The secret life of a “scandal”

Earlier this week we noted that a spokesman for the Blair administration had tried to discredit the Iraq weapons expert David Kelly (after Kelly’s death by suicide) by describing him as a Walter Mitty fantasist. I found the most interesting part of the story to be the propostion that this was a terrible slur and asked whether anyone still read James Thurber or understood the allusion to Walter Mitty. I doubted both; Rocket Man speculated that Walter Mitty had been absorbed into the culture as a figure unmoored from Thurber’s story.
In tomorrow’s Sunday Times Book Review Terry Teachout begins his review of a newly published book of Thurber’s letters: “Who reads James Thurber nowadays? It never occurred to me to wonder until I discovered in the course of a chat with a book-reading friend that she did not know who Walter Mitty was. Startled to find a literate American unfamiliar with Thurber’s best-known character — the henpecked husband who lives in a hazy dream world of heroic fantasy (‘He wore his full-dress uniform, with the heavily braided white cap pulled down rakishly over one cold gray eye’) — I promptly fired off e-mail messages to 10 other friends, ranging in age from 20 to 35, asking if they knew who Walter Mitty was. Five did, five did not. One of the latter confused him with Walter Winchell, while another thought he might be ‘a cartoonist, a columnist, something like that.’ The others freely acknowledged their cluelessness — and two respondents who recognized Mitty could not remember Thurber’s name.” (If you haven’t yet visited Teachout’s outstanding arts journal About Last Night, do give it a try over the weekend.)
The American Enterprise Institute has posted David Frum’s excellent National Review article on the “scandal” deriving from Kelly’s death. Frum absolutely nails the story, concluding: “If there’s a scandal here, it is not Blair’s. If there is blood on anybody’s hands, it is on those of the BBC–and its abettors elsewhere.” But Frum also discusses the role of the Daily Mail in hyping the bizarre accusation that the Blair administration has Kelly’s blood on its hands, an aspect of the story I wouldn’t have understood if I hadn’t followed the Daily Mail’s coverage of related events while we were in Spain at the end of July.
Readers who want to take a trip over the top with the British press on the Kelly scandal may want to take a look at my round-up (“The Secret Life of Tony Blair”) on Tom Kelly’s apology for attempting to blacken David Kelly’s name — before his body was laid in the ground!

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