In 199[illeg.], I was a freshman in high school. During first period, at 7:35am, while I was supposed to be reading Shakespeare and memorizing PSAT words, I was instead immediately forgetting almost everything a kooky man named Mr. Johnson taught me.
Mr. Johnson was a man from whom the stench of the seventies rolled in waves. His usual uniform consisted of a sleazy mustache and a ratty wool sweater, though on days on which I can only assume he felt festive, he exchanged this for a sleazy mustache and Hawaiian shirts. He would slouch in his chair as he expounded on Creedence Clearwater Revival (and the occasional item from the curriculum). I had an acquaintance outside of school who had, coincidentally, been a friend of his decades before and assured me that the man had a pot-growing hobby. I learned three useful things from Mr. Johnson: that Lynyrd Skynyrd had named itself after its members’ old gym teacher, how to spell “hypocrisy,” and the meaning and pronunciation of the word “pusillanimous.”
Mr. Johnson did something very clever when he taught us this last fact: he contextualized it. After all, learning is really just the process of fitting new bricks to an old wall; unless you can firmly cement a new idea in old knowledge, it crumbles off the wall and disappears. Mr. Johnson told us that during the seventies, one of Richard Nixon’s supporters had accused the president’s opponents of being “pusillanimous pussyfooters,” a phrase I have never forgotten and will probably take with me to the grave.
Once I reached adulthood, I became a little skeptical, however. Was that anecdote really true? What kind of weirdo politician spits out a phrase like that? Had Mr. Johnson just been rotting his brain with too much weed and classic rock? Answer: no! Mr. Johnson was completely correct. Spiro Agnew really did use this phrase in 1970, at a speech in San Diego, along with the equally memorable “nattering nabobs of negativity” and “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.”
I have to admit that there’s a part of me that admires such unapologetic wackiness played out on the national stage–this willingness to sacrifice political dignity on the altar of a really good insult. Mr. Agnew may have left his office in disgrace (and a disgrace totally separate from Watergate, too, something of a feat of corruption). However, he did leave at least one thirteen-year-old girl’s vocabulary just a little bit richer. And I guess Mr. Johnson wasn’t quite so kooky as we had imagined, either.
- Thanks, Spiro T. Agnew: 10-10-12 (billtammeus.typepad.com)
- Nattering nabobs of negativism (vielmetti.typepad.com)