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Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha
Remembering American humorist Art Buchwald
17 January 2009
Two years have passed since humorist Art Buchwald bid permanent adieu to his fans on January 17, 2007. For me, January 17th was a special day. It was the birthday of two of my childhood idols, Tamil cine star M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) and boxing champion Muhammad Ali. In 1987, January 17th happened to be a Saturday, and in one of the Tokyo ward offices, I took all the courage provided by my two childhood idols to dip into matrimony by registering my marriage to Saki Endo, against parental opposition. Twenty years later, for me January 17th also turned out to be a sad day, as it marked the death of Art Buchwald, whom I consider as one of my teachers in American English, humor studies and journalism.
Art Buchwald brought joy to many via his humor. At the same time, he was a terror to the Washington DC’s Poo-Bahs, top prigs and slimy politicos. With humor as his sole weapon, Art Buchwald earned the license to target the top dogs of FBI and CIA. While their Soviet professional adversaries may have given them headaches, we commoners had one Art Buchwald to prick the bloated egos of the FBI and CIA officials. Only political cartoonists Herb Block and Pat Oliphant were on par with Art Buchwald for skewering the egos of unelected American officials.
Not only Art Buchwald was a humorist, he may indeed be a seer, if you read his column ‘We have a File on You’ (written around 1974). It was a timeless jewel, mocking the bureaucratic brain. In this column, Art Buchwald mentions that “there would soon be a data famine in the country” because computers operating in the United States had to be fed with data. He prophesied, “I predicted this data war would start in 1984.” If memory serves, 1984 was the year when Apple Macintosh personal computer was put on sale, while I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois. There was a mad rush among my peers to purchase a personal computer. One of Buchwald’s post- September 9, 2001 column, ‘Photo IDs for All’, is another of my favorites. It has a line which notes that “even a CIA safe house in Virginia, where defectors now will know each other’s real names.”
One dilemma faced by humorists of Art Buchwald’s class is that even when they write facts, doubts may arise whether they are telling the truth or whether they are pulling our ears. Here is a quip by Art Buchwald, which appears in his column entitled, ‘You’ve Flown a Long Way, Baby’ [Washington is Leaking, Fawcett Crest, New York, 1976, pp. 125-127.] which also adds a Paul Newman anecdote. I quote the four paragraphs below from this column, as both stories are bound to elicit a chuckle.
To relish Art Buchwald’s memory, I provide below six of his selected columns, in chronological order. The first four were from his collection, Washington Is Leaking (1976).
Three decades later, Washington seems to be still leaking, if one bothers to read the flip-flops and pronouncements of the American ambassadors posted to Colombo. One is tempted to ask, has anyone bothered to plug the Washington’s leak?
The FBI Undercovered [Art Buchwald; Washington Is Leaking, pp. 154-156.]
I couldn’t believe the story in the newspaper when an FBI informer revealed that he had infilterated the Ku Klux Klan with orders to sleep with the wives of Klansmen to get information and sow dissension in the Klan’s Klaverns.
But it was confirmed to me by another informer who came to my office with a paper bag over his head.
‘I’m glad it’s all out in the open,’ he said as I helped him sit down in the chair. ‘I’ve done terrible things in my time, and now I no longer have to keep it to myself.’
‘Let’s start at the beginning,’ I said. ‘You worked as a Klan informer for the FBI?’
‘That’s right. You could say I moonlighted for them.’
‘And what exactly were your duties?’
‘My orders were to sleep with the wives of Klansmen and get information and also sow dissension.’
‘You’re not the same person who testified on the Hill the other day?’
‘No, that was Gary Rowe. He worked in Alabama. My territory was Georgia, from Savannah to Stone Mountain.’
‘That’s a lot of territory to cover.’
‘You can say that again. I was really dragging at the end of a week. After about two months I asked to be transferred to the U.S. Communist Party instead.’
‘It was less physical, if you know what I mean. The Commies don’t believe in marriage, so the FBI doesn’t care about us making it with their wives.’
‘I hate to pry, but how did you meet the wives of the Klansmen?’
‘Mostly at cross burnings. We’d all have our sheets on and I’d go up to one and say, ‘Hey, don’t I know you from somewhere?’
‘But if you had your sheets on, how would you know it was a woman?’
‘From the shoes. The FBI taught us to always look at the shoes at a Klan meeting. If the person with the sheet is wearing high heels, seven out of ten chances it’s a woman.’
‘So then what would you do?’
‘You’d get to talk to her, you know. You’d ask her if she’d like to have a beer after the effigy hanging.’
‘What about her husband?’
‘Well, that’s just it. Ku Klux Klan members are usually out all night, riding around threatening blacks and burning down barns, and their wives get pretty lonely. So when a guy comes up to them wearing a sheet and invites them out for a beer, they’re pretty flattered.’
