Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Best of the Worst

It has been several years since we have visited the Bulwer-Lytton
contest, an event that annually salutes bad writing.

The time certainly seems right. It’s the dog days of summer when the
only news comes from presidential candidates who spend their days
accusing each of other of outrageous lapses in character that no one
will remember in November.

The contest is named after one of the most visible bad writers of all
time, Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who in 1830 penned the immortal
opening line, "It was a dark and stormy night."

Actually, he wrote: "It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in
torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a
violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London
that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely
agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the

It is the kind of prose that usually stopped readers from turning the

This exercise is conducted by the members of the English department
at San Jose State University, who obviously never worked for a
newspaper where bad writing usually results in a sudden career change.

Here, however, entrants are encouraged to "compose the opening
sentence to the worst of all possible novels." In other words, write
something truly, deliberately bad.

What follows, then, is a selection of winning entrants from the 2012

“As he told her that he loved her she gazed into his eyes, wondering,
as she noted the infestation of eyelash mites, the tiny deodicids
burrowing into his follicles to eat the greasy sebum therein, each
female laying up to 25 eggs in a single follicle, causing
inflammation, whether the eyes are truly the windows of the soul;
and, if so, his soul needed regrouting.” — Cathy Bryant, Manchester,

“The stifling atmosphere inside the Pink Dolphin Bar in the upper
Amazon Basin carried barely enough oxygen for a man to survive –
humid and thick the air was and full of little flying bugs, making
the simple act of breathing like trying to suck hot Campbell’s Bean
with Bacon soup through a paper straw”. — Greg Homer, Placerville,

“She slinked through my door wearing a dress that looked like it had
been painted on … not with good paint, like Behr or Sherwin-Williams,
but with that watered-down stuff that bubbles up right away if you
don’t prime the surface before you slap it on, and – just like that
cheap paint – the dress needed two more coats to cover her.” — Sue
Fondrie, Appleton, Wisc.

“The blood seeped out of the body like bad peach juice from a peach
that had been left on one side so long the bottom became rotten while
it still looked fine on the top but had started to attract fruit
flies, and this had the same effect, but with regular flies, that is
not say there weren’t some fruit flies around because, after all,
this was Miami. “— Howard Eugene Whitright, Seal Beach, Calif.

“Primum non nocere, from the Latin for “first, do no harm,” one of
the principal tenets of the Hippocratic oath taken by physicians, was
far from David’s mind (as he strode, sling in hand, to face Goliath)
in part because Hippocrates was born about 100 years after David, in
part because David wasn’t even a physician, but mainly because David
wanted to kill the sucker.” — David Larson, San Francisco.

“Corinne considered the colors (palest green, gray and lavender) and
texture (downy as the finest velvet) and wondered, “How long have
these cold cuts been in my refrigerator?” — Linda Boatright, Omaha,

“Your eyes are like deep blue pools that I would like to drown in,”
he had told Kimberly when she had asked him what he was thinking; but
what he was actually thinking was that sometimes when he recharges
his phone he forgets to put the little plug back in but he wasn’t
going to tell her that.” — Dan Leyde, Edmonds, Wash.

“The two power-hungry, 20-something biographers met with me incognito
and settled on penning my memoirs, one on a percentage of future
sales and one on upfront remuneration; so there is one yuppie I pay,
one yuppie I owe, ghostwriters in disguise.” — Peter Bjorkman,
Rocklin, Calif.

“Ronald left this world as he entered it: on a frigid winter night,
amid frantic screams and blood-soaked linens, while relatives stood
nearby and muttered furious promises to find and punish the man
responsible.”— Rebecca Oas, Atlanta, Ga.

“Her fixed gaze at dinner reminded him so much of an owl that he
found himself wondering when she would regurgitate her meal into a
pellet and told the waitress they didn’t need a dessert menu.” — Leah
Sitkoff, New York, New York

“Her skin was like flocked wallpaper and her eyes had seen better
days, but when her bloodless lips murmured “Hi, Sailor,” my heart
melted from the inside out like one of those chocolate-covered ice
cream bars on a summer day that runs down your arm and gets all over
your new shirt.” — James Macdonald, Vancouver, B.C.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Mitt and Paul Show

Mitt Romney has always struck me as a decent human being, one who
believes deeply in his God, his country and his money, not
necessarily in that order.

I also believe he is a bit of an empty suit, a robotic politician
whose only real brush with notoriety came when he inadvertently laid
the foundation for Obamacare.

He is the Republican nominee because his primary opponents were a
bunch of bungling gunslingers who couldn’t sell their slash-and-burn
vision of governance and misguided moral engineering to their own

At least Romney was smart enough to pick Congressman Paul Ryan as his
running mate, a man who also wants to slash the size of the federal
government but who, unlike a lot of Republicans, actually has a
specific plan to do it. He has read the spread sheets. He has
crunched the numbers.

How much of the Ryan plan Romney buys into remains to be seen. But at
least it just might elevate the campaign rhetoric from personal
attack mode to a real debate on how this country should manage
itself. That’s a lot to hope for but we can dream, can’t we?

For now, the pundits are putting the cart before the horse,
speculating on whether the choice of Ryan is brilliant or boneheaded.
Of course, we won’t know the answer to that until election day.

It got me to thinking, however, about who were the best and worse
vice presidential picks in history. So I mixed a bit of Internet
research with my own views and came up with a list. Take it for what
it’s worth.

Some in the best category are easy. Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman and
Lyndon Johnson, all thrust into the Oval Office as the result of the
death of a president, rose to the occasion.

