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 sorr@metrolink.net
World Traveler
and Philanthrope
(Location Unknown)