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Stories Behind the Headline: It's Thumbs Up From Inside the White House

August 03, 1986|CALVIN TRILLIN | Calvin Trillin writes a column in New York.

A newspaper headline that I've had on my bulletin board since early this summer says, "Reagan Is Told of Norwegian Whaling Infractions." I didn't actually read the story that went with it. I seem to be doing more and more of that these days--saving the headline and not bothering to read the story. I sort of slipped into the habit, I suppose, when I began to realize that the stories weren't really measuring up.

It's almost certain, for instance, that what followed "Reagan Is Told of Norwegian Whaling Infractions" was a letdown. When the headline sounds that intriguing, I find that I prefer to keep it around and sort of customize some stories to go with it.

Of course, some headlines that are interesting in themselves aren't really suitable for custom-made stories. Several years ago, for instance, a friend of mine sent me a photocopy of a headline that said, "21 Million Americans Have No Teeth at All."

I kept the headline on my bulletin board for a while, but I was never tempted to make up stories to go with it. I figured that my friend had sent it as a handy device for cheering me up any time I was in a low mood. I think he wanted me to feel that when the cares of the world were too much with me (when I started worrying about the threat of the bomb and the age of my furnace and the damage being done by acid rain and the possibility that someday all movies will be Sylvester Stallone movies movies) I could simply look at the headline on my bulletin board. Then I'd say, "Well, at least I have all my own teeth."

"Reagan Is Told of Norwegian Whaling Infractions," though, allows for any number of stories. For a while, I thought of the story as a sort of gossip item written by one of those Washington reporters who specializes in making the rounds of diplomatic receptions and high-level dinner parties:

"At a White House dinner last night, President Reagan made a graceful little after-dinner speech about the value of doing the right thing. He used as an example an American who finally decided to risk his life to help the Resistance during World War II--an American named Rick who operated a bar in Vichy-controlled Casablanca. The Norwegian ambassador to the United States was so moved that he confessed that he has been keeping a whale, the national animal of Norway, at his official residence in suburban Washington, in contravention of the animal-control ordinances of Bethesda. The President told him not to give it another thought, and then went on to tell a story about how, in the days before bloated government had ensnarled the American people in red tape like animal ordinances, a plucky little girl from the state of Kansas ignored complaints about her little dog, Toto, although both were later picked up by a tornado and blown away into a strange land."

Then I thought the headline might go with one of those human-interest stories that often come out about the President:

"Ronald Reagan, a storyteller of considerable reputation, admitted that he was one-upped yesterday during a ceremony honoring NATO fleet commanders. After the President told some stories about hijinks on the MGM lot in the '40s, Adm. Lars Kulleseid of the Norwegian Royal Navy told of a prank during his naval cadet days: While the academy superintendent was away on a short trip, a dozen enterprising cadets managed to place a Beluga whale in his parlor. The President said, 'Well, that beats all."'

Lately, though, it has occurred to me that the story might have more to do with the substantive issues of government. I see a meeting of some of the President's top advisers, right in the Oval Office. Pat Buchanan is talking to Donald Regan. "We've got to tell him something," Buchanan says, gesturing toward the President, who is sitting at his desk. "Why don't we tell him about the farm problem?"

"I hate to wake him up just for that," Regan says.

"He is awake," Ed Meese says. "I just saw him wink and grin and give the thumbs-up sign."

"Well let's tell him about the deficit," James Baker says.

"You know he doesn't want to hear about the deficit," Regan says. "The last time I tried to bring it up, he told me that story again about the welfare mother who picks up her check in a Cadillac."

"We've got to tell him something," Larry Speakes says. "I can't keep telling these reporters that the President is being briefed if we never tell him anything."

"Gentlemen," Buchanan says. "I think I've got it." He rummages around in the bottom of his briefcase, picks up a slim file, and walks to the President's desk.

"Mr. President," he says, rather formally, "Norwegians have committed whaling infractions."

The President winks and grins and gives the thumbs-up sign.

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