‘And then what?’
‘Well, you have a few beers, and one thing leads to another, and before you know it, she’s telling you what a drag it is to be married to a member of the Ku Klux Klan because he’s always out somewhere trying to scare the hell out of somebody.’
‘I guess being a Ku Klux Klanner’s wife isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.’
‘You can say that again,’ my informant muttered through his paper bag. ‘If you knew how many of them hunger for just a little love and affection.’
‘How do you know how lonely they are?’
‘You can see it in their eyes, which incidentally is the only thing you can see when they’re in uniform.’
‘So, playing on this weakness, you were able to get information and create chaos in the Klan.’
‘They didn’t pull the wool over my eyes,’ he said proudly.
‘Let me ask you one more question. Did you ever get emotionally involved with any Klansman’s wife?’
‘Nah, when you see one Kluxer’s wife, you’ve seen ‘em all.’
The FBI’s Bicentennial Exhibit [Art Buchwald; Washington Is Leaking, pp. 156-158.]
The FBI has finally firmed up its plans as to what it will do to help celebrate the country’s Bicentennial.
Efrem Zumguard, the agent in charge of American Revolutionary Activities, told me, ‘The FBI plans to have one of the biggest exhibits of any government institution. We are going to put on display for the first time our top-secret files on George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and Francis Lightfoot Lee.’
‘I didn’t know the FBI still had those files,’ I said.
‘They were found in J. Edgar Hoover’s office. He never threw anything away. We also have a very interesting slide show on Benjamin Franklin’s sex life.’
‘Wow. I’d like to see that.’
‘There isn’t anything about the American radicals we didn’t know. We have photographs of everyone who participated in the Boston Tea Party, and one of our agents infilterated Washington’s rabble and got the names and addresses of everyone who crossed the Delaware.’
‘Then you must have known about Paul Revere?’
‘Of course, we knew about Paul Revere. Our agents bugged his horse, and when he rode from Lexington to Concord, we got tapes of him shouting, ‘The British are coming’. We also had the Old North Church under surveillance for months. When the signal flashed from the belfry, Hoover knew about it in forty-eight hours.’
‘You people were really on the ball.’
‘We’re going to devote one whole wall to Thomas Paine. He was the worst agitator this country has ever known. Hoover was on to him from the start. We have the original copy of Common Sense, the most subversive document that was printed in the last two hundred years.’
‘More subversive than the Declaration of Independence?’
‘Maybe it would be a toss-up. We’re going to have a room set aside for the Declaration of Independence, which, incidentally, Hoover considered his greatest case. He knew everything that was going on in Philadelphia. The files on the Second Continental Congress would make your hair stand on end. Did you know Jefferson wore a wig and high-heel shoes when he wrote the Declaration?’
‘No, I didn’t.’
‘Hoover did. That’s why Jefferson couldn’t fire him.’
‘You heard about Betsy Ross and Lewis Morris?’
‘Not the Lewis Morris of New York?’ I whistled.
‘Hoover had pictures of them.
‘Before or after she made the flag?’
‘What about Lafayette?’
‘He had an illegitimate child by John Paul Jones’ wife. King George the Third really chuckled when he read that one.’
‘I guess there was no one in the government Hoover didn’t know about.’
‘Do you know the first letter ever sent by the Continental Post Office? We opened it. It was from Jane Fonda’s great-great-great-grandmother to Nathan Hale.’
‘I knew Hoover was diligent, but he seemed to have a sixth sense about things. No wonder everyone in the Thirteen Colonies was afraid of him.’
‘Now do you want to hear of the piece de resistance of our exhibit?’
Zumguard said, ‘Remember the famous painting of ‘The Spirit of ‘76’? Hoover had the original in his files. Do you recall the boy on the left playing the drums?’
‘He was an FBI undercover agent. That’s how we managed to convict the other two.’
We Have a File on You [Art Buchwald; Washington Is Leaking, pp. 158-160.]
[Note by Sachi: The sentences in large case letters are as in the original.]
Several years ago I predicted that there were so many computers in operation in the United States that there would soon be a data famine in the country. I said that, unless new methods were developed to produce data, computer people would soon be fighting each other and possibly resorting to violence to get enough information to satisfy the appetites of their machines.
Unfortunately, I predicted this data war would start in 1984. Little did I realize it had already begun.
Everyone holds the FBI, the IRS, the CIA, local law enforcement agencies, as well as credit companies, responsible for invading the privacy of American citizens. But these organizations are not to blame. The responsibility rests with the computers which they have bought or leased that have to be fed constantly to justify their existence.
Let us take the FBI, for example. They purchased their computers to keep track of criminals and subversives in the United States. In no time the computers had absorbed the name and description of every racketeer, car thief, bomb thrower, and cattle rustler in the country.
