Friday, June 26, 2009

John Locke and the Argentine Connection

“Why,” my wife asked me “is Sarkozy’s picture on the front page?” Casual error not infrequently becomes the occasion of deep insight. The front page photograph was not of Nicholas Sarkozy, but of Mark Sanford of South Carolina, and it went with a headline reading ENDING MYSTERY, A GOVERNOR SAYS HE HAD AN AFFAIR. That was a revelation of some interest, though not as much as the realization that Sanford does sort of look like Sarkozy. And note how close they would be in an alphabetical listing....

Who is who?

When I realized it was Sanford, not Sarkozy, I immediately thought about the time my car was stolen in New Jersey while I was in Italy.

The logic of all this will be clearer to you if you are a reader of Laurence Sterne, whose immortal Tristram Shandy has a lot of fun with Locke’s views of the “association of ideas”. The crucial association here is that linking oddball southern politicians with Argentinian bombshells. You see, Mark Sanford, the governor of South Carolina, was supposed to be taking a lonely hike along the Appalachian Trail in order “to recharge after the stimulus battle.” Well, actually he was supposed to be being the governor of South Carolina, but the Appalachian Trail was a plausible alternative. It turns out he was actually having a dirty weekend recharging after the stimulus battle with his Argentinian girlfriend in Buenos Aires. So now Mark Sanford can’t be president, because anybody who lies about walking the Appalachian Trail has for sure lost the tree-hugger vote.

The “Times” had a big story about all this, but as so often they missed the most important thing about it, which is the trend, the pattern. Oddball southern politicians compromise their chances of becoming president through involvement with foxy Argentinian women. Recall the late

Wilbur & Fanne at play

Representative Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.), who in his day was the powerful chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. (“Powerful”, incidentally, is an adjective de rigueur any time the Ways and Means Committee or its chairman is mentioned in the national press.) In 1972 Mr. Mills ran for the Democratic nomination for president, garnering thirty-some votes on the first ballot, before being somewhat outdistanced by George McGovern. But after the fiasco of the McGovern campaign Mills seemed to some plausibly placed for actual viability should the Democrats ever revive. Unfortunately in the wee hours of October 9, 1974, the Washington Park police stopped a car to alert its driver that he ought not to be driving with the lights off, as the night was dark. The driver was Wilbur Mills. Mr. Mills was manifestly drunk. His face was somewhat disfigured by superficial wounds that appeared to be the results of a stimulus battle he had just had with his front-seat companion, a most attractive woman of fiery Latin mien several decades his junior. This lady took flight and leaped into the nearby Tidal Basin.

When plucked from the water she turned out to be Annabelle Battistella, alias Fanne Foxe, a strip-tease artiste even better known as the Argentine Firecracker—a name based partly in her nationality and partly in the details of her art.

Foxy Fanne Fox on the job

That, alas, was the last we heard of Wilbur Mills as presidential candidate. My uncle John waxed gloomy. “Now they will never elect a President from Arkansas,” he opined with authority. That was the year Bill Clinton was entering his political career.

Ah, yes, you ask, but what has any of this to do with the theft of my car? Answer: everything. I am from Arkansas, and I used to visit family members there regularly. While there in the summer of 1972 I picked up, for what I thought might be its novelty value, a bumper-sticker that said “Yea, Wilbur!” This message, though conveying significance to proud Arkansas natives, proved highly puzzling to the residents of Princeton, NJ, where I live, partly because people there simply are not named Wilbur and partly because by the time I got the car back there nobody could remember the names of any candidates but McGovern and Nixon. One of my colleagues, puzzled by the bumper sticker, asked me if it were an advertisement for a restaurant.

For part of the academic year 1972-73 we were in Italy, at Grottaferrata near Rome. I was conducting research at the Franciscan Library of the Collegio San Bonaventura there, working on a book that eventually became An Introduction to the Franciscan Literature of the Middle Ages. While we were out of the country we loaned our aging Ford, including its bumper sticker, to our friend Jim Magnuson—now the exalted director of the James A. Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin, but then a young playwright and novelist on a visiting fellowship at Princeton. During the school vacation Jim was sharing an apartment with an undergraduate Canadian hockey player named Ralphie, who sometimes used the car. One day Ralphie, driving along Nassau Street on his way back home after doing the week’s grocery shopping, had a strange encounter. A wild-eyed young man wearing what was later described as “a kind of mechanic’s uniform” rushed up to his car and climbed into the front seat. He needed help, he said. He was in town to view the Simon Norton exhibition at the art gallery, but he had just learned that his wife, who was either in Jersey City, Newark, or New York, and who was either sick, having a baby, or very recently deceased—all of these possibilities appearing in alternate versions of the story he rapidly, nervously, and incoherently spilled out to Ralphie as he twirled the dial of the car’s radio in apparent search of breaking news—desperately needed help, pronto. Could Ralphie drive him to New York?

Now Ralphie was—and no doubt still is, in his undisclosed location—a nice guy, a gentle soul in an athlete’s body. He would go the extra mile, or even fifty-three miles, as was now proposed. But there were frozen peas and ice cream in the grocery bag, and he must first briefly return to the nearby apartment to deposit them in the freezer. He parked the car near the apartment, leaving the young man and the car key in the Ford. He deposited the perishables and took a moment to write a note that perhaps still exists buried within Magnuson’s increasingly valuable literary archive. It said: “Dear Jim, had to go to NY to help a guy out.” Upon returning to the parking lot, he was amazed to find neither the Ford nor the nervous young man who had been in it. Both were at that very moment heading in the direction of Route 1.

The story the young man had told Ralphie was part truth and part fabrication. He was an inmate in a state penal institution. There was no wife, no baby. The true part is that he was in Princeton to view the Simon Norton Exhibition. That is called progressive penology. He was making an escape from a post-Exhibition lunch to which he was being treated, along with other incarcerated art lovers, at the Annex Restaurant.

Reporting this audacious crime to the police proved a little taxing. Like many deep thinkers, with minds forever voyaging on strange seas of thought alone, Jim and Ralphie were sometimes unobservant of the dull details of quotidian life. They had not noticed, for example, the make or model of my car, let alone its license number. At first this threatened to impede the police investigation; but the records of the Motor Vehicles Division suggested that they were looking for a 1961 Ford Galaxie. Its color was recorded as “green”, though in fact the

elements had by then given it a kind of tie-dyed appearance. Jim strained to remember useful clues which, the moment he recalled them, he would telephone to the police. He had recently completed a run of his play on the theme of David and Goliath. “In the trunk,” he was able to tell the state police lieutenant, “you ought to find a kind of tiger-skin loin cloth and a big slingshot.” This was, indeed, information that might prove useful in confirming the identity of the car once found, but the officer was hoping for something more. “Any exterior indicators?” he asked. Jim thought hard. “Well,” he said, “it has a Wilbur Mills for President sticker on the rear bumper.” “A what?” The police found the car within six hours. In fact the car was actually missing for a considerably shorter period than was Governor Mark Sanford.