The Magazine

The Happy Curmudgeon

James J. Kilpatrick, 1920-2010.

Aug 30, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 47 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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The Bestiary is the product of a writer’s perfectly pitched ear—the application, I mean, of a writerly way of thinking about language to the language of American politics. It doesn’t run to more than 20,000 words. One page each is devoted to a cliché beloved of the political class—The Impressive Mandate, The Budgetary Shortfall, The Tight Budget, The Leaping Quantum, the Broad-based Constituency, 40 in all. And each is illustrated, on the facing page, as a strange impossible beast, in an invariably flawless sketch by the great cartoonist Jeff MacNelly. The Bestiary appeared in 1978, yet it’s amazing how many of these clichés are still fresh—I guess I should say current. We haven’t shaken them, in any case. 

Consider “parameter,” a high-toned nonsense word that has proved irresistible to policy intellectuals since the Kennedy administration; deprived of its use, the entire Brookings Institution would collapse in rubble onto Massachusetts Avenue. The Bestiary introduces us to The Parameter, which MacNelly renders as a miserable squid-like creature, tentacles dangling limp in the water.

“To persons of limited horizons—those lacking the world view of, say, the editors of Foreign Affairs—a Parameter may look like a perimeter. It is not.  .  .  .  In the world of politics, Parameters live to be defined. Their arms embrace the illimitable and the unknowable, but usually they embrace the expendable. ‘Within the Parameters of our budget,’ people say. Then the Parameter, like the squid, emits an inky cloud and disappears.”

Amused and high-spirited, tracing the line between skeptic and cynic, the whole Bestiary is borne aloft on the fumes from that bottle of bourbon. There’s an air of resignation in it too: an acid critique of cant offered in the knowledge that the cant will outlive the critique. But the resignation isn’t meant to be discouraging. The Bestiary is an enduring inspiration. McCarthy, a genuine misanthrope, somehow persuaded the pussycat to put the claws back in, just this once.  


Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College.

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