Ilankai Tamil Sangam

24th Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Art Buchwald

The Pen Slinger in Washington, DC

by Sachi Sri Kantha

Had Art Buchwald practised his profession in Colombo or Jaffna, he would have been either hounded and chased out of the island or his blood flow to the brain would have been manacled by covert threats of dire consequences.

 

Not all back cover blurbs for the books (both fiction and non-fiction) tell the truth about the inside content of the books in question. But Art Buchwald’s ‘Laid Back in Washington’ (originally published in 1981) was an exception. Here is what the back cover blurb noted:

“High Noon…in Washington DC. The sun-baked streets are deserted (since everybody is lunching at Sans Souci). Suddenly a man in a white ten-gallon hat gallops into view. Art Buchwald is back! And corruption, greed and stinginess of spirit have until sundown to either get out of town…or stay!”

Sure, as the blurb noted, Art Buchwald (1925-2007) had been the best pen-slinger of the American Capital. Thirty-five years have passed since I allowed Buchwald into my breathing space. It was in 1972. Richard Nixon was lording it over Washington DC. I was a freshman undergrad student at the University of Colombo. By the then curriculum protocol, I could follow only three courses in chemistry, botany and zoology. But, I badly wanted to learn American English – both the spoken and written varieties. I adopted Art Buchwald as my long-distance tutor for American English, after realizing that he was a rioting act as a humor columnist. But he predominantly wrote his columns in fictional (but true to life) dialogues. As such, Buchwald also taught me living, spoken American English. He came into my breathing space, via his tri-weekly syndicated columns, at that time reprinted in the Colombo Daily News. Until January 17th of this year, I never quit reading Art Buchwald, and it has been a joy to learn from him how American society revolved in the 20th century.

None, with the exception of a handful of his contemporary humorists (Russell Baker, Mike Rokyo and Andy Rooney), could skewer the almighty American Presidents and their Poo-Bahs like Buchwald did.

Why did Buchwald thrive in Washington DC?

Buchwald’s career in Washington DC is also a crystal clear indicator of the press freedom (and by extension, one vital pillar of democracy) which exists in the USA. Despite his skewering of American Presidents, Buchwald was given a free hand.

Had Art Buchwald practised his profession in Colombo or Jaffna, he would have been either hounded and chased out of the island or his blood flow to the brain would have been manacled by covert threats of dire consequences. Two distinguished journalists in Colombo (Tarzie Vittachi, a Sinhalese and the author of the Emergency ’58 book and Regie L. Michael, a Tamil), who had the potential to bloom like Art Buchwald, wilted in the 1960s and 1970s due to such journalistic witch-hunting.

Apart from Tarzie Vittachi and Regie Michael, I should also mention that two of my Tamil mentors in journalism (Kovai Mahesan, the editor of Sutantiran and S. Sivanayagam, the editor of Saturday Review) also were victims of harassment and inquisition by the state’s police and gumshoes, with threats to their lives and imprisonment at the hands of Sinhalese governments of the 1970s and 1980s.

Kovai Mahesan died prematurely in Madras in 1992, and Sivanayagam had his health seriously affected. Thus, Art Buchwald was indeed lucky that he was born in the USA. And humor lovers were fortunate that he lived for 81 years.

A 1982 Gag Order in Jaffna

I provide below a news report which described the fate of the Sutantiran journal, where my early compositions in Tamil journalism appeared between 1974 and 1981. The First Presidential election in the island was held in October 20, 1982. J.R. Jayewardene of the UNP won that election over his nearest competitor, Hector Kobbekaduwa of the SLFP. Jaffna district voters, usual to form, voted against the incumbent Sinhalese top dog. Then, to learn what happened to Sutantiran, read below:

“The editorial and printing offices of the Sutantiran, the twice-weekly Tamil political journal was sealed by the Jaffna Police on Election night. It is also reported that on the following morning, Army personnel had intercepted the postman and asked for the mail addressed to editor Kovai Mahesan, and on his refusing to hand over, had gone to Jaffna Post Office and seized the mail. Copies of the Election issue of the paper were also seized from shops in the bazaar.

