When Americans are asked to single out a specific group of people who are most to blame for our problems as a nation, the word “lawyers” is never very far from their lips. After all, there are more than 700,000 lawyers practicing in the U.S. today, none of them are up to any good, and even lawyers themselves agree that there are too many lawyers among us. You would never hear a banjo player complain that there are too many banjo players, or a copy editor complain that the proliferation of copy editors is ruining life as we know it. Given these facts, a case can be made that lawyers are the most odious creatures on our streets today, and desperately need to be swept off them.
But such an opinion would not get my vote. Though I yield to no man in my unstinting hatred of attorneys, barristers, lawyers and, yes, even legal secretaries (I recently beat my daughter for doing her homework on a yellow legal pad), I do not feel that the legal profession is the most menacing, repugnant, worthless group of people in our society. And I’ve met Steve Brill. Nor do I feel that waiters who introduce themselves as “Trent” or “Esme” and who highly recommend Today’s Special-the Calamari in Saffron Powder with Loin of Arctic Reindeer on the side-horrible though they may be, are the worst threat to life as we know it. That singular honor goes to the fastest proliferating group of egomaniacal, attention-getting, convention-flouting humans on the planet.
You read about them everywhere. Maverick agronomists light up the front page of The Atlantic with their esoteric crop-management theories. A maverick editor shakes things up at Random House, warns the Wall Street Journal, putting the fear of God into the entire publishing world. “Maverick Movie Makers Inspire Their Successors,” proclaims the New York Times, providing the grim news that more weird David Lynch movies are on the way.
It is also the Times that reports that a “maverick” member of the Washington State Bar Association is trying to prevent the organization from holding its annual convention in Maui four years from now. Now that’s the kind of news coverage I love: a bunch of Washington-based, penny-pinching Polynesiaphobic lawyers are not going to Hawaii, and I know about it four years in advance. These times do demand the Times.
Anyone who even occasionally glances at a newspaper is aware that mavericks are popping up in all walks of life, sowing the seeds of discord everywhere. When the Wall Street Journal investigated the Chilean grape scare of three years ago, it unearthed a terrifying theory that the poisoned grapes may have been deliberately injected with toxic elements by “maverick environmentalists.” As if regular environmentalists weren’t scary enough.
Mavericks are particularly plentiful in the arts. According to the New York Times, Charlie Sheen plays a “maverick” army private named F.F. Bean in the god-awful movie Cadence, while maverick choreographer Twyla Tharp is assembling a maverick repertory company made up of maverick dancers from all 50 states. Movieline notes that “maverick moviemaker Henry Jaglom teeters perilously close to fame,” asking: “Will his two new films be his breakthrough, or seal his fate as a cult curiosity?” Jaglom, it might be noted, once made a movie about how much some of his female friends like to eat food. Bret and Bart Maverick, he ain’t.
Despite their overwhelming influence in the arts and the sciences, mavericks have also taken quiet control of the business community as well. “Abrasive mavericks”-my favorite kind-are the subject of a Wall Street Journal story, while “The Maverick Who Runs Wells Fargo” graces the cover of the New York Times Magazine. Maverick money managers have begun to turn up even in serious magazines such as Barron’s, while maverick entrepreneurs are a staple of Business Week and Fortune coverage.
Of course, it is in the political world that mavericks have staged their most powerful coups. “Russia’s Maverick,” reads the cover story of a feature about Boris Yeltsin, “the bad boy of Soviet politics.” Yeltsin, of course, has replaced Mikhail Gorbachev, the outgoing designated maverick in the Soviet Union. Closer to home, veteran maverick Jerry Brown is making another run at the White House, hoping to nudge out maverick Tom Harkin, maverick Paul Tsongas, and maverick Bill Clinton. Meanwhile, on the Republican side, mavericks David Duke and Pat Buchanan gear up for the 1996 election, in which they may be forced to lock horns with maverick Newt Gingrich and maverick Phil Gramm, plus whatever other Republican mavericks come out of the woodwork by then. Gosh, the term has an odd ring to it-Republican mavericks. Sort of like responsible Democrats.
Europe, of course, has its own maverick problems. Front and center in the thorny German immigration conundrum is “maverick” Manfred Rommel, the mayor of Stuttgart, who happens to be the son of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox of Afrika Korps fame, who was a bit of a maverick himself. Just what Europe needs: maverick Germans! Still, there is much to be learned from the way Europeans have learned to deal with the burgeoning maverick problem. For years and years, Nicolae Ceaucescu was known as “the maverick strongman of Rumania.” Eventually, the Rumanians couldn’t stand it anymore, so they took him out and shot him, and shot his maverick spouse for good measure.
“The only good maverick is a dead maverick,” said one of the jubilant trigger men. I couldn’t agree more.
Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron’s and the Wall Street Journal.