The moving finger — the one that having writ moved on and can’t recall a single line (per Omar Khayyam’s famous poem) — is the enemy of all of us, and never more than to somebody called on to write or say something in public. We’ve even confiscated a word for it, “gaffe.” A gaffe is not usually a mistake but what happens when someone blurts out an inconvenient truth.
And not just for politicians. The moving finger pursues the ignoramus elsewhere, too, even an educationist intimidated by political correction run amok.
Only this week in the small Michigan town of Forest Hills, the public-school superintendent, one Daniel Behm, banned the display of the so-called Betsy Ross flag, the 11-star banner that Mzz Ross designed for George Washington. He imagines it’s an object of hate because it was a white man’s flag.
“To wave a historical version of our flag, that to some symbolizes exclusion and hate, injects hostility and confusion to an event where no one intended to do,” he said in a letter to parents, after students at the mostly white Forest Hills High waved it at a football game against mostly black Ottawa Hills High. One of the parents had complained that Forest Hills students dressed themselves in red, white and blue and chanted “USA, USA, USA.”
Pride in “black lives matter” is apparently OK; pride in school, nation and Betsy Ross, not so much. It’s not clear who an American flag would offend among students black or white; perhaps the superintendent thought the Betsy Ross flag was the Confederate flag. Both flags have a lot of stars. He might like to erase a single line or two in the wake of controversy that revealed him to be the pluperfect jerk, but as the poet observed he has neither the piety nor wit to do that.
This is the season for saying really dumb things, with Hillary Clinton having set the standard with her sneer at roughly a quarter of the American electorate as “the deplorables,” her target being half of Donald Trump’s half.
Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico who thinks 2016 could be the big breakthrough year for a presidential nominee of the Libertarian Party, blew it when a television interviewer asked him what he thought about the humanitarian crisis in the Syrian city of Aleppo. “And what,” he asked in reply to the reporter’s question, “is Aleppo?” We can forgive him; “Aleppo” in an inattentive ear does sound a lot like “a leopard” and everybody knows a leopard cannot change his spots. It was obviously a trick question.
Governors, after all, are accustomed to dealing with problems closer at hand, usually someone looking for a job, and have little experience answering questions about events abroad. My favorite story about a governor getting in over his head trying to answer questions from the foreign news pages is the story of the late Ross Barnett, the governor of Mississippi who tangled with John F. Kennedy in the endless controversy over segregated schools in the Deep South.
The governor, who was up to his hips in federal marshals, angry blacks, frustrated segregationist legislators and constituents black and white hounding him for favors, was asked by a mischievous reporter in Jackson what he thought about the crisis over Quemoy and Matsu, two small islands off the coast of Taiwan threatened by Red China, with JFK trying to keep the argument confined to Asia before lest it morph into World War III.
“Oh,” the governor replied, “Quemoy and Matsu have been well taken care of. We found jobs for them at the Game and Fish Commission.”
Hillary’s manipulation of the language is different. She knows a lot of stuff, the tedium of arcane policy being the catnip that keeps her occupied. She keeps saying things that are not only dumb, but revealing. She grooves on hanging out with the rich and powerful to play the old game of “you show me yours and I’ll show you mine.” Hillary is a woman of simple tastes. All she really wants is money.
The Clintons have got away with murder — speaking metaphorically, of course — for years because Bubba at his best and worst has the charm that reflects a Huck Finn innocence that distracts from a lot. When he asks the average voter, “whatcha gonna do with a good ol’ boy like me?” that average voter has always thought of something.
But Hillary, not to put too fine a point on it, is not Becky Thatcher to Tom and Huck. Americans forgive their politicians a lot, but when the voter, like the worm, turns, it’s nearly always for good. Donald Trump is giving us a race for the ages.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.