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Our very own Tom Sawyer
By Michael Moriarty
Back in the Iron Age, when I used to be a naïve Liberal, I stared at a liberal newspaper's photo of then-President William Clinton in the Oval Office. By gum, if it didn't bring a Clintonian smile to my face! There he was, in the heat of the World Series, holding a Louisville Slugger as if he were clean-up hitter for the Washington, D.C. Little League. Dreams of Babe Ruth's glory in his puckish grin, all eager and ready to put that ball into the bleachers.
There he is, I thought. Our very own Tom Sawyer.
Not since JFK and his Camelot in the White House have we had such a lovable Democratic president. The rumors out of Arkansas that he was really "One Slick Willy" didn't, in the least, faze me or even America, for that matter. That label obviously didn't alienate anyone with any influence. To most Americans, it was small-time, state-sized southern mud that just didn't stick on Slick Willy!
This 20th-century reincarnation of Tom Sawyer had the innate ability to get all his friends to paint his own fence.
"This is fun!" cried Tom, as he passed his brush over the walls and porches of the White House. "Do you wanna try it?," he asked with his mischievous grin.
"Why?," the onlookers wondered. "Painting is for kids."
"Unless you become like little children," the President quoted from the New Testament, "you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven."
"He knows his Bible," said one onlooker. "Goes to church every Sunday."
"Yeah," piped in another, "and he's got the Reverend Jesse as his personal shepherd."
"Let's do it," they all cried.
Well, they went to work on the White House, but one of the admirers noticed something unusual. "This isn't paint, Mr. President. It's something else."
"Oh," smiled Tom Sawyer, "That's just the base coat. We'll put the white oil-paint on after."
"Gee," said the admirer, still a bit confused by the rather stinging odor of the base coat. "Okay," he added resignedly as he began once again to swipe his brush on the porch fence.
"Oops," said one volunteer, "I spilt some on a patio chair."
"What?," the painters exclaimed.
"Oh, yeah," Tom sang. "Everything will be white. All perfectly, pristinely white. And the minute there's any stain on it, we'll bring in the steam cleaners."
This time, Tom's smile showed his teeth. He rarely grinned like that. His amusement was more like the mysterious upturned corners of Mona Lisa's lips.
Suddenly Tom's cell phone rang.
"Bill here," he muttered.
There was a pause, after which our hero exclaimed, "Oh, Jesse! So good to hear your voice!" He then turned to his audience and had them read his lips.
"It's Jesse Jackson," he mouthed.
They all smiled. We're one big happy family now. Rainbow America.
"So, what can I do for you, Reverend?" The last word was enunciated with the utmost respect, much to the satisfaction of the onlookers.
While the reverend talked, Tom moved to an empty corner of the porch.
"Not a problem," he said quietly. "Not a problem."
As expected, the volunteer painters — the VPs — smile. That acronym made them feel like they were on the White House team.
The VPs kept their ears cocked. They all wanted to be in on this conversation.
Suddenly Tom burst out laughing. It was the first, real, big laugh they'd ever heard from this man.
"Oh, Jesse," Tom said when he simmered down. "You still believe in Santa Claus?"
All the VPs laughed.
Some painters, however, lowered their brushes. Tom noticed the work interruption.
"Hold on, Jesse," he said, just before cupping the cellphone with his palm. "Keep paintin'," he said to his now indolent crew. "We gotta big house here, ya know?"
"The fun's startin' to wear off, Tom," one of the men said.
"Well, then, you won't be able to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom," Tom reprimanded.
"Yep," he nods to them. "Anyone of you that helps paint the whole house will have one free night in the Lincoln Bedroom."
The VPs were back so fast to their painting, Tom had to chuckle. He just couldn't help himself from barking a big ole Arkansas belly belch. There he was on the porch of his house, his very own White House, enjoying himself as if he were around a cracker barrel in Mena.
I'm here to make things work, he thought to himself. Yep, keep the ole tractor on track.
"So where were we, Jesse?" he asks into the phone.
A small pause for listening.
"Oh, that," he guffaws. "Not a problem. Not a problem."
Again the VPs erupt into laughter.
