Our Fondness for Scalawags, Charlatans, Mountebanks, Scoundrels, and Assorted Others of Similar Ilk, Global Province Letter, 13 March 2013

“Definition of a Bore, a person who deprives you of solitude without providing you with company.” -- Emily Hahn citing Gravina in No Hurry to Get Home

The Birthday Party. Proust recalled pleasurable images by eating a madeleine. For us, at a dinner party honoring our further descent into our dotage, the excitement arose from a gargantuan feast of two-inch steaks flown in from Manhattan and potato galette stolen from Julia Child.  Of course, the imagery summoned up would not have been half so vivid without the finishing touch.  That was Irish whiskey cake where we substituted Basil Hayden single barrel bourbon, afraid to raid the still-sealed Jameson of one of our colleagues.  We can vouch that our pastry chef was so adroit, she would have made any strong hearted spirits work.  

Such a repast invokes for us our kind of politician. Each of the political brigands we cherish would sit down to such fare, or go us one better. In the present day politicians up and down the corridors of power seem to be mean and nasty, lumpen types who get in the way of history.  We like chaps who smile and make us smile.  Who toss down steaks and lobsters, have bulges in their clothing from too much enjoyment, and probably a swelling in their wallets from having made fast and loose with the public purse. . 

Gentleman Jimmy Walker.  And so it was with Jimmy Walker.  A dear relative contrasted him nicely to later Tammany hacks in New York who were dreary mayors:  she said, “Well, you knew Jimmy was stealing you blind.  But at least he gave you a good time.” He was a good antidote for the 1930s in New York City, which was a truly dark and fearful time.  Eventually he had to leave town and go to Europe as his sins caught up with him, but his was a merry reign while it lasted:

—Walker’s biggest hit had been “Will You Love Me in December (As You Do in May)?” Metaphorically speaking, it was now December. The love for Walker faded; his resolve flagged. Roosevelt, needing to bolster his presidential candidacy, urged him to resign. “That dazzling, theatrical, and essentially absurd career has collapsed at last,” wrote the New York Herald-Tribune.

Eight days later, in September 1932, Walker again boarded a transatlantic liner for Europe, vowing to return soon to clear his name and again run for office. In truth, he was fleeing possible prosecution. It surely wasn’t how he had imagined it ending, but he’d had his fun

We miss ya, Jimmy.

Governor Edwin W. Edwards. In the modern era, there is probably only one fellow that played as fast and loose and colorful as Jimmy Walker.  Other Cajun politicians fade amidst the Edwards gleam. He and his entourage took numerous trips to Las Vegas courtesy of the Louisiana state treasury. But most fun even now is his prodigious mouth, which laughingly dashes enemies to the ground and angers the anxious and the respectable:

Before election day, Edwards joked with reporters: "The only way I can lose this election is if I'm caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy."

During a gubernatorial debate in 1983, Treen asked Edwards, "How come you talk out of both sides of your mouth?" Edwards instantly responded, "So people like you with only half a brain can understand me."

Honest Sinners. Scalawags abound, coming not just from politics, but all walks of life. Amongst the pilgrims in the Canterbury Taleswere charlatans who would try to charm you out of your purse and possessions, meanwhile confessing that such gulling was just what they were up to. Such a fellow is the Pardoner:

After telling the group how he gulls people into indulging his own avarice through a sermon he preaches on greed, the Pardoner tells of a tale that exemplifies the vice decried in his sermon. Furthermore, he attempts to sell pardons to the group—in effect plying his trade in clear violation of the rules outlined by the host.

And then there is a local landscaper in a small Southern town who, out at the golf course, told his employee “when the ground is soft, dig a deep hole.” One local eminence talks about Jimmy S with affection, “Why Jimmy, he’s a thief.”  He is awfully good at separating the townfolk from their money.

P.S.  A good read about a complex charlatan is Geoffrey Wolff’s book about his father entitled The Duke of Deception: Memories of My FatherIndeed, many of the most interesting creative families have such a character hanging in their ancestral closets.

P.P.S. “Scalawag” is also a term of opprobrium used to brand those who unlocked the chains that tied the South to its ancient, crippling ways.  Indeed, many of the politicians labeled as terribly corrupt in the South had a hand in loosing it from the most obdurate racism. 

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