THE GREATEST MAN IN THE WORLD
James Thurber, noted American humorist, cartoonist, and whimsical wit, was
a prolific writer and commentator on our ways and our politics. He may be
best remembered for his short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which
was made into a movie. His gently acid humor was treasured for the decades
he lived, and has survived his death in 1961.
As a young man, I recall reading a Thurber short story titled, The Greatest
Man In The World. It was featured in his anthology, and I could never
figure out his purpose in writing it. Let me describe the tale to you, and
ponder just why it has remained in my memory for nearly fifty years.
In a parody of Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean, Thurber
wrote about Jack "Pal" Smurch, an unmarried loner, who in 1937 had just
flown solo around the world. He was resting comfortably in New York City
before official recognition of his fame by a ticker tape parade,
coast-to-coast media acclaim, and public adoration. Reporters, the mayor
and governor of New York, various dignitaries, and special representatives
from the president, had gathered in an expensive 9th floor suite to
interview Mr. Smurch, about whom almost nothing was publicly known. The
president himself secretly showed up. There had been ugly rumors about the
young pilot. He had once knifed his school principal and served time in a
reformatory. Enterprising reporters had located his mother, a short- order
cook in a small Iowa town. Of her son, she had said, "To hell with him. I
hope he drowns."
Incredibly, Jack Smurch had flown unheeded and nearly unannounced,
completing his nine-day flight in an old, rusty airplane by landing at
Roosevelt Field to claim the large monetary stipend that had been offered
to the first person to make the journey alone. Mr. Smurch began the
meeting by breaking into a crooked smile, rubbing his hands together, and
crowing, "Bring on the broads, booze, and bucks." Within two minutes he
had convinced everyone present that he was a rascal, a rogue, utter scum in
fact, a man completely unworthy of the fame soon to be given him.
The people in the room glanced at each other as Jack Smurch walked over to
an open window and looked out expansively across the city. The president
nodded quietly, and the mayor's secretary moved behind him, grabbed his
shoulder and pants seat, and pushed him out. A quick-witted editor
shouted, "My God, he's fallen." The president left. The head of the
Associated Press took charge, outlined a story, and sent two of the men to
announce it. America had been spared the spectacle of deifying and making
an idol of a public embarrassment. John Donne had, of course, said it
perceptively for humanity centuries ago, but for Jack Smurch not one
citizen was concerned for whom the bell tolled. Not even his mother.
The mystification I felt on reading this intriguing story and wondering why
it was written has bothered me to this day. It was only yesterday as I saw
Mr. Clinton standing relaxed and confident with the Pope on a stage in St.
Louis, that I realized Thurber's prescience. There are times a public
embarrassment can achieve unjustifiable high position and notoriety. If I
were the Pope, which most certainly is beyond both the realm of reason and
God's plan, I would not share a stage with Mr. Clinton unless I were
wearing a lightning rod protection harness with a one-inch diameter steel
ground strap. Without the slightest qualm of guilt, the potentially lethal
corpus of Mr. Clinton basked in the aura of holiness, truth, mercy, and
goodness surrounding the Pope. Totally unconcerned about lightning bolts
thrown by an angry Zeus, by Allah, or our Christian God Almighty, the
president aided the feeble Pope to his chair, ignoring the Constitution's
clearly required separation of church and state, as well as any sense of
shame and humility.
Where is Thurber when we need him, and the mayor's silently anointed
secretary to push barbarians out of skyscraper windows? The United States
Senate is at best a pompous, politicized, and ineffectual substitute for
the incisive justice and whimsical mind of the departed James Thurber.
Sam Orr firstname.lastname@example.org