Tom is so bolstered by this approval he continues, hunting for another laugh. "So, help me Santa Claus!!!"
Again another laugh.
"That's what I'll mean when I have to say..."
Tom stopped. So did the VPs. Tom noticed the sudden silence.
"'Scuse me, I have to take the rest of this in the Oval Office."
Tom hurried through the French doors. Three of the VPs followed him in. They started painting the walls of the Oval Office.
"Now, gentlemen…" said Tom to the three of them, "Excuse me Jesse. You don't have to begin in here yet."
"You said the whole house," replied one, already working on the leather sofas.
"No, it's top secret. This phone conversation has to do with the Middle East… and terrorism!," he added with an ominous, wide-eyed and utterly southern salesman's grin.
"Oh," said one. "Right, Mr. President. We'll be outside if you need us."
"Good," said Tom.
The painters left, leaving the door open a crack.
"Okay," Tom said to Jesse. "This crap comin' out of all the nervous nellies in my party jes' has to stop!"
Tom's voice was rising until the Pentagon could hear him.
He became aware of how loud he'd become, so whispered, "Jesse, God is Santa Claus!"
He continued to whisper into the phone, articulating the consonants fiercely. "An opiate of the people, remember?"
Tom heaved a number of sighs, paced around his desk a few times and then finally came to a stop.
In a very muted but angry tone he said, with ultimate finality, "I can lie to Santa Claus any time I damn well please."
With that, Thomas William Jefferson Clinton Sawyer slammed down the phone.
"Damn," he muttered. "Cowards."
"Anything wrong, Mr. President?," asked one of the painters as he peeked around the door.
"No," said Tom, collecting himself. "No, not in the least. Oh, by the way, do you believe in Santa Claus?," he said with a wink and a smile.
"Oh, I get it," grinned the VP. "Sure. I believe in Santa Claus."
Then he winked right back at the President.
A few years after that photo was taken of our Tom Sawyer in the Oval Office, I began to think of leaving the United States. With his grand jury testimony, I started realizing that William Jefferson Clinton's base-coat to the painting of the White House was lye.
Lye eats at things eventually, you know. You can cover it up for a while but the paint starts chipping very quickly. Conveniently for the Democratic Party, the topcoat didn't start peeling until President George W. Bush took office.
What I thought would be our new Camelot ended up as "Come-a-lot" and then turned out to really be "Lie-a-lot."
Since former President Clinton treated an oath before God as if it were a promise to Santa Claus, I've taken the Clinton St. Nick's name literally. The God I was raised to believe in is a kind of Santa Claus. He's not the terminator portrayed in the Old Testament because the jolly ole man I know is very slow to anger. If we're reasonably nice and not naughty, He rewards us. However, if you push Him by lying to Him, by using His name for sin and vanity, and by making it internationally fashionable for the entire human race to do the same, well, He tends to get a little riled.
"How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child."
That's out of the mouth of King Lear. That Shakespearean monarch should have raised a set of children who tell him that he never existed in the first place. How's that for ingratitude?
I've a hunch that President Clinton has been missing more than just a few presents under his Christmas tree. This year, a neglected back-up pitcher named Senator John Kerry swept out of the Democratic bullpen to dampen Tom Sawyer's dreams of bunting his wife Hilary into the Oval Office. The Santa Claus I know forgot more about baseball and politics than the former President ever learned.
There's always 2008, of course. However, that would be my Republican consolation from a Democratic victory in November 2004. Mrs. Tom Sawyer is not likely to unseat an incumbent from her own party.
Perhaps 2012. However by then, Tom's wife will be getting a little long in the tooth.
For now, I'll just hold my nose and vote for George. War is hell and the sulfur rises from both sides.
When all is said and done, however, who could possibly have imagined that the best imitation of Tom Sawyer would be tossed off daily by our very own Billy the Kid?
Michael Moriarty is a Golden Globe and Emmy Award winning actor who has appeared in the landmark television series Law and Order, the mini-series Taken, and the recent TV-movie The 4400. In May, Moriarty won a Leo Award (celebrating excellence in British Columbia film) for best supporting actor for his role in the TV-movie Mob Princess.
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