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Donald Trump and "The Greatest Man in the World"

Here’s how smart James Thurber was: He foresaw the rise of Donald Trump more than 80 years before it happened.

Thurber is the renowned humorist and cartoonist who tweaked the American Everyman in stories like “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” The story that presages Trump is called “The Greatest Man in the World.”

In the 1920s, the world was smitten by daring aviators in general and by Charles Lindbergh in particular. Lindbergh was a golden boy; his solo nonstop trans-Atlantic flight catapulted him into a celebrity orbit beyond even the silent film stars of the era. Tall, handsome, modest of manner – he played the self-effacing hero to a T.

The hero of Thurber’s 1931 New Yorker story is Jacky Smurch, who undertakes to fly around the world nonstop. Can’t be done, the experts said – yet Smurch does it.

Smurch is the anti-Lindbergh, son of a slatternly short-order cook and a small-time criminal. Jacky himself once knifed his school principal and tried to steal an altar cloth from a church.

And so as Smurch flew toward his goal (powered by salami and bootleg gin), earthbound mortals went berserk and the highest circles of American government went frantic: nightmarishly, the "greatest man" in the world was a low-rent criminal and a cheap, tobacco-juice-smeared vulgarian.

As the world scanned the skies for Smurch, editors bowed to public hunger for a hero, printed fantasy stories of a gentlemanly Smurch, and pointedly did not quote his surly mother, who snapped, “I hope he drowns.”

Desperate cabinet meetings were convened to handle the crisis, and the moment Smurch landed safely before a crowd of thousands, he was spirited away for an Eliza Doolittle makeover before being presented to the masses.

All the ministrations of ministers and advisers – handlers, we’d call them -- failed to persuade Smurch to behave like a national hero. In mobster-grade grammar, he insulted Lindbergh and the “two frogs” – Frenchmen who had just died in flight two weeks before.

Even the surprise arrival of the president of the United States in Smurch's hotel room did not chasten him. He bared his hairy, tattooed chest in the August heat, demanded to know when he’d be getting the “big money.”  

Gathered around him, the most powerful men in the nation were appalled and flummoxed: how to handle this human PR disaster who sat inelegantly, insouciantly paring his nails with a jackknife?

As the great men stewed, Smurch heard newsboys nine stories below hollering his name, and leaned far out the window to yell down to them.

With a “quick, mad impulse,” the secretary to the mayor of New York City – a man who had played tackle for Rutgers – looked at the president. The president nodded. And the Rutgers man propelled the greatest man in the world to his last flight.

“My God,” cried a quick-witted editor, crafting in an instant the story line for the world, “he’s fallen out the window!”

The imaginary Smurch, the wholesome all-American lad so tragically dead in his moment of triumph, received “the most elaborate, the finest, the solemnest” funeral in the nation’s history, and a monument at Arlington.

Why is this story about Trump? Because for the Republican establishment, Trump is a better-class Jacky Smurch.

There is this difference: When Thurber wrote that story, the nation wanted a Lindbergh-style hero, which is why the inadequate Smurch was defenestrated on orders from the top.

Today, the world doesn’t go in for self-effacing. It likes big and noisy and shiny and arrogant, and Trump is all that; policy detail is nitpicky claptrap, and modesty is for chumps.

The quandary for the sober-sided Republican leadership is, do they try to throw Trump out the window, make it look like an accident, and give him a fancy political funeral where they can, like Thurber’s men of substance, carry on about how well Trump served his party and his country?

Or is Trump truly so big – “really huge” – that he doesn’t need those GOP stiffs and mugs? Just maybe, he could wind up tossing the GOP establishment from the window instead, as the crowd in the street cheers.

It’d be Jacky Smurch’s revenge.

 

Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes

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