EDITOR’S NOTE: For the January 24, 2000, issue of National Review, Florence King, employed her misanthropic revenge on millennial list-creators, hatching her own special inventory: “People I Instinctively Like for My Own Quirky Reasons Whether I Ought To or Not.” When Florence likes someone, the reasons are well worth learning, and terribly funny. Enjoy now what was simply one of her best columns.
And when you’re done laughing, take the time to get your copy (for yourself, or for that intelligent someone who you know would appreciate the Queen of Spleen) of STET, Damnit, The Misanthrope’s Corner, 1991 to 2002–it faithfully compiles each and every word Miss King wrote for her back-page NR column. You may order copies of the big, beautiful book (securely!) here.
I speak to you from my bed of pain, felled by one too many millennial lists. Somewhere between the 1,000 Most Significant Somethings and the 100 Greatest Whatevers, I lost it. I am now sick of everybody who was anybody, including Churchill.
The trouble with lists is that they are the work of conformists. Take, for example, that old standby, the Ten Most Admired, an annual exercise in lockstep opinion ever since I can remember. Year after year, it was always the same; an overnight newsmaker might occasionally break through the phalanx of acceptable thinking, but otherwise it boiled down to the President, the First Lady, and Billy Graham.
The millennial lists exceeded mere conformity to achieve the most rigid political correctness yet seen. Nelson Mandela was on everything except Entomologists Who Changed Our Lives, Gloria Steinem was right up there with Edison on the one about light-shedders, and Crazy Horse joined Oscar Wilde on Most Misunderstood.
If the cure for democracy is more democracy, then the cure for lists is more lists, so I have compiled People I Instinctively Like for My Own Quirky Reasons Whether I Ought To or Not.
Socrates–With a single sentence, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” he gave introspection a good name, making it possible for people to figure out, among other things, why they feel it necessary to put the President, the First Lady, and Billy Graham on Most Admired lists.
Cardinal Richelieu–The feline aesthete who pulled France from under the ineffectual Louis XIII is the perfect antidote to presidential candidates who heap praise on “the American people” in every other sentence. “Though he loved France,” writes Will Durant, “Frenchmen left him cold.”
What I admire most about Richelieu is the guiding principle he called raison d’état, the “reason of state” that decided his every move. As he defined it: “A Christian cannot too soon forgive an offense, but a ruler cannot too soon punish it if it be a crime against the state.” I’ve always thought that was a neat way around Nice Guyism.
Talleyrand–Usually described, for brevity’s sake, as Napoleon Bonaparte’s foreign minister, he was actually all things to all men, slipping between the meshing gears of French political upheavals to position himself in the right place at the right time in the manner of Dick Morris.
An aristocrat who was consecrated a bishop, he aligned himself with the National Assembly, the Revolution, the Constitutional Monarchy, the Republic, the Directory, the Consulate, the Empire, the Bourbon Restoration, and finally, the July Monarchy. When Louis-Philippe was crowned, he asked Talleyrand, “How many governments have you sworn allegiance to?” Unruffled, Talleyrand replied, “Sire, yours is the thirteenth.”
In an era of despicable amoralists like Bill Clinton, Talleyrand comes across as a likable one. To understand the difference we need look no further than the furious words of the parvenu Napoleon, who called him “a silk stocking filled with s***” At least it was silk.
Sgt. Alvin York–The hero of World War I wasn’t taken prisoner, he took prisoners–132 of them, to be exact. In this last great military feat before women got the vote, the word “hero” meant exactly that: a man who takes the initiative and does something aggressive singlehandedly.
Today, “hero” must have a passive connotation and involve a group or else we dare not use it. From the capture of the crew of the Pueblo in 1968, to the Teheran embassy hostages in 1979, to the current absorption in John McCain’s ordeal in the Hanoi Hilton, we have steadily burdened heroism with so many disclaimers that it has come to describe being in the wrong place at the wrong time with lots of great people.
Radclyffe Hall–The British author of the 1928 lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness, was not lonely. She had no trouble seducing the breathtakingly beautiful Una Troubridge away from her knighted husband, and lived openly with her for years in a classic butch-femme arrangement. Hall especially enjoyed playing the husband in public, but there the resemblance to today’s most famous lesbian couple ends.
Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche smooched and felt each other up at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, but Radclyffe and Una celebrated their difference differently. Now that familiarity is breeding contempt like rabbits, I wish I could go back in time to Claridge’s and listen in when Hall, after making sure she had the other diners’ attention, told the waiter in a loud voice: “Lady Troubridge will have the lamb.”
Eleanor Gehrig–The Gary Cooper movie about the life of doomed ballplayer Lou Gehrig portrayed Eleanor the way all such movies portrayed the wife: as the keeper of the flame who kept the scrapbook.
The scrapbook scene used to be the backbone of movies about celebrated men. Whenever the screenwriter needed a quick way to show the hero’s increasing fame, the passage of time, or his wife’s selfless devotion, the camera zoomed in on a huge jar of white paste and a pair of feminine hands pressing down on a newspaper clipping that always fit exactly on the scrapbook page the way real clippings never do. The message was: A good woman always miters her corners.
The Eleanor Gehrig portrayed by Teresa Wright in The Pride of the Yankees comes across as someone content to spend her life cutting, pasting, and adoring, but the real Eleanor was not that sticky. A witty, sophisticated woman who knew the score far better than her mama’s-boy husband, she was canonized along with him, but one story about her illustrates just how different they were, and raises the possibility that if ALS hadn’t killed him, Eleanor eventually might have been driven to do him in herself.
When he was striving to set a record of 2,000 consecutive games, she remarked that stopping at 1,999 would make a much more interesting statistic–and the poor earnest lug didn’t get it.