AllPolitics - TIME This Week

Dog Days, Perot Nights

By Calvin Trillin

(TIME, April 22) -- The last thing I want to be seen to be doing here is comparing Ross Perot to a corgi. I don't go in for that sort of thing. As a guarantee of that, I want to make it clear from the start that the word yappy will not be used.

For one thing, I have no reason to believe corgis are yappy. I think it's fair to say that small dogs carry with them a certain suspicion of yappiness, as do small people. But I wouldn't go any further than that. The reason I wouldn't go any further is that owners of corgis--in common with Ross Perot--are quick to take offense.

A number of corgi owners have complained to TIME, for instance, simply because I pointed out in this space that corgis appear to be put together with parts borrowed from a number of other dogs--the parts, as it happens, that the other dogs were quite happy to pass along. Perot himself complained to CNN not long ago simply because William Kristol, the neocon sound biter, said on a CNN program that he believes Perot to be insane.

CNN must have been astonished to get Perot's call. Ordinarily, you can say pretty much anything you want to about politicians. Far from complaining, they're likely to join in. At the beginning of the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, for instance, commentators danced around the question of whether Senator Phil Gramm had come up short in the looks department--something on the order of what I'd implied, in the friendliest sort of way, about corgis.

Did Gramm take offense? Did his supporters write letters to newspapers and magazines about his loyalty, his interesting gait, his ever alert nature and his ability to learn simple tricks much faster than a golden retriever? Not at all. Senator Gramm, relentlessly working on his comedy timing the way he has relentlessly worked on his Senate career, publicly took up the question of whether an ugly man can be elected President.

Gramm was responding in the approved manner. Politicians, most of whom are the sort of people who take themselves too seriously, take very seriously the dangers inherent in appearing to take themselves too seriously. What made Don Imus' speech at the Radio and Television Correspondents' Dinner front-page news was the White House suggestion that C-SPAN not rebroadcast it. That was unusual enough to meet the old city-editor test for a story: man bites dog (no special breed). Politicians are supposed to be nearly insult proof, in the way that people associated with the Mob are libel proof.

Not so animals. Kristol's old boss Dan Quayle was a politician with defenders so loyal that they often found slights even in comments that didn't mention Quayle's name--my proposal, for instance, that we pass a constitutional amendment requiring a C average for the presidency. I've pointed out, though, that any commentator who said Quayle had a stare like a deer caught in headlights was bound to get more letters from deer lovers than from supporters of the Vice President.

Politicians realize that confronting an insult head-on starts voters thinking. At least, politicians should realize that if they were around in the Watergate era, when Richard Nixon made the mistake of saying, "I am not a crook."

I wouldn't feel comfortable taking a position on whether or not Ross Perot is crazy, except to point out that people with that much money are customarily described as "eccentric" instead. I can safely make the observation, though, that it's always a mistake for a public figure to say, "I am not insane."

TIME This Week

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