Sunday, May 28, 2017

Nostalgie de la boue: Donald Trump, Harry S. Truman, and the curious case of the eight-ulcer music critic

“Nostalgie de la boue” is one of those oddball idioms whose precise definition can distract an otherwise unoccupied mind longer than an aimless wallow through Facebook.

It translates from the French as “nostalgia for the mud,” and usually refers, according to Webster, to an “attraction to what is crude, depraved or degrading.” Or according to  the author Thomas Wolfe as…well, it’s a long story.

Regardless of the lexicographer you choose to swing with, the phrase is clearly applicable to Donald Trump. 


-Donald grabbing the genitalia of strange, or perhaps not-so-strange women. 

-Donald Trump engaging in various forms of pissing contests, whether those take the shape of arguing about the length of his fingers as they relate to another organ, or, as alleged, relating to some depraved behavior with hookers in a Moscow hotel room. 

-Or Donald Trump wallowing in deep swamps of self-pity, as when he declares himself to be the victim of a witch hunt, and further declares himself to be the most “unfairly” hounded president in history.

If you are fed up with the almost daily splatter of mud, flop sweat, and tears from this presidency, you might want to refer back to an incident that, by comparison, seems a bit quaint. However, it was marked by language that was shocking at the time, but richer in vocabulary and imagery than our current President seems competent of ever evoking.

I’m referring to an angry letter to a music critic, written in 1950 by then-President Harry S. Truman.

Truman, with the perspective of more than three generations, was a pretty good president from a family of more or less mediocre amateur musicians, including himself. 

Truman was an unremarkable pianist. His daughter, Margaret, was an unremarkable singer. Given some orchestral backup, the likely assistance of a recording studio engineer, and a good night, she could whip out a soprano rendition that would neither have you standing in the aisles of La Scala crying bravo, nor cringing as if you’d just heard a long piece of chalk screeching across a blackboard. She was no Maria Callas, but neither was she a Florence Foster Jenkins. Here is an example of Margaret Truman giving it her all:

In December of 1950, Margaret Truman had neither a good night nor a recording engineer to repair the damage. A live concert performance had been arranged for her in Constitution Hall, and the Washington Post sent along a music critic, Paul Hume, who evidently didn’t much like what he heard. He wrote:
Miss Truman is a unique American phenomenon with a pleasant voice of little size and fair quality  (she) cannot sing very well  is flat a good deal of the time, more last night than at any time we have heard her in past years  has not improved in the years we have heard her  (and) still cannot sing with anything approaching professional finish.
That, President Truman concluded. was…well, in the language of Donald Trump it would be “really unfair, the most unfair concert review in history.” But we are talking about a president who possessed a far richer talent for expository writing. He was able to craft an elaborately colorful insult from his resentment — an insult employing less whining and a far greater degree of linguistic precision than Donald Trump will ever be capable of producing. 

So Truman penned a letter to Hume that said
Mr. Hume: 
I've just read your lousy review of Margaret's concert. I've come to the conclusion that you are an "eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay.” 
It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppy-cock as was in the back section of the paper you work for it shows conclusively that you're off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work. 
Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below! 
Pegler, a gutter snipe, is a gentleman alongside you. I hope you'll accept that statement as a worse insult than a reflection on your ancestry. 
Truman was referring in the last paragraph to Westbrook Pegler, a syndicated newspaper columnist who was the Bill O’Reilly of his day, but that’s another story. The upshot of this story was that Hume published the letter.  Following that, the nation for some time was scandalized — scandalized! — by this presidential indiscretion. 

I am old enough — although I was a child at the time — to remember my own parents, both of them Truman Democrats, discussing the letter in a state of near-shock. How could such terrible language come from the President of the United States?

These days we could acutely wish for such language. The daily barrage of whining befitting a wounded guttersnipe (look up the word, Donald, if you can concentrate on a dictionary long enough) will be one of the enduing trademarks of Donald Trump. He longs for the mud and the gutter. Unfortunately, he is dragging the United States down into it with him. 

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