The Truth, Mainly - 01/27/1992

Riding Ackley Effect to a second term
by Leon Satterfield

George Bush has finally broken through. He's made me—and I suppose lots of others with defective social skills—identify with him.

Up until his trip to the Far East this month, the President and I never seemed to occupy common social ground. He went to Greenwich Country Day School, to Phillips Academy at Andover, and to Yale where he was Phi Beta Kappa. I went to Plains (Kansas) Elementary School, to Plains (Kansas) High School, and to Kansas State Teachers College where I was Tappa Kegga Day. He's made lots of money and got himself elected President. I haven't. I could go on and on, but you get the idea: In my social set, George Bush has always been The Other.

But all that changed when he developed that spectacular reverse Midas touch on his trade mission. Now his approval rating is below 50 percent and he admits "I've got big problems."

One of them emerged, you remember, in Australia when he held up two fingers to a crowd he was being presidential in front of. To him, it was a victory sign; to them, it was an obscene gesture, the Australian equivalent of giving them the finger.

Then in Japan, to show what a regular guy he is, he joined in a demonstration—uninvited—of an Extremely Serious eighth century court game. He kicked the ball around like a Hacky Sack and bounced it buffoonishly off the top of his head. The Japanese were not amused. They looked like the College of Cardinals watching a pagan oaf trying to balance a crucifix on his nose.

Good taste keeps me from mentioning the culmination of the trip: The state dinner during which George Bush barfed on the Japanese Prime Minister he was trying to get trade concessions from.

It was that climactic third catastrophe, during which we all averted our eyes, that really won me over. I saw then that deep down underneath all that preppie sophistication, George Bush is really my kind of guy.

I've never barfed on a Prime Minister I was trying to get trade concessions from, but I have barfed during ceremonial occasions when not barfing would have been better.

"Good grief," my wife says. "You're not going to tell about that again, are you?"

I'm not really proud of it and my good taste usually keeps me from mentioning it in public, but this time I'm trying to help the President work through his embarrassment. He needs to know that lots of people barf inappropriately during ceremonial occasions. When you stop to think about it, there are hardly any ceremonial occasions when barfing is not inappropriate.

It wasn't my fault—there'd been a party the night before—but what I did was barf during an academic procession when I was wearing the full cap-and-gown-and-hood regalia. Parents of graduating seniors were watching. They wanted to see just what kind of intellectual role models they'd paid all that tuition money to have their offspring in the company of.

OK, so it wasn't as monumentally inappropriate as barfing on a Prime Minister you're trying to get trade concessions from. But it was close enough that even as I averted my eyes from the President, I resonated. I felt a new kinship, a new warmth.

After I quit resonating, my wife said it was just the Ackley Effect working again. That's the psycho-socio-literary term that derives from a character in "The Catcher in the Rye." Robert Ackley lives in a dorm with the narrator, Holden Caulfield, and he's pretty disgusting even to someone from southwest Kansas. His teeth are "mossy and awful" and people get sick watching him eat. He leaves his fingernail clippings on the floor for Holden to walk on barefoot, and he snores. "That guy," Holden tells us, "had just about everything. Sinus trouble, pimples, lousy teeth, halitosis, crumby fingernails." He concludes that you had to feel sorry for him.

And that's where the Ackley Effect kicks in. It happens when we empathize with people precisely in proportion to how socially inept they are. My wife says it's what first attracted her to me.

She also reminds me that before the President went on his trade mission, he told David Frost he was "ready to do what I have to do to be re-elected." She says George Bush may have hit on a new campaign strategy here and that if the Ackley Effect works as well with the other vulgarians as it works with me, we'd all better get used to averting our eyes. She's a real cynic sometimes.


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.

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