasts till you think about the production cost. For the taxpayer, it ran into the millions -- millions that might have been spent helping poor kids, or financing workers' compensation. That's when the laughter ends.

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©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate