Erma Bombeck. (Photo by Warner Brothers Music/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)
I hereby declare Erma Bombeck our National Humorist Emerita après la mort, clothed in an ermine-ringed Balenciaga and holding a gold-plated soup ladle as her bâton de maréchal.
The award cannot be given, of course. Erma died in 1996, having “used up every bit of talent (God) gave me.” However, during her life, her writings made awfully good horse sense. To best understand the vagaries of modern American politics, one must review her 1976 masterpiece, “The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank.”
Significant political winds buffeted America then, with the Vietnam War and its aftermath overshadowing everything.
The student union at the University of Kansas had been firebombed in 1970, part of unrest on campuses across the nation. Richard Nixon won a second term in 1972, then succumbed to helping cover up a “third-rate burglary” at the Watergate. Meanwhile, Arab nations attacked Israel in the Yom Kippur war. Nixon’s emergency aid to Israel caused OPEC’s Arab nations to boycott oil sales to the U.S. Gasoline prices skyrocketed.
Nixon implemented a 55 mph national speed limit to conserve gas. Most of us patriotically saluted those 55 mph signs on Interstate 70 as we roared past.
In 1974, Nixon resigned, and the nation went gaga over new President Jerry Ford’s claim that “our long national nightmare” (Watergate) was over. Then Ford pardoned Nixon and the country voted for Jimmy Carter, a former nuclear submarine officer, a policy wonk of a man who came up for air once in a while, but whose thoughts always seemed — well — somewhat submerged. In Kansas, the governor was Republican Robert Bennett, the first man to serve a four-year term in the position.
Erma’s keen eye gaze dialed in on surviving America — and Kansas — in those times.
As she wrote and might have rewritten: “The odds of Congress passing a single bill that actually solves a real problem are three billion to one.” That’s because she realized that politicians, being full of themselves and regardless of gender, believe they invented self-esteem. Erma points out, “Cats invented self-esteem.”
There is a lot of stalling of political agendas in the state and federal levels. Usually this is done by the opposition party for the noble purpose of opposing something. Opposing something, then letting something through the cracks bit by bit, is how our country was built. If we aren’t allowed to build the train, let’s derail the whole shebang! Nothing gets enacted.
“Carpe Diem,” Erma reminds us. “Remember all those women on the Titanic who passed up the dessert tray at dinner that night.”
Although much of her literary work reflected the house she ran and the children she raised, Erma had an international side. She was concerned about world hunger, but from an American family perspective: “Onion rings in the car cushions don’t improve with time.” That led her to her most famous Bombeck Maxim of Political Thought #143: “No one ever died from sleeping in an unmade bed.”
I translate that as neither the U.S. Congress nor the Kansas Legislature can harm us when they do nothing.
We choose our members of Congress. They go to Washington. They mostly do nothing. Congress is filled with those who do their best work when they sit and do nothing. It’s worth paying them real dollars to do nothing. Ditto for those we send to Topeka. Nebraska has the right idea. They have a unicameral legislature — a Senate and nothing else. Back on the frontier, Nebraskans wondered why they should pay a legislature to do nothing … twice?
One wonders why Kansans didn’t follow their lead.
Erma would paraphrase, “I remember thinking how often (Congress) looks, but never sees … listens, but never hears … exists, but never feels. The House (of Representatives) is only a place. It has no life of its own. It needs human voices, activity, and laughter to come alive.”
If she were still with us, Erma would have peeled the backside off the current Washington crowd, especially the present and past presidents who can’t figure out what to do with classified information. If congresspersons stand around doing nothing, its because they fear the next election and that voters will catch on.
Erma is fond of septic tanks and what trickles into them. As she pointed out, “Politicians are like diapers. They need to be changed regularly and for the same reason.”
Now, there are differing theories of who wrote that. Many claim Mark Twain, but Twain wonks, like Matthew Seybold and his Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College, cannot pinpoint Twain ever saying it. Therefore, by default, I give authorship to Erma. There is a clear attachment of what and why diapers need changing when rearing children, and dressing up Congressmen.
Erma’s best view on American politics was the following:
“You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of guns, tanks, and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness dining on chocolate cake. You may think you have overeaten, but it is patriotism.”
She also wrote: “If you can’t make it better, laugh at it” because, “when humor goes, there goes civilization.”
Ron Smith is a fifth-generation Kansan, a native of Manhattan, an attorney practicing in Larned, a grandfather several times over, a Vietnam veteran and a civil war historian. Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.
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