Every scrap of information had been thrown in, but the computers kept demanding more. Frantic FBI officials sent out telect messages to their field offices: URGENT – SEND US EVERYTHING YOU HAVE IN YOUR FILES. COMPUTERS ARE DESPERATE FOR NEW DATA. NO MATTER HOW INCONSEQUENTIAL OR NONVERIFIABLE WE WILL TAKE IT. DIRECTOR INSISTS EACH FIELD OFFICE RESPONSIBLE FOR ONE TON OF RAW DATA PER WEEK. IF YOU FAIL TO MEET QUOTA YOU WILL BE SENT TO BILLINGS, MONT.
The FBI field offices tried to obey. All waste paper was sent to Washington. Agents broke into local police station offices to steal their files; foreign embassies were rifled; union records were filched. But still, many of the G-men could not make their quota. So they started sending in information on citizens who had nothing to do with crime or subversion. Some field agents sent in entire telephone books from their areas; others made reports on members of the American Legion, the Elks, the Shriners, and the Daughters of the American Revolution. A few agents were so hard pressed they mailed in raw files on their own wives and children.
But the FBI computers kept chewing up the information at a faster rate than anyone in the bureau could produce it. There was talk of putting the computers on a six-hour day and operating them only four days a week. But when the computers heard about this (an agent had fed the suggestion into a computer to find out if it was feasible), red lights started to flash all over the computer center, and a readout indicated that if their work time was cut, every FBI machine would self-destruct in protest.
It was then decided the only way to assure a sufficient supply of data was to keep files on everybody, from college students to people on Social Security. Experts figured that if the FBI could get enough data on them, they could keep the computers busy until 1976. That is the only reason the FBI has your name on their list right now.
The CIA faced the same crisis as the FBI did, but it had a problem because by law the CIA is not supposed to keep files on American citizens.
After twenty-five years the CIA had tons of information on every country in the world, and although it occasionally was able to come up with fresh data, it was not enough to satisfy the voracious appetites of their machines, which incidentally were much larger than those of the FBI. Several years ago the CIA had no choice but to start feeding information on Americans. When Congress found out about this, the CIA had to suspend this operation, which left them in a pickle. Their computers were becoming restless and surly, and their printouts indicated there could be an in-house revolt.
So last month the CIA chiefs realized they had no choice. In order to get enough data for their computers for the next three years, they decided to do a psychological profile on every man, woman, and child in the People’s Republic of Red China.
The Secret Factory [Art Buchwald; Washington Is Leaking, pp. 283-286.]
Probably the biggest business in Washington is the manufacturing of secrets. In the past twenty years the demand for secrets has increased tenfold, and because the government cannot keep up with it, all federal agencies are now subcontracting their orders for secrets to private industry.
I visited one of these secret manufacturing factories the other day. It is called Hush Hush Limited and is located in a suburb outside Washington DC.
Arnold Zankel, one of the founders of the company, was my escort.
‘We’re going twenty-four hours a day,’ he said proudly.
‘Everyone in the government is desperate for secrets, and they all need them immediately.’
‘I thought the CIA hearings and the disclosures about the FBI and the Watergate scandal would have hurt your business.’
‘Au contraire,’ said Zankel. ‘As soon as a secret is revealed to the public, the agency involved orders a new one to replace it. The demand for full disclosure of what the government is up to has made every government department search for more sophisticated secrets that can’t be discovered.’
Zankel took me into a large room which was completely automated. There were machines typing up documents and other machines stamping them ‘Confidential.’
‘This is our bread and butter business,’ he explained.
‘We supply eighty percent of all the confidential papers used by the federal government.’
‘How do they order them?’
‘By the ton. We might get a call from HEW or HUD and they’ll say we need three tons of confidential papers for the week.’
‘Don’t they specify what kind they want?’
‘No, confidential papers do not have a high rating in the government, but it does make the department look good to have them in their files. So nobody really cares what’s on them. We just program our electric typewriters to type up anything that looks official, then we stamp them ‘Confidential’, bale them in hundred-pound packages, send them over by truck, and throw them on the steps of the agency every morning.’
We came to some swinging doors. ‘This is something that might interest you,’ Zankel said. The large, airy room had three long tables at which were seated men and women in white smocks. They were working on binding volumes of mimeographed papers.
‘What are they doing?’
‘They’re binding secrets to be subpoenaed. These are secrets that can be given to congressional committees.’
I looked perplexed.
Zankel explained, ‘Congress is demanding more and more secrets from the executive branch of the government. So we are manufacturing secrets expecially tailored to satisfy congressional subpoenas. For example, these chips have been ordered by the Federal Reserve Board and have to do with the private affairs of banks. When Congress demands to see the secret papers in the Fed’s files, the Federal Reserve Bank will send these over. Obviously, they’re so complicated that no one can understand them. But since they have a lot of bulk to them, the committees are usually satisfied. The people over there are working on energy secrets, and down there they are dealing with agricultural exports. Our job is to see that no one make head or tail out of them.’
