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Truth Really Is Stranger Than Fiction

Even though we completed our move to Philadelphia a year ago, I’m still coming across relics from different times and different places. Recently, from the depths of a file box, I extracted some writing I’d done long ago. I opened the folder warily, because one of my least favorite activities happens to be re-reading something I’d written in the past. I’ve always been the whipping boy of an unsatisfiable task master--me. I’m obsessed by the conviction that whatever and whenever I’ve written, the product deserves to be thoroughly and brutally revised.

Some notations on the folder indicated its contents were several decades old. Curiosity overpowered caution, and I read the first page. I was momentarily surprised because its genre was fiction, something I almost never approached, but then, with startling suddenness, I remembered how this anomaly had come to be.

About twenty years ago, we lived in a large Southwestern city, where I became a community columnist for the local newspaper. I liked commenting on sports, the foibles of newbies freshly arrived from the Snowbelt, and, of course, politics, which got a lot of my attention. My least favorite pol happened to be the sheriff of our county, a blustering, tough-talking egotist. His supporters reveled in his hostility to immigrants, and the hard approach he took toward prisoners in county jails. Never one to avoid publicity, he obviously had ambitions for higher office. Despite his flagrant limitations, I wouldn’t have bet on those ambitions going unfulfilled. One day, the paper carried a story about the murder of a little girl. Shortly thereafter, the sheriff announced the arrest of the alleged culprit, an itinerant who was promptly thrown into a cell with a bunch of experienced cons. Predictably, they beat hell out of him and, as a result, he lost his spleen. Problem was, the guy wasn’t the murderer; the real one was apprehended a little later.

I was infuriated and my next column vented antipathy toward this travesty of a law enforcement officer. I was blunt but factual. Not one to accept criticism quietly, he, in turn, sued to get me removed from a county board on which I served pro bono, a board which adjudicated cases affecting his office. He maintained that, where he was concerned, I could no longer be objective.

Before this episode began, I didn’t waste time thinking much about him. He was a demagogue in plain sight, who, typical of his ilk, appealed to fears and resentments of insecure people. If you fancy becoming a demagogue, that’s the simple recipe. Many people in the city and its surrounding areas mocked and ridiculed him. But others, lots of others, took his bait, viewing him as their protector against the liberal elite, those dreadful advocates for human rights. He stoked division; I understood he was truly a dangerous man, but before our “disagreement,” I reasoned he’d be generally recognized soon enough for the true threat he was.

For two years, his case for my removal from the commission dragged on. At its inception, to avoid protracted legal maneuvers, I had offered to recuse myself from votes involving his department. Because I was serving the county, it was paying my legal expenses, and I didn’t want to waste its money. But he wanted nothing less than a knockout victory. In the end, after having stubbornly and expensively resisted my recusal proposal and realizing, finally, I wasn’t about to resign, he accepted what I had originally offered.

While the case inched along, though, I adjusted to its irritations pretty well. At home, Elaine and I discussed it very rarely. She headed a local university, I had my own projects, so we had other things to attend to. However, she gave me one savvy piece of advice: don’t speed on local highways. Nothing would please the sheriff more than my being pulled over by one of his minions. I generally followed her admonition.

But there were times when my anger flared. On-going news accounts described his dressing inmates in pink jumpsuits and feeding them green bologna. His strategy of humiliation and deprivation was hardly subtle, but it resonated with his cult. And his fame and infamy were spreading. When we traveled far from our Sunbelt city, people sometimes asked us about him. Most saw him as a buffoon, but some were curious, apparently viewing him as a tough-minded pragmatist. That the former greatly outnumbered the latter wouldn’t have bothered him in the least. What they say about you doesn’t matter, he’d have said. It’s that they remember your name.

Twenty years ago, this country had its inevitable social and political splits. That these, in a relatively short time, would expand into fractures defied imagination at that moment in our history. We were still pretty much the United States, not the Untied States. But, considering what I had experienced in my civic adventure, I wondered whether some upwardly mobile control freak could exploit festering insecurities and resentments in a climb to presidential power. Pessimist that I am, I didn’t think it was impossible. Based on the idea that whatever disturbs you can partially be controlled by satire, my foray into fiction began. I thought about an imaginary protagonist. Looking back, I never thought about casting a woman in that role. I reasoned that women are too responsible, too planful, too collaborative to be that evil. I now repent my sexism.

My creation had to defy our images of legitimate leaders. For whatever reasons--inherited wealth augmented by ill-gotten gain--he had to be thoroughly self-indulgent. He would be immune to intellectual challenge and lack any shred of constructive imagination. His functioning vocabulary would boil down to versions of “me.” In short, he’d be an oversized model of a self-obsessed kindergartner.

What about physical appearance? Maybe an ugly grimace, face uncreased by a smile in recent years? Hair absurdly colored and grotesquely shaped, product of a demented hairdresser? He would strut, not walk. He’d perform, not converse.

At some point, having undergone a bit of self-therapy through paragraphs, I stopped and allowed my inner critic access to what I had written. I could almost hear him snort. “This could never happen,” he admonished. “As usual, you’ve gone too far!” I was tempted to argue, but he invariably wins our disagreements. So, I jammed the pages into an envelope and stuck them in a file box. If, sometime midway between then and now I had re-read my scenario, I could have summoned that testy inner critic and nailed him with, “I told’ja so!” But that wouldn’t have changed anything. And believe me, in the end, I’d take no satisfaction in having my pessimism validated.


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