After wrestling with my conscience for several weeks now, I surrender. I have a confession to make: I had Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson all wrong.
Before their responses to the terrorist attacks on Sep. 11, I'd always thought of Jerry and Pat as a pair of Cotton Mathers without the Harvard education: humorless fundamentalists who wouldn't know a joke if it splatted them in the face like a banana meringue pie.
But now I see how wrong I was, and I feel foolish because I, in fact, was the one who didn't get their joke that splatted us all in the face. Consider this:
In the days following the terrorism, the mood of the country was somber. Not a smile to be seen. Not a hoo-haw to be heard.
Even our late-night comics were quiet. Letterman, Leno, O'Brien, and Maher took the rest of the week off after the Tuesday attacks.
And that's when Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell made a heroic decision: they would, on the Thursday following the Tuesday trauma, step into the humor void. Knowing that Ecclesiastes tells us there's a time to weep and a time to laugh, Pat and Jerry decided it was time for Americans to be laughing again. Not just heh-hehing, but giggling. Not just chuckling, but rolling on the floor, whatever they were drinking coming out their noses.
It would be a tough job, but it needed doing.
So on Thursday evening, Pat had Jerry on his TV show, "The 700 Club." It was a holy hoot. Lines from the show's transcript:
The American Civil Liberties Union, Jerry told Pat, "has got to take a lot of blame" for the attacks.
"Well, yes," Pat told Jerry.
God, Jerry told Pat, is allowing "the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve."
"That," Pat told Jerry, "is my feeling."
By this time, viewers in California were beginning to snicker.
"I really believe," Jerry told Pat, "that the pagans, and the abortionists and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Wayall of them who have tried to secularize AmericaI point my finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'"
"Well," Pat told Jerry, "I totally concur."
At which point, the tidal wave of laughter, moving west to east, had reached Omaha.
But Pat and Jerry weren't finished.
When their network took some heat the next day from grumps with no sense of humor, Jerry sent out a message on his web site saying he regretted that "comments I made during a long theological discussion
were taken out of their context and reported."
And Pat, on his own web site, totally concurred again: the comments, he wrote, were "taken out of context."
The Truth, Mainly
Then a White House spokesman said that the White House was not amused. The Pat-and-Jerry remarks were "inappropriate," and "the president does not share those views."
With a straight face, Jerry said "I was making a theological statement, not a legal statement."
And on that knee-slapper, most comedians would figure they'd milked the joke for all it was worth. But not Pat and Jerry.
Jerry issued what he called an "apology" the following week. His remarks, he said, absolutely deadpan, "seemed harsh and ill-timed." His theological point, he said, was misunderstood by the "secular media and audience."
And Pathe who'd said "Well, yes" and "That's my feeling" and "I totally concur" in response to Jerry's assertionsnow said that Jerry's words were "frankly, not fully understood" even by Pat himself.
And by this time, the tidal wave had reached even New York and Washington and the whole nation was laughing therapeutic laughter.
In a little essay called "How to Tell a Story," Mark Twain says the best humorous tale "is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it." The teller, Twain says, must be able "to string
and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities."
My guess is that wherever he might be, Mark Twain is taking great pleasure at how well his disciples, Pat and Jerry, have mastered the rhetorical technique that Twain laid out.
Whether our national laughter helps heal our national pain or not, it's high time we quit bashing Pat and Jerry and acknowledge their patriotic efforts. They've done their country a real service by making us guffaw again.
And I, at this time and in this space, publicly apologize to Pat and Jerry for my past inability to know a joke when I saw one, for coming to understand only now what they've been up to for decades.
Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity
from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail