Jewish World Review May 8, 2002 / 26 Iyar, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

Looking for oneself | Dear Diary,

Went to men's night at the ladies book club in Pine Bluff, Ark., the other evening. The book being reviewed was "All Over but the Shoutin'" by Rick Bragg, formerly of red-clay Alabama and now of the dull-gray New York Times. It's really two books, one about the writer's momma and the other about My Fabulous Career. I liked the one about his momma.

I wish I'd had the job of editing this twofer of a book. It would've been easy. I'd just take a razor and cut out the last half. Then we'd have a small masterpiece -- a memoir of the writer's mother that would rank with Calvin Trillin's about his father Abe.

On the first page, Rick Bragg tells us: "This is not an important book." I think I know what he means, namely that it's not some Kissingeresque tour d'horizon of the Great Issues of Our Time. But it is an important book. At least the one about his mother is.

It is a courageous book. It takes courage to painfully confront the hurts you're told to overcome, that is, forget. You start thinking about them, and feeling them, and you could find yourself crying on the next long car trip you take alone in the middle of the night.

"This is no sob story," Rick Bragg wants us to know, and it isn't. "While you will read words laced with bitterness and killing anger and vicious envy, words of violence and sadness and, hopefully, dark humor, you will not read much whining. Not on her part, certainly, because she does not know how. I would not have written it at all if my momma had said no. I asked if I should, and I warned her that for every smile it evoked it would bring an equal number of tears. 'Write it,' she said. 'I sat quiet, for fifty years.'"

So he wrote. And remembered: "I did not know then, like I know now, that my momma never ate until we were done, or maybe I did know but was too young to understand why. I did not know then that she picked all the meat out of the soup and stew and put it on our plates. I did not hear her scraping pots, pans and skillets to make her own plate after her three little pigs ate most of what we had. But I can still see her sliding the bones off plates and gnawing them clean, after we were done, saying how she liked meat close to the bone, that we just didn't know what we were missing. It is not that we were starving, just that the quality of life for her children inched up a little, if she did without."

To read about this woman, and to have known one like her, and to know there are so many more like her out there, even if you only pass them standing in the mud by the side of a twisting two-lane road out in the country, or have seen their faces on the bus or in the line at the grocery store, is to be completely humbled.

Then there is the other book -- Rick Bragg on Rick Bragg: "Then there is me, the newspaperman who, through the leg-up she gave him and a series of happy accidents, wound up at the temple of this profession, working under legends." Temple? Profession? Legends? I think he means The New York Times.

In this other book, when the author isn't bragging on himself, he's whining abut how just about everybody else had it better'n' he did. He's healthy, the son of a wonderful mother, and an American citizen. The wonder is how he could envy anybody.

Is this a newspaperman or a Journalist writing an Important Book? There is even a chapter ("Validation") devoted to his receiving the Pulitzer Prize. I liked the part about his mother's attending the ceremony, but her boy didn't need to win no Pulitzer Prize for this lady to be validated.

The next morning back in Little Rock, I have breakfast at the Peabody with a political operative. Ken Mehlman's card with the gold-embossed seal of the United States reads: Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of Political Affairs, The White House.

I am informed that, if I intend to quote Mr. Mehlman, he'll have to clear the quote beforehand. It's policy. He's also willing to explain the difference between off-the-record, not-for-attribution and background for my benefit. Out here in the red states, I'm afraid I haven't kept up with all that. And don't intend to. I'm just a newspaperman. I don't believe I'll ever make a Journalist.

I explain that I never go off the record and, that way, I don't have to remember what I'm supposed to keep from the reader. I tell our distinguished young visitor that he might as well imagine you the reader seated right at the table with us, 'cause anything he says, I'm going to feel free to report. And if that's not all right, we'll just have a nice breakfast.

We do.

At one point Mr. Mehlman assures me that I'm considered a friendly. A friendly? That's someone, he explains, who is, uh, fair to the administration. Oh. I can't think of a better way to turn a friendly into an unfriendly. As in friendly fire.

I don't know about Journalists, but newspapermen hate the thought of being in anybody's pocket. Maybe that's why I haven't shown much upward mobility in this business. Imagine: Still in Arkansas after all these years, I never did learn how to cozy up to sources. Just contrary, I reckon.

Mr. Mehlman talks a lot about what the polls show, but he's real when he talks about family and food. He's just back from New Orleans, where he ate at Antoine's but preferred the jambalaya and po' boys at Mother's. I couldn't agree with him more. Suddenly he seems like a mensch, a real person, not a Dep. Asst. to the Pres. and Dir. of Pol. Affairs, The White House.

The next day, I see where Bill Clinton paid a visit home. It was good to have our native son back in Little Rock, where another tourist attraction is always welcome. Reading about his comings and goings, I think of how one observer described his routine now:

"He's like a once popular movie star who should be doing major movies but is instead doing game shows for money."

The former president could get his own TV special anytime now.

Word is that the Bush administration turned down the former president's generous offer to make peace in the Middle East. Again. Doubtless he -- and Israel's Ehud Barak -- meant well all those years. So did all of us who believed in the Peace Process, which was really a war process all along. Look at the results -- the string of massacres in Israel, the ruins in Jenin -- and it's clear that Bill Clinton has already done quite enough, thank you.

Vanity of vanities: To seek ourselves only in the eyes of others.

Something terrible happens to us when we begin presenting ourselves with a drum roll, noting our achievements, nominating ourselves for greatness, fashioning our Legend in the Temple of our Profession. We stop painfully confronting ourselves. We cease being plain. I'd like to think Rick Bragg would understand. I know his momma would.

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