Some are more difficult to categorize:

Dick Cheney brought a wealth of Washington experience with him when
he joined George Bush and was heavily involved in decision making.
Indeed, he became known as the “shadow president.” Unfortunately, he
was perceived as a real life Darth Vader, with some justification.
The architect of the war on Iraq, he eventually became to most
unpopular member of an unpopular administration.

Al Gore was indispensable to Bill Clinton when he arrived in
Washington. Gore knew Washington inside out, while the new President
was fresh out of Arkansas. But Gore suffered from a personality
disorder --- he didn’t have one –-- and managed to lose the
presidential election to George Bush which is astounding to this day.

Richard Nixon delivered California to Eisenhower but more importantly
did the behind-the-scenes dirty work while Ike basked in the glow of
an adoring public. Nixon liked his job too well and his affinity for
dirty deeds would be his undoing.

Nominees for the worst of the lot:

Sprio Agnew. Nixon’s White House was filled with shady characters but
Agnew was the shadiest. An investigation by the U.S. Attorney for
Baltimore revealed that he had accepted $100,000 in bribes during his
tenure as Baltimore County Executive, Governor of Maryland and Vice
President of the United States. He resigned his office and pleaded no
contest and received no jail time but was disbarred and fined.

Aaron Burr. While serving under Thomas Jefferson, he killed Founding
Father Alexander Hamilton in a duel. What else do you need to know?

Thomas Eagleton. Democratic nominee George McGovern was in trouble
from the get-go running again incumbent Richard Nixon. He didn’t help
his chances by choosing Eagleton who, as it turns out, was once
treated by electro-shock therapy for depression. McGovern dumped
Eagleton, brought in Sargent Shriver and went on to win only one
state in the election. Eagleton went on to be reelected to the Senate
twice, then served as a professor of public affairs at Washington
University in St. Louis.

Sarah Palin. She was young, vibrant and attractive, just the thing
John McCain needed to revitalize his sagging campaign against Barack
Obama. Unfortunately, the governor of Alaska also possessed a
backwoods level of political sophistication, that was exploited by
the Democrats and the media. If that wasn’t bad enough, she was
criticized by McCain staffers for “going rogue” when speaking her
mind on issues. It clearly wasn’t a marriage made in heaven.

Dan Quayle: Selected by George Bush the Elder as his running mate, he
is remembered mostly for saying really stupid things. Such as
“"Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a mother
and child" and "If we don't succeed, we run the risk of failure" and
"What a waste it is to lose one's mind. Or not to have a mind is
being very wasteful. How true that is." Enough said.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Monumental Mistake

Move over Washington. You too Dr. King. Step aside Lincoln. Out of
the way Jefferson.

There’s a new monument coming to Washington, D.C., a city where we
reverently honor our sacred democratic institutions and salute our

This particular edifice will carry the name of a man who has gazed
longingly at the White House from afar on many occasions.

He considers himself presidential timbre even though his approval
ratings among voters equals Frank McCourt’s among baseball fans.

He’s a man who commands serious media coverage ever though few take
him seriously.

We speak, of course, of Donald Trump.

Yes, that Donald Trump. The man with a bad haircut who stars in
really bad reality shows.

Sure, he wields a fair amount of influence in the Republican Party,
despite the fact that publicly most GOP bigwigs treat him like the
crazy uncle who spoils Christmas each year.

That’s because he’s rich. As someone said at a roast recently,
“What's the difference between Donald Trump's hair and a wet raccoon?
A wet raccoon doesn't have seven billion dollars in the bank."

But let’s face it, Trump would never be a candidate for a monument
based on his record as an American statesman.

So he’s done what rich guys do. He’s buying one.

He has purchased the historic Old Post Office pavilion on
Pennsylvania Avenue, an architectural masterpiece and one of the
tallest buildings in the district.

It occupies a prestigious location between the White House and the
Capitol and is topped by a distinctive clock tower.

Built in 1890, it is home to a handful of federal offices,
tourist-oriented shops and restaurants. It has, by all accounts,
fallen into a state of disrepair and loses more than $6 million a

Trump and his colleagues plan to spend $200 million to convert the
building into a hotel, which they modestly say will be “…the finest
luxury hotel in the world.” Tour groups need not apply.

I get the feeling Washington residents are nervous about Trump’s
definition of “luxury.” This is a button down city, not long on
flash. This is a city that shows CNN in its bars, not “Celebrity

This is a city that embraces power but frowns on gaudy displays of

This is a city that fears that Trump’s hotel may end up looking like
one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces, topped with a gigantic neon sign
resplendent with the Donald’s name that will be visible from
Arlington Cemetery to Camp David. After all, his ego is at least that

Not to worry, said the Government Services Administration, which
engineered the sale.

“The Trump Organization plan will preserve the historic nature of the
building and improve the vitality of Pennsylvania Avenue,” a GSA
bureaucrat told the Washington Post.

“This redevelopment represents good business sense on behalf of the
American taxpayer, the Federal Government and the District of

This is the same GSA, it should be noted, that was caught spending
$820,000 for a training conference in Las Vegas and $268,732 on a
one-day performance awards ceremony. It’s assessment of “good business sense” seems questionable.

The good news is that the building is an official historic landmark
and all plans will fall under heavy scrutiny by the U.S. Commission
of Fine Arts, according to the Post. But for $200 million, they just might allow him to put his name in lights.

The bad news, according to Post columnist Steven Pearlstein, is that
Trump and his partners “are high-risk gamblers who play all the
angles and have a habit of overpaying and overleveraging. When
projects get into trouble, as this one surely will, they think
nothing of handing the keys over to the lenders and moving on to the
next deal.”

The best we can hope for is that the Donald will decide not to move into a neighborhood whose most famous resident, in his view, is a citizen of a foreign country.