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Darkness at High Noon for the Decade of Bruce

February 21, 1988|Bruce McCall | Bruce McCall is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker

NEW YORK — Bruce: laird of the single-syllable given names, heralding no bland dullard of a John or a Bill or a Bob but the latter-day nomenclatural spawn of Robert the Bruce, Scotland's first king and a Rambo among monarchs who swung his mace first and asked questions later. Bruce: a name apart, reserved for no more than one or two yclept aristocrats per schoolyard, per team, per office. Bruce: Out of the way, Tom, Dick and Harry, here comes somebody special.

Somebody special from antiquity right up to the mid-'60s, when the lamps suddenly dimmed and flickered out all over Brucedom. The cultural star chamber that decides such matters convened--as it has periodically over the eons--and arbitrarily reordered the book of names. Elevating Duane and Arnold and Maurice from their hoary clown status to poker-faced respectability. Declaring Ralph and Irving funny. Erasing Roscoe and Horace altogether. And then singling out Bruce, as if in spiteful revenge against its eminence over the centuries, to become the new booby prize.

We Bruces resisted at first, pretending not to notice as the TV comics started weaving our name into their routines for sure-fire laughs. We pretended not to get the joke when the joke all around us was simply the name Bruce, a five-letter synonym for . . . whatever, at any given moment, the Bruce-baiter wanted it to be a synonym for. A sissy. A priss. A poseur. A wimp. A nerd. A loser. An all-purpose, ball-jointed joke butt with a thousand and one social and household uses. For a Bruce to bleat otherwise was only to prove just how feckless a twit was anyone named Bruce; no wonder you pronounce it the same as "obtuse."

By the '70s, we once-proud Bruces had been driven down into the nomenclatural catacombs where the Dudleys and Percys and Verns skulk. To be a Bruce meant that you drove a Rambler, hailed from Peoria, wore white socks with a blue suit, chimed your arrival with a tinny little toy leper's bell of a name. And God, maybe our tormentors were right. Say it over and over and listen: Bruce does make a comic swooshing sort of sound. It starts off as if it were going to be "brute" but ends up rhyming with harmless joke words: sluice, goose, juice. The French can't pronounce it. The diminutive, Brucie, conjures images of someone who lives in a crawl space. Famous Bruces in history, few and far between and not nearly famed enough, offer thin consolation. Bruce Cabot?

And then, about the time the Me Decade began fading away, a new decade suddenly, gorgeously, inexplicably began to bloom and keep on blooming. That halcyon time, the Bruce Decade. Springsteen! Willis! Sutter! Beresford! Hornsby and the Range! Nomenclatural knights errant, turning hair shirt into battle pennant! Promising by the sheer power of renown to wipe that smirk off America's lips! Could Bruce cologne, Sir Bruce sports togs, "Bruce Again Tops List of Favored Boy Baby Names, " be far behind?

Bruce Power had been unlocked at last, now nothing was beyond our reach. And thus it was with an air of inevitability if not predestination that at precisely high noon of the Bruce Decade, a rangy guy with piercing eyes and a dream rode out of the Southwest, bent on nailing a shingle with Bruce on it to the White House for the first time in history. What John F. Kennedy had done for Catholics, what Jimmy Carter had done for goobers, Bruce Babbitt was about to do for Bruces.

But the Bruce-baiters had only been lying low, awaiting their moment. They saw to it that the shining hope of Brucekind who entered Iowa as prime presidential timber would exit as Elmer Fudd. Earnest, droning, fuzzy-minded-one-worlder also-ran of a would-be candidate, thy name is--what else? By New Hampshire it was all over but the chortling. And today, not only the Babbitt crusade but the Bruce Decade is history.

Call it sniveling self-pity if you like. Call it paranoid blithering. And if you want to call me and commiserate, call me anytime. But call me Lance.

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