Thursday, September 08, 2005


No Laughing Matter, Great Scott redux

I've been saddled with jury duty the past few days, hence the radio silence here at HOM. But my brief mention of Flann O'Brien in the previous post sent me back to one of my favorite literary biographies, Anthony Cronin's No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O'Brien. The author, a Dublin poet and prose writer, has an insider's take on his supremely Irish subject: as a young man, he formed part of a worshipful coterie, who relished both the modernist tomfoolery of At Swim-Two-Birds and the sardonic broadsides that O'Brien delivered (as Myles na gCopaleen) twice a week in the Irish Times. O'Brien was, and remains, something of a cipher. All writers have their moments of dwindling confidence. But after the commercial flop of At Swim-Two-Birds--in the first seven months after publication it sold 244 copies, and when the Germans bombed Longman's London warehouse in 1940, most of the inventory was destroyed--O'Brien had difficulty finding a publisher for his next novel, The Third Policeman. At that point he essentially threw in the towel. The latter work, another comic masterpiece, lay in a drawer until after his death. And his remaining books were slender, specialized productions, aimed at an Irish (and Gaelic-speaking) audience. Still, he was a genius, not the least at promoting his own stuff. When An Béal Bocht came out in 1941, Myles na gCopaleen gave it a hyperbolic push in his December 12 column:
I am rather pleased with the reception given to my book, An Béal Bocht. It is gratifying to know that an important work of literature receives in this country the recognition that is its due. Scholars, students, men-about-town, clerics, TDs, ladies of fashion and even the better class corner boys vied with one another in grabbing the copies as they poured from the giant presses. How long will the strictly limited edition of 50,000 copies last? A week? A month? Who can tell? Suffice it to say that you cannot order your copy too soon. Paper difficulties make it doubtful whether another edition of 50,000 will be possible in our generation at any rate.

On a less amusing note, Scott McClellan continues to perfect his role as the administration's Artful Dodger. Well, not too artful. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he's clearly been primed to deflect all non-supine questions from the press with the Blame Game strategy. Hence the robotic Q-and-A below, from a White House briefing on Wednesday. Funny and not funny, if you know what I mean:
Q: Scott, does the President retain confidence in his FEMA Director and Secretary of Homeland Security?

Mr. McClellan: And again, David, see, this is where some people want to look at the blame game issue, and finger-point. We're focused on solving problems, and we're doing everything we can--

Q: What about the question?

Mr. McClellan: We're doing everything we can in support--

Q: We know all that.

Mr. McClellan: --of the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA.

Q: Does he retain complete confidence--

Mr. McClellan: We're going to continue. We appreciate the great effort that all of those at FEMA, including the head of FEMA, are doing to help the people in the region. And I'm just not going to engage in the blame game or finger-pointing that you're trying to get me to engage.

Q: Okay, but that's not at all what I was asking.

Mr. McClellan: Sure it is. It's exactly what you're trying to play.

Q: You have your same point you want to make about the blame game, which you've said enough now. I'm asking you a direct question, which you're dodging.

Mr. McClellan: No--

Q: Does the President retain complete confidence in his Director of FEMA and Secretary of Homeland Security, yes or no?

Mr. McClellan: I just answered the question.

Q: Is the answer "yes" on both?

Mr. McClellan: And what you're doing is trying to engage in a game of finger-pointing.

Q: There's a lot of criticism. I'm just wondering if he still has confidence.

Mr. McClellan: --and blame-gaming. What we're trying to do is solve problems, David. And that's where we're going to keep our focus.

Q: So you're not--you won't answer that question directly?

Mr. McClellan: I did. I just did.

Q: No, you didn't. Yes or no? Does he have complete confidence or doesn't he?

Mr. McClellan: No, if you want to continue to engage in finger-pointing and blame-gaming, that's fine--

Q: Scott, that's ridiculous. I'm not engaging in any of that.

Mr. McClellan: It's not ridiculous.

Q: Don't try to accuse me of that. I'm asking you a direct question and you should answer it. Does he retain complete confidence in his FEMA Director and Secretary of Homeland Security, yes or no?

Mr. McClellan: Like I said--that's exactly what you're engaging in.

Q: I'm not engaging in anything. I'm asking you a question about what the President's views are--

Mr. McClellan: Absolutely--absolutely--

Q: --under pretty substantial criticism of members of his administration. Okay? And you know that, and everybody watching knows that, as well.

Mr. McClellan: No, everybody watching this knows, David, that you're trying to engage in a blame game.

Q: I'm trying to engage?

Mr. McClellan: Yes.

Q: I am trying to engage?

Mr. McClellan: That's correct.
It goes on a bit longer, but I suddenly got so disheartened typing the whole thing in that I had to stop. To his credit, McClellan hasn't yet said, I know you are but what am I? Maybe he's saving that for a special occasion: let's say, the once-and-final demise of the estate tax. (Breaking news: Bush just fired Brownie, which probably explains why McClellan wouldn't touch that subject with a ten-foot pole. Meanwhile, Time casts a cold eye on the former FEMA chief's resume, which turns out to have been as thoroughly padded as Ricardo Montalban's chest in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.)

I'm impressed by your patience to type in as much as you did. Thanks for keeping us posted and amused.

The official WH transcript of this exchange is very much abridged —what might they be thinking?
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