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The Wages Of Niceness

A seminal moment in the history of the Clinton Administration occurred on May 23, 1993. First Lady Hillary Clinton, clad …

A seminal moment in the history of the Clinton Administration occurred on May 23, 1993. First Lady Hillary Clinton, clad entirely in white, appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine beneath the headline “The Politics of Virtue.” The gist of the article, written by the talented and courageous Michael Kelly-who had just published a terrific book about his experiences in Kuwait and Iraq during Operation Desert Storm-was that Hillary Clinton thought of herself as a good and noble person, and she was going to make the rest of her countrymen and countrywomen follow her lead and become good and noble, whether they liked it or not. The impression I received from reading the article was that if this goal could be achieved purely by having the Clintons themselves set a good example,  that was fine with Hillary. But if the goal of national self-improvement only could be achieved by ramming ennobling legislation down everybody’s throats, then the Clintons were prepared to go that route as well.

My immediate response to this article was pure horror. I come from a long line of unbelievably mean people. (I’m of Irish descent and spent the first 26 years of my life in that hothouse of unalloyed truculence, Philadelphia, PA.) As a child, my parents would take my sisters and Ito the airport to boo successful airplane landings, and, of course, we always kept an enormous supply of rotten tomatoes in the pantry should anyone incredibly nice such as Dwight D. Eisenhower or Pope John XXIII unwisely choose to visit the Jewel of the Schuylkill. For most of my adult life, I have made my living by writing mean-spirited articles and books about swell, caring, important human beings such as Jimmy Carter, Bill Moyers, Dan Quayle, Captain Kangaroo, and, of course, Barbra Streisand. I am not a nice person, and no one, least of all my wife and children, would describe me as a good person. Thus, when I read the Times article about Hillary Clinton’s heartfelt intention to turn the tough, hard-nosed land I love into an arcadian grove of goodness, my instinctive reaction was pure dread. This woman is trying to put me out of business. Gradually, I calmed down. OK, OK, I said to myself, it’s fine if Hillary thinks she’s going to turn Americans into virtuous, noble human beings by fiat, because if she tries that approach she’ll get her head handed to her. Luckily, there are still enough certifiably mean people such as Bob Dole and Phil Gramm and Newt Gingrich occupying high national offices in this country to rally their sourpuss, grumpy, irreverent fellows to the cause and confront this threat to the republic. Equally provident, there are still enough nasty entertainers, athletes, and writers such as David Letterman and Deion Sanders and Ice-T and P.J. O’Rourke and Bill Laimbeer to make it all but impossible for the First Lady to achieve her utopian goals overnight.

But then a friend from Washington called with a terrifying piece of news. The Clintons haven’t the faintest intention of making the rest of us nicer and better and more wholesome and caring by setting a shining example from the pedestal they occupy in Washington. No, my inside source assures me that what Bill and Hillary have up their sleeves is a far more sweeping, far more frightening plan to ennoble America. That’s right, you guessed it: Bill and Hillary secretly plan to reduce our massive, intractable national deficit by implementing a federal tax on meanness. They’re going to tax us into being good and nice and sweet. They’re going to force us to be kinder and gentler. Controlling both houses of Congress as it does, the Clinton Administration will have no trouble passing binding legislation that will impose a $5-per-ticket surtax on nasty sporting events such as football, ice hockey, professional wrestling, and jai alai. A $2.50-per-ticket surtax will be levied on all concertgoers attending shows featuring demonstrably virulent rappers or bands with such unpleasant names as Guns ‘n’ Roses, Poison, L.A. Guns, or Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band. Publishers will be required to pay a 10 percent federal tax on all books written by mean-spirited conservatives such as Bill Bennett, Rush Limbaugh, Thomas Sowell, and P.J. O’Rourke. Spiteful magazines such as Spy and Forbes, which regularly pillory the Clintons in unnecessarily vituperative terms, will have to kick back $10 per subscriber to the federal government.

The meanness tax will further impact the profits of such disrespectful TV shows as “Married…With Children,” “Saturday Night Live,” “The Simpsons,” and “In Living Color,” while radio stations carrying known hatemongers such as Howard Stern immediately will be hit with a $35-per-listener surtax. Funds also will be gathered at the local level, as policemen will be told to write $50 “Public Churlishness” tickets and slap them on the windshields of any cars carrying a bumper sticker reading “Nuke the Whales” or “Screw the Snail Darter.” Police also will be instructed to write $35 tickets to anyone who disturbs the peace by saying things such as, “This country is starting to resemble Russia.”

How much money will be raised by such an ambitious program? The Census Bureau estimates that 10 percent of the U.S. population is flat-out nasty, another 12 percent is pretty damn mean, and an additional 40 percent says something like “The hell with the endangered manatee!” or “No new taxes!” at least once a week. By the most conservative estimate, in the first year the program is in place, the Clinton Administration will raise $215 billion in anti-meanness taxes. So if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Hillary is watching. Hillary is listening.


Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.