Jewish World Review Feb. 11, 2002/ 29 Shevat, 5762

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Consumer Reports

Blessed be the poor,
even the used-to-bes -- MIRROR, mirror, on the wall, who's the poorest redneck of all?

Since he's from West Virginia, Sen. Robert Byrd clearly thinks he is - or, more to the point, was - but Paul O'Neill, the secretary of the Treasury, thinks he was.

They got in an argument about it at a Senate committee hearing, and Washington is almost back to normal. Senators are making entertaining asses of themselves again.

Mr. Byrd, 84, takes himself seriously indeed as the most important man ever to put on shoes and find his way out of the hills, and he took offense at the presentation of the Bush administration's 2003 budget, which is illustrated with a cartoon of Gulliver tied down by Lilliputians. Mr. Byrd interpreted the cartoon to mean that the interests of "ordinary people" were too small to warrant consideration from rich Republicans.

"I've been here for 50 years and we're here to represent the interests of the people," he snapped at Mr. O'Neill. He said the cartoon was nonsense. "A lot of us were here before you," he said. "You're not Alexander Hamilton."

Indeed, it was Mr. Byrd himself who led the attack in the Senate on Mr. Hamilton, the first secretary of the Treasury, when he was nominated for the position in 1789. Mr. Hamilton was confirmed, anyway. Mr. Byrd never got over it.

Mr. O'Neill fired back: "I've dedicated my life to doing what I can to getting rid of rules that limit human potential and I'm not going to stop." He was outraged - outraged - by the suggestion that he didn't have empathy for ordinary working Americans, and described his own humble origins. This set off poor-mouthing like the Senate, a club of the richest men in town, had rarely seen.

"I started my life in a house without water or electricity," said Mr. O'Neill, a mere lad of 66, "so I don't cede the high moral ground to you of knowing what life was like in a ditch."

Mr. Byrd was ready for him. "I started out in life without any rungs in the bottom of the ladder. I've had that experience and I can stand toe-to-toe with you. I haven't walked in any corporate boardrooms. I haven't had to turn millions of dollars into trust accounts - I wish I had those millions of dollars. I grew up in a coal-miner's home and I married a coal-miner's daughter, so I hope you don't want to start down this road and talk about our backgrounds and how far back we came from."

This last was good advice, and Mr. Byrd will be well advised to take it himself. Play-acting poor is not a game for arrivistes. Men now dead have done the riff far better than he.

Orval Faubus, governor of Arkansas longer than any other man and the pol on whom Bill Clinton modeled himself, grew up in the Ozarks on land so poor that two cats had to get a dog to help them raise a fuss. When he was challenged for re-election by Winthrop Rockefeller and the most famous rich family in America, he dispatched his foe with a story of poverty that would have made Bobby Byrd weep.

"I had to walk four miles to the store, my belly grumbling with hunger, sometimes through the snow in shoes resoled with soggy newspapers, to get a can of coal oil for the lamp to light the Bible my mama read us to sleep by," he said. "After I paid for the coal oil from the Rockefeller oil wells sometimes there wasn't enough left to buy the lard and baking powder for mama's cornbread."

By now even Winthrop Rockefeller was wiping tears from his eyes, but Mr. Faubus was not finished. "We had an old coal oil can that was battered and dented, and it was all we could afford. The cap was missing and sometimes I couldn't help spilling that expensive Rockefeller oil as I walked up the side of the mountain to get home. All I cound find for a stopper was a sweet potato. I hated to use that sweet potato because mama could have made supper with it."

Mr. Faubus won in a landslide, and everyone agreed that it was the sweet potato stopper on the coal oil can that did in Mr. Rockefeller, who was elected to two terms as governor only after Mr. Faubus and his sweet potato retired.

The Long brothers of neighboring Louisiana, Huey and Earl, were masters of the poor mouth, too. They actually came from pretty comfortable origins, as origins were measured in the hardscrabble South of that era. But Huey kept the gallus-snappers in tears when not in laughter with tales of growing up poor. "We were so poor," he once said, "that mama could barely find enough to feed us. She wanted us to have meat for breakfast, but there wasn't any. Finally one morning she found a little bacon, but there wasn't enough to go around. So she hung one slice from the ceiling and all us young'uns got to stand up one by one and slide our noses down that slice of bacon. We each got a sniff before we wore it out."

Top that one, senator.

JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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