The order sealing the Press, signed by Mr. Douglas Liyanage, Secretary of the Ministry of State: ‘By virtue of the powers vested in me under Regulation 14(3) of the Emergency (Miscellaneous Provisions and Power) Regulations No.2 of 1982, I, Don John Francis Douglas Liyanage, secretary to the MINISTRY OF STATE appointed as the Competent Authority for the purpose of Regulation 14 do hereby direct that no person shall print, publish or distribute or in anyway be concerned in the printing, publication or distribution of the newspaper ‘Suthantiran’ for a period of one month from the date of this order and that the printing press in which the said newspaper was printed shall for a period of one month from the date of this order not be used for any purpose whatsoever and I hereby authorise the Inspector General of Police to take such steps (including the taking possession of the said printing press or of any premises) as appear to him to be necessary for securing compliance with this order.” [source: Tamil Times, London, Nov. 1982, p.18]

Despite Art Buchwald’s high pressure skewering of President Richard Nixon in his humor columns, the latter or his proxy minions of the 1970s couldn’t have issued such an order to close the Washington Post newspaper, which carried Art Buchwald’s columns. But, in 1982 President Junius Richard Jayewardene did what the all powerful President Nixon couldn’t do.

Sometimes I have wondered how Art Buchwald would have skewered this type of 1982 gag order by a Colombo bureaucrat, if he was at the receiving end of such a fiat. It may not be wrong to think that Art Buchwald also wrote on behalf of so many journalists in other nations whose lives and careers had been snuffed out by the un-democratic bullies and minions who projected themselves as the guardians of law.

To celebrate this great American pen slinger’s life, I have transcribed below four of my favorite columns penned by Art Buchwald. These date from 1978 to 2002. Though Buchwald used Washington DC as his backdrop for these four columns, these can be savored even when the backdrop is mentally switched to either Colombo or New Delhi or Bombay, by changing the names of the characters appearing in his columns (such as Arkady Shevchenko, Judy Chavez, American Senators, Col. Plotter, Elliott Abrams and the Bush administration) to their local equivalents. This is because political defectors, gumshoes and their wiggle vamps, defence budget gouging, schools of sleaze and gun control debate are regular staples of Sri Lankan and Indian audiences as well.

Defectors Need Love, Too

by Art Buchwald

[source: Book, Laid Back in Washington, Berkeley Books, New York, 1983, pp.66-67;]

This column is based on the real story of a Soviet defector and his mistress. Time magazine of Oct. 23, 1978 has a report entitled, ‘Saga of a Decadent Defector’.]

As the conscience of America, I have been giving a lot of time and thought to recent events surrounding the Soviet defector Arkady Shevchenko and his paramour Judy Chavez.

While all the facts in the case have not been disclosed (we have to wait for Judy’s and Arkady’s books to get the rest of them), this much is agreed upon by everybody.

Shevchenko had a high position in the UN when he came over to our side. He met, or was given, as a reward, Miss Chavez, who worked for an ‘escort’ service in Washington. He paid Miss Chavez $500 a night for her friendship, and spent between $35,000 and $40,000 on her for gifts and a trip to the Virgin Islands. He was known in the CIA as ‘the spy who was never cold.’

The facts that are in dispute are whether  Mr.Shevchenko paid for Miss Chavez’s services out of his own pocket or whether they were paid for by the CIA to keep him happy and talking. If Arkady spent his own money, he was taken advantage of for being a foreigner. But if the CIA paid for the undercover operation, then the taxpayers have a right to ask some questions.

The first is: Why on earth was the CIA paying Miss Chavez $500 a night when the going rate in the intelligence business for this sort of thing is $100? If Arkady was paying for it, why didn’t someone in the FBI or CIA warn him that he was being overcharged for Miss Chavez’s nightly companionship?

If the CIA is footing the bill, as Miss Chavez claims, it means there is a serious lack of cost control in the agency when it comes to providing escorts for Soviet defectors.

No loyal American would take issue with the fact that a high-ranking Soviet official who wants to come over should get anything he wants from the CIA in exchange for intelligence secrets.

But when you start paying outrageous prices for close encounters of this kind, you are not only contributing, as President Carter said at his press conference, to inflation but you are setting a precedent for other Soviet defectors which the United States can ill afford.

The next defector will also expect a $500-a-night female companion, and if she is paid less he will feel that the CIA is not treating him with the same respect they did Arkady. How many ‘escorts’ can our intelligence agency supply at these rates before it starts shortchanging our other spy operations?

Even if the CIA can afford it, other friendly intelligence organizations are furious about the publicity given to the Shevchenko-Chavez affairs.