Before we went into the next room, Zankel made me put on rubber boots. We entered a hall with three inches of water on the floor.
‘This is probably our most difficult work. We have to make secrets here than can be leaked.’
‘You have government orders for secrets that leak?’ I asked in surprise.
‘It’s one of our biggest items. High government officials are constantly leaking secrets to the press and pretending surprise that the secret got out. We’ve developed a container which can hold a secret in a solid state until the word goes out it should be leaked. Then, by just twisting this tab, the secret becomes soluble and leaks all over town.’
‘Fantastic,’ I said.
‘It’s our biggest item. Between Henry Kissinger, Pat Moynihan, and the congressional committee investigating the CIA, we can’t keep them in stock.’
Photo IDs for All [Art Buchwald, International Herald Tribune, Dec. 5, 2001]
Washington – One of the things I’ve noticed in Washington lately is that more and more people are wearing photo identity tags around their necks.
It’s a security thing and Nick Glover, a federal marshal, thinks it’s good.
‘I like to know who everybody is,’ he said. ‘An ID card is the best way to do it. In Washington, people now first look at your chest, and then your face, to see if they match up.’
He said, ‘I hope the whole country is forced to wear identification. It will not only make it easier to find terrorists, but also make it much easier to know who the person in line in front of you in the cafetaria is. People have worked with each other in offices for years and never knew who the person in the next cubicle is.
‘Photo IDs are now paying off in the family. I know a couple named Owens who have six children and 10 grandchildren. It was a mess until old man Owens made every family member wear a tag. Now he has no problem figuring out every grandchild’s name.
‘Before the crisis, the people you saw wearing tags and smoking on the sidewalk were mostly government workers. But now almost everyone in Washington is wearing a tag. You must wear one if you work in a department store, a school and even a CIA safe house in Virginia, where defectors now will know each other’s real names.’
I asked Glover, ‘Suppose you don’t drive? How do you get into the airport?’
‘You have to apply for a ‘nondriver’ license, which you must carry at all times to prove that you exist. It’s very hard in this country to accept the fact that someone doesn’t drive. It immediately goes into your profile and gives authorities the right to strip-search you at any time.’
‘What do you need as proof that you don’t drive?’
‘A birth certificate, a Social Security Card and a passport that has not expired. And it will help if you have two letters from members of your family testifying that though you’re not a terrorist, you look like one when you get behind the wheel of a vehicle.’
‘Why can’t a person who is up to no good present a fake birth certificate or passport?’ I asked.
‘Attorney General John Ashcroft would never let it happen.’
Now There’s Hell to Pay [Art Buchwald, International Herald Tribune, April 4, 2002]
‘What’s going on?’ I asked the man in a white collar after I read in the paper about trouble in the church.
He said, ‘The Devil made me do it.’
I was a smoking gun, so I decided to go visit the Devil, aka Satan, and check it out.
I found him in Hades, making junk calls to Earth.
‘I knew you were evil, but I never believed you would stoop so low as to make junk calls.’
He chortled and said, ‘The Devil does a lot of things that no one knows about.’
‘Can we talk?’ I asked. ‘They say you made some priests in the church do some really terrible things.’
He had a triumphant look on his face.
‘This will teach the angels in Heaven a lesson.’
‘But why attempt to destroy so many fine men?’
‘It was a quiet day, so I thought I would cause some mischief.’
‘That’s not enough reason. Do you realize you’ve cost the church millions of dollars in hush money?’
‘They should have thought of that when they made a pact with me,’ Satan said.
‘You made a pact with the priests?’
‘Only those who were tempted in the first place. They were heading straight to Hell anyway.’
‘What if the church decides to let priest marry? Would you try to stop that?’
‘No, because the Devil can break up any marriage he wants. I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again.’
‘You have no pity.’
‘Why should I? I am the king of the underworld. Anyone who messes with me better fasten his seat belt.’
‘What’s in it for you?’
‘All I’m trying to do is raise hell. If I can’t who can?’
‘Are you sure you are not picking on innocent clergymen?’
‘I only pick on one when I’m sure the church is paying off a young man for something the priest did, and then the bishop moves him to another parish. I know I haven’t made a mistake.’
‘I hope you get caught and punished for all your sins.’
‘They wouldn’t dare.’
‘Can they exorcise you from those people in trouble?’
The Devil laughed.
‘They keep trying all the time, with little success. I am the Prince of Darkness, and the root of all evil. That is why I’m giving Rome such a bad time.’
‘I better go,’ I said. ‘It’s getting too hot down here.’
He said, ‘I hope you write about me. I need all the publicity I can get.’