Pundits Should Curb Their Trash Talking

The actions of the world’s most famous out-of-work

politician has led to a revival of a poisonous phrase that somehow has eluded

the language police. Certain Clintonian behavior-the pilfering of White House

knickknacks that belonged to the People of the United States; the appearance of

pay-to-play pardons-has inspired unfriendly citations of the phrase “trailer

trash.”

Howie Carr, the acerbic

Boston Herald writer and tormentor of all Kennedys, set the tone for the

post-Presidential Clinton chronicles on the very day that White House furniture

began making its way north to Chappaqua. In a Jan. 21 Herald column, Mr. Carr offered a fond farewell to Mr. Clinton with

the following terms of endearment: “The man’s pure T trash, as they say in the

South.” (Presumably Mr. Carr means the region that had been known, until free

trade and the global marketplace came along, as the Land of Cotton, and not the

southern section of his home city.) Mr. Carr continued: “You can take the boy

out of the trailer park, but you can’t take the trailer out of the boy.”

I have no idea how familiar Mr. Carr is with trailer parks,

although it seems fair to say that he believes the residents of such places

have a good deal to learn from their social betters in the housing projects of

Southie. I, however, can speak with some authority on the subject. Not only is

my native borough of Staten Island the proud home of New York City’s only

trailer park, but-ye readers of genteel disposition, avert thine eyes-my own

parents are ensconced, and quite happily, in a snowbird trailer park in

Florida. And yet, as far as I know, they managed to get through their public

tour of the White House a few decades ago without taking so much as a towel,

and they certainly haven’t accepted cash money in exchange for pardons.

(Believe me, I tried. But I’m still serving time for that engine I blew on

their station wagon back in 1978.)

I spent a couple of days in their trailer park in late

January and didn’t meet anybody who looked like they might one day run off with

White House property, or shake down Asian businessmen, or suffer convenient

memory lapses. For the most part, my parents’ neighbors were men who served in

World War II or Korea and their wives. They all had either their own teeth or

reasonable facsimiles; nobody was married to a blood relative; their clothes

were clean (although unfashionable enough to inspire screams of disdain on

Seventh Avenue); and they spoke with great fondness about organized labor and

the need for unions.

Oh, yes: And they all voted for George W. Bush. This latter

fact would hardly have come as a surprise to the President himself. James

Carville once famously dismissed Paula Jones in the same way Mr. Carr dismissed

Mr. Clinton-as trailer trash-but Mr. Bush delighted in telling his aides last

year that he was winning what he affectionately called  “the double-wide vote.” Perhaps one day, in

some election yet to come, Democratic operatives will learn to speak with just

a bit more reverence for white working-class people who happen to make their

residence in double-wides. Or even single-wides.

One wonders what the trash-talkers would make of two dead

politicians who are about to reappear in the public consciousness, thanks to

terrific new biographies that are beginning to appear in bookstores. Alfred E.

Smith was reared in circumstances that might best be described as the urban

equivalent of a trailer park, and Thomas P. O’Neill was the son of a

working-class family that lived in a white ethnic ghetto. The manner in which

they lived-Smith in particular-no doubt would offend the very same people who

look with such disdain on the trailer-parkies.

Historian Robert Slayton tells Smith’s story in Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of

Al Smith, while journalist John A. Farrell of the Boston Globe chronicles O’Neill’s journey from the streets of

Cambridge to the halls of the U.S. Capitol in Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century. (Consumer alert: I wrote a

blurb for Mr. Slayton’s book and will be introducing him at a book party on

March 15.)

Smith and O’Neill spent their careers working on behalf of

the people they knew-if not personally, then through their real-life,

street-level experience. It is impossible to imagine either one dismissing poor

or working people as “trailer trash.” Quite the contrary: Once, when Smith was

presiding over a hearing about the construction of public beaches on Long

Island, a witness complained that the project would wind up attracting “the

rabble.”

“The rabble?” replied this son of the Lower East Side. ” I’m the rabble.”

Imagine somebody talking like that today.