‘We’ve never paid our girls more than $50 a night,’ a French intelligence agent told me. ‘This puts every Western intelligence agency on the spot. The CIA has made the price of sex so high, we may not be able to use it any more as the ultimate weapon.’

An Israeli agent thought Arkady was a KGB plant. ‘What better way to break the CIA bidget than to have a defector demand a woman with expensive tastes, a yen for beautiful cars and a desire to make love in beautiful resorts. We could have put up a spy satellite for what it cost the Americans to keep Arkady talking.’

Because of all the publicity, the CIA must now give Shevchenko a new cover and move him to a safer city than Washington.

I suggest Cleveland. It is not only a nice place to live, but the going rate there for an ‘escort’ is $35 a night including taxi fare. Make Arkady live in Cleveland while they debriefed him would certainly save the CIA a lot of money.

**********

A New Weapons System

by Art Buchwald

[source: Book, Laid Back in Washington, Berkeley Books, New York, 1983, pp.139-140]

The Senate always feels it’s doing its job when it votes more money for defense. But when it thinks of defense it imagines the funds will be used for some exotic weapon that the Russians don’t have. What Congress doesn’t like to do is appropriate money for simple things like boots, barracks and tents.

The Pentagon budget people are wise to what turns Capitol Hill on, so when they go up to ask for money for the mundane items that every armed service needs to survive, they disguise the requests as new weapons system that will send the senators into orgasms of joy.

Col.Plotter was sent up last week to get an appropriation for new mess halls that the U.S.Army desperately needed. He knew he was in trouble if he asked for mess hall money because the Senate armed services subcommittee he was appearing in front of is interested only in new electronic hardware that can knock Moscow (or Havana) off the face of the map.

So instead of asking for funds for mess hall, Col.Plotter told the subcommittee the Army wanted to build 1,000 new MESS 112 All Weather Launch Pad Silos.

He unveiled a large drawing of the new weapon on his easel. The senators studied it with interest.

Then one of them said, ‘It looks like a mess hall to me.’

‘Yes, sir,’ Col.Plotter said. ‘The configuration of the silo is quite similar to a mess hall, which makes detection of it from the air very difficult for the Soviets.

‘The module was designed in a rectangular solid state complex to evade lethal enemy attacks.’

‘Do the Soviets have anything like it?’ another senator asked.

‘To our knowledge, sir, they are now working on a BORSHT 514-Silo which has twice the seating capacity of the MESS 112, but lacks the microwave oven throw-weight system.’

‘Don’t evade the question, Colonel. Will we have parity or superiority if we go ahead with your weapon?’

‘It is my opinion, sir, that if we don’t go ahead on the MESS 112 immediately, our Army could starve to death.’

‘Tell us more about it, Colonel.’

‘All right. As you can see back here is what looks like a kitchen. This is the control center which feeds the passive integrated fuel supply into this section of the terminal which our people have dubbed the MESS line. The fuel is then transferred into aluminum software and moved by specially trained personnel through the line over to what appears to be tables, but are in effect armored air-to-ground missile shelters.’

‘When does the damn thing go off?’ a senator said impatiently.

The colonel replied, ‘When the SPAM guidance system locks into the BORSHT 514 the roof opens and then it’s goodbye Minsk, Pinsk and Kiev.’

‘Well done, Colonel,’ the chairman of the subcommittee said. ‘What do you estimate each MESS 112 will cost?’

‘About $1 million per unit, sir, not counting the Cuisinart.’

‘Cuisinart?’

‘That’s our code name for the magnetic electronic back burner range.’

‘Colonel, you can tell your superiors as far as thei committee is concerned you will get full authorization for 1,000 MESS 112s, and more if you need them. We won’t approve the SALT II treaty unless we have them in our arsenal.’

‘Thank you, gentlemen. The U.S.Army has hungered for this weapon for a long time.’

************

A Degree in Sleaze

by Art Buchwald

[Daily Yomiuri, July 1, 1987; from Los Angeles Times Syndicate]

‘Washington School of Applied Ethics and Morality.Can we help you?’

‘My son is coming to Washington this summer and I would like to know if you are giving any courses in hypocrisy, betrayal and sleaze?’

‘Yes, we have an excellent curriculum that will lead either to a bachelor’s degree in stonewalling or a master’s degree in perjury.’

‘Can you give me some idea of what you’re offering?’

‘We have a popular class in lying. We hold moot congressional hearings in which the student is challenged to wriggle out of answering any compromising questions.’

