Below the Beltway
Getting Bush's Goat
A primer on priorities
By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, July 18, 2004; Page W13
President Bush has been taking some heat for having failed to respond instantly to the 2001 terrorist attacks. The movie "Fahrenheit 9/11" points out how Bush just sat in that second-grade classroom in Florida for seven minutes after he learned America was under attack. He was helping the children read "The Pet Goat."
I, for one, think this criticism of the president is terribly unfair. It's as unfair as criticizing "Fahrenheit 9/11" just because the director looks like one of those 750-pound rural dimwits in bib overalls who are occasionally photographed being removed from their houses by a crane as neighbors stand by and tsk.
My point is, we ought to be fair. Maybe, just maybe, our president had a compelling reason to remain in that classroom for those seven minutes on September 11, a reason heretofore overlooked by the so-called "responsible" press.
Shockingly, this journalist is the first to obtain a copy of, and to review, "The Pet Goat."
The Pet Goat
A McGraw-Hill publication
Reviewed by: Gene Weingarten
In this uplifting allegory of prejudice redeemed, a girl gets a pet goat. The girl is never given a name -- she remains always "a girl," imparting a universality to her plight, and a timelessness to the tale. She is anygirl, and her goat is anygoat, and what befalls them could befall any of us who happen to live in an area where pet livestock is allowed, such as certain portions of Fauquier County.
The goat is an undisciplined pet, with a most extraordinary digestive system. To quote: "The goat ate things. He ate cans and he ate canes. He ate pans and he ate panes. He even ate capes and caps."
The author of this tale, which is contained on pages 155 and 156 of a reading workbook, is never identified. This is tragic because one cannot help but admire the author's skillful minimalism; as in the short stories of Ernest Hemingway or Eudora Welty, the reader is provided tantalizingly sparse detail and is invited to draw revealing conclusions. What are we to make of a household with "canes" and "capes"? Is this the home of a magician?
The magic, we soon see, is in the hands of the storyteller.
It turns out this household also contains a "dad" who is "mad." The dad orders the girl to get rid of the remarkable pane-eating goat, but she pleads with him to let her try to cure the animal of its dietary excesses. And she does. With this restoration of order, one might expect the story to end, but here is where the author's narrative mastery comes in. Here may well be where the president elected to set a spell, spellbound.
A robber arrives to steal the dad's red car! But the goat butts the robber and saves the day. The delighted dad is no longer mad. Now he is glad. He declares that the goat may henceforth eat whatever he wishes. And so: "The girl smiled. Her goat smiled. Her dad smiled. But the car robber did not smile. He said, 'I am sore.' The End."
(The eclectic reader will find unmistakable parallels between "The Pet Goat" and the national bestseller Walter the Farting Dog, published shortly thereafter. Walter is an unpopular pet whose flatulence foils a home robbery and restores the love of his family. Cynics might charge plagiarism; I am content to call it homage.)
In the end, "The Pet Goat" is the story of an authority figure -- the dad -- who learns to exercise his powers with restraint. When the security of his home is threatened by the goat's appetite for mass destruction, the dad's initial impulse is small-minded and simplistic. He focuses on one evildoer -- the goat itself -- to the exclusion of anything else. He thinks he knows goats, and they're trouble. Other voices -- specifically, the girl's -- raise less drastic possibilities: Possibly the goat can be reasoned with, or coerced, into altering its behavior. Possibly the goat is not the threat the dad thinks it is. Possibly the family is even complicit, for having trained the goat poorly. Possibly the goat is really . . . a scapegoat.
The dad proves a wise enough leader to heed this advice. In so doing, he avoids a costly overreaction, since, in the end, taking any action against the goat would have let the car robber get away scot-free. The car robber is the real enemy, and because the dad was so smart, the car robber was captured.
It should come as no surprise that the president chose to stick around for the end to this riveting story. Only the petty or small-minded could fault him for it. After all, there is much to learn from literature.
Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is email@example.com. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon at www.washingtonpost.com.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company