Reader Mailbag

Pop quiz: Guess the common link between a surgeon from Salem, a scholar from Blacksburg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist from upstate New York and a federal prison inmate in Beaver, West Virginia.

Answer: All of them were moved to write yours truly following a May 7 column that asked this question: ”Is Jerry Falwell Jr. the funniest comedian since George Carlin?” Which means it’s time for the June reader mailbag.

A bit of background: The column concerned a tweet the Liberty University president sent May 4, following the end of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation. President Donald Trump then retweeted the thing to millions more.

Falwell tweeted: “After the best week ever for @realDonaldTrump — no obstruction, no collusion, NYT admits @BarackObama did spy on his campaign, & the economy is soaring. I now support reparations-Trump should have 2 yrs added to his 1st term as pay back for time stolen by this corrupt failed coup”

On May 6, when I called Falwell about the tweet, he said the reparations part was a joke and “a little tongue-in-cheek.” He also seemed astonished at the responses it had wrought on Twitter from people such as Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, tennis legend Martina Navratilova and noted journalist David Cay Johnston.

The latter tweeted: “Behold, the Faux Christian become a traitor. make no mistake, our constitution, our democracy and our liberties are under siege from traitors.”

The column also harked back to other statements Falwell made about Trump. One was his comparison of the president to Winston Churchill. Another was Falwell’s description of Trump — an Ivy League-educated scion of a multi-millionaire — as “America’s blue-collar billionaire.”

I suggested those were no less hilarious in the context of Falwell being a comedian. Tongue in cheek, of course.

The article got picked up by RawStory.com, which published a piece about it under the headline, ”Trump-loving evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr. gets ruthlessly mocked in local newspaper.”

One of the folks I later heard from was Dr. Samuel Williams, a surgeon from Salem.

“It sounds like Dr. Falwell responded to your call with a good grace and more humor. But what you wrote about him, sadly, reciprocated virtually none of that,” Williams wrote.

“You are a smart man and a good writer. But publicly deriding someone after he’s been kind and open with you — is unfair and unkind, and yet another example of how degraded public discourse on matters religious, political, and ethical — has become. My own sympathies are very much with Dr. Falwell, Mike Pence, and Dr. Ben Carson.”

Fair enough. Everyone’s entitled an opinion, eh?

Another I heard from is Virgil Cook of Blacksburg. Now retired, Cook taught English at Virginia Tech for 38 years. His doctoral thesis was on the Irish writer Jonathan Swift, who in 1729 penned one of the most famous essays in the history of satire. Known as “A Modest Proposal,” it suggested poor Irish couples sell their offspring to rich Englishmen as a food source. Tongue in cheek, of course.

“I’m by no means a connoisseur of contemporary humor,” Cook wrote, “but I think you will agree with me that Falwell’s remarks would be humorous if they weren’t so disturbing.”

Also weighing in was Jeffery Clevenger, an inmate at Beckley Federal Prison Camp in Beaver, West Virginia. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Clevenger, 67, in 2018 pleaded guilty to methamphetamine trafficking and is serving a 78-month sentence.

His elegantly handwritten letter included a personal top 10 list of stand-up comics. They are: Robin Williams, Jonathan Winters, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Don Rickles, Andy Kaufman, Abbot and Costello (Clevenger counts the duo as one), Whoopi Goldberg, Amy Schumer and Jack Benny.

“I did not include George Carlin because George Carlin is in a class by himself,” Clevenger noted. “Reading ‘When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?’ ... fundamentally altered my cognitive consciousness.”

“Perhaps for extra fun, you could double down and send [Falwell] a copy of the 2004 book. Personally, I consider him to be more in the Samuel Beckett/Eugene Ionesco school of theatre of the absurd, but it’s still comedy.”

Last but not least, I heard from Johnston, the New York-based Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He was unamused. He said the column “seriously struck out and you should reflect on it.”

“We have a man in the White House, whom I have covered for more than 30 years and studied carefully, who has no idea what is in our constitution, has no respect for our constitution, and who has openly talked about staying in office beyond the term provided for in our constitution to applause from followers at rallies.”

“Falwell‘s comments were understood in that context by me, Larry Tribe and others who understand the great threat to our republic posed by Trump,” Johnston wrote.

He ended with the line: “These are not laughing matters.”

I replied, noting the works of literary scholars who studied humor by Jews caught up in the Holocaust. If they could laugh then, I argued, we can laugh now.

“Maybe the column wasn’t funny,” I ended. “But that doesn’t mean nothing about Trump can be. You should reflect on that.”

Johnston replied: “Thanks. As I have found with my own such efforts sometimes people misread them. Mea culpa.”

I thanked him for the reply.

“Gotta go now,” I wrote. “It’s lunchtime, I’m hungry, and poor Irish infants are on the menu!”

Thank you for all the feedback, readers. Please keep those emails, letters and phone calls coming.

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