‘How does he do that?’

‘By using the Elliott Abrams defense. When asked a question the student is taught to reply something like, ‘It probably happened but I don’t remember it,’ or ‘I don’t remember it but if you say it took place I’ll accept your word.’

‘Is Abrams the instructor?’

‘No, he has nothing to do with the school. But the students look on him as a role model.’

‘It doesn’t surprise me. He’s everybody’s role model.’

‘If your son is working in Washington this summer I would advise that he take a seminar in special prosecutors.’

‘I didn’t know you could take a whole seminar in them.’

It’s essential if you’re going to work for the administration. Let’s say, for example, your son, while in Washington, gets involved in a defense factory bribery case. In exchange he receives stock and cash as a reward. As soon as it becomes public what he is up to, he is entitled to his own special prosecutor. We demonstrate how he can face up to a prosecutor while keeping damage for himself to a minimum.’

‘How is it done?’

‘The student asks for immunity and then agrees to rat on all the other people involved with his scheme.’

‘But isn’t that dirty pool?’

‘No, dirty pool is another course where government officials learn how to help polluters get around the EPA.’

‘Since we’re talking about morality, do you have any studies in adultery?’

‘Your son can take adultery, but he won’t get any credit for it.’

‘What about greed?’

‘Greed is required, and you can’t graduate without it. We teach that there is nothing wrong with being greedy if it’s in your country’s best interests.’

‘My son hopes to work with one of the federal agencies. Is there a lot of sleaze involved with this?’

‘It depends on how much work he does for the vested interests. We offer all the standard white-collar crimes. What out students do with them is their business.’

‘My son wants to know if you teach students how to shred incriminating documents.’

‘Each student is required to own a paper shredder and burn bag. The burn bag can also be used to carry his lunch.’

‘You have a fun school.’

‘We try to make our students good citizens, even if they have to lie to do it. As Ollie North said, ‘There is more to government than rewarding your friends and punishing your enemies.’

‘How much more?’

‘Come to think of it, not much.’

**************

Whose right to bear arms?

by Art Buchwald

[International Hearld Tribune, May 31, 2002]

Once again the battle rages over what the founding fathers meant when they insisted on adding the Second Amendment to the U.S.Constitution.

On one side are those who say the writers had in mind the right of the people to be armed in some sort of organized defense.

The other side insists the men in Philadelphia meant everybody should own a gun to protect themselves.

The Bush administration has gone to the Supreme Court to maintain that the right to bear arms means everybody.

An interesting sidebar to the controversy is that a week ago a restorer was cleaning a painting of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart when he had a hunch there was something underneath the painting. He scraped the paint off the picture, and sure enough, underneath George Washington he found the minutes of the meeting concerning the Second Amendment, written by someone who was there.

The author did not sign his name. He wrote, ‘Philadelphia is hot as Hades and an argument has broken out between the pro-gun and the anti-gun forces.’

‘The delegate from South Carolina said: ‘Everyone should have a gun. How else am I going to keep my slaves from running away?’

‘The delegate from Rhode Island said: ‘I don’t believe every citizen should own a gun. Have you people heard of ‘road rage’, where the driver of one horse and buggy cuts off the other and the two get off their buggies and start shooting at each other?’

‘Georgia spoke up next: ‘Georgia wants guns to kill snakes. We have snakes all over – most of them come over from North Carolina.’

‘North Carolina said: ‘And what about the cattle thieves that come in from Georgia? The only justice they should receive is from the muzzle of a rifle. No one can afford to wait for an organized national guard.’

‘New Jersey spoke next: ‘Isn’t anyone afraid that if you have a gun your kid will find it and blow your brains out?’

‘Then something happened that almost caused the Constitutional Congress to go home without a Second Amendment. The delegate from Massachusetts said: ‘I want the Second Amendment to also include the right to bear fish poles. Fishermen must be protected as much as gun owners.’

‘After fierce battle, the motion was killed, so fishing was never added to the Second Amendment.

‘Finally, after everyone was exhausted, the delegate from Pennsylvania came up with a compromise: ‘Let’s add the word ‘militia’ so that later generations will have no idea what we really meant. They will be fighting over it for years to come.’

‘The pro-gun forces said: ‘We’ll give in on ‘militia’ as long as ‘the right to bear arms’ is in there, too.’

As we know, the amendment was passed and, to this day, as they counted on, no one knows what the heck they meant.

**********