Below the Beltway
I liked Molly Ivins even before she became a syndicated columnist and TV personality. I liked her, in fact, from the moment I met her in 1976. We were in a park in Albany, N.Y., walking our dogs. My dog was named Augie. Her dog was named the S-Word.
No, not as in, "C'mere, the S-Word." As in, "C'mere, [the S-Word]."
In short, Molly Ivins was my kind of woman. Since then I have followed her career with admiration, and just last month in this space I complimented her for having described Arnold Schwarzenegger as "a condom stuffed with walnuts." Imagine my shock when a reader wrote in to allege that Molly had plagiarized that line.
This casual defamation of a colleague infuriated me; without our reputations, we journalists have nothing. I even sought out another journalist with whom to share my indignation -- Clive James, the famous Australian-born wit and critic. I reached Clive in London, and he was similarly outraged. There was no reason to conclude, he said, that Molly's description of Arnold as "a condom stuffed with walnuts" was in any way related to Clive's own description of Arnold, written 10-plus years ago, as "a brown condom filled with walnuts."
"So," I asked, "you agree it is entirely possible she came up with it independently?"
"Absolutely," he said. "It is also possible that a peasant llama farmer in the Andes independently thought of the Internet. We have no way of knowing! In fact, please print that so the llama farmer is not deprived of his credit."
Now, I know what you are thinking. You are thinking that I am making a ridiculous fuss over the provenance of the phrase "a condom filled/stuffed with walnuts" as used to describe the physical appearance of the governor of California, who happens to be built on Frankensteinian proportions. You are thinking that, as literature debates go, this hardly has the gravitas of, say, the dispute over the authorship of Shakespeare's works. You think this whole column is nothing more than an excuse to immaturely repeat the phrase "a condom stuffed with walnuts" over and over again.
Well, you would be wrong. I'm not even sure "a condom stuffed with walnuts" is the best possible phrase to describe Arnold Schwarzenegger. To resolve this, I decided to employ the most tried and true of all journalistic methods, namely, telephoning experts.
And my inquiry bore fruit! Michigan State plant pathology professor Dennis Fulbright, for example, said that you would more closely approximate the topology of Arnold Schwarzenegger's physique if you crammed a condom with "buart nuts." A buart nut, Fulbright explained, is a cross between a butternut and a heart nut, almost the size of an apple, and very, very Schwarzenegger-like in its surface appearance. "It looks like a nut on testosterone," he said.
Not so fast, said Tucker Hill, secretary of the Northern Nut Growers Association. "The problem with that one is that only we nut growers would know what you are talking about." Plus, Hill said, a condom isn't shaped quite right: You need something equally membranous but more Schwarzeneggerish in its dimensions. He thought a pig bladder would be better, stuffed with something gnarlier than walnuts and better known than buart nuts.
He suggested sawdust. Particularly if you wet it. "Wet sawdust is really lumpy," he said, "and it's not going to pack in smoothly; it'll bulge here and bulge there."
Sold. Arnold resembles "a pig bladder filled with wet sawdust."
Clive James, alas, will not accept the revision.
"You need separate bulges, and a sense of strain," he said. "The walnut has brainlike cavities and sinews. Arnold is all sinew. Even his gluteus maximus is a study in muscle groups, visible through trousers. He has triceps on his biceps. He even has biceps on his jaw."
So we were back to walnuts, and, alas, the original doubts of authorship. I finally reached Molly Ivins, who admitted she hadn't come up with "a condom stuffed with walnuts" on her own. She said it wasn't plagiarism, though. She'd heard it from someone, she said, and received permission to take it as her own -- never dreaming that it was originally the work of another writer. She was pretty embarrassed by the whole thing.
I'd like to take Molly off the hook, I really would. But the only way to do it is to find an analogy for Arnold's physique that is more compelling than "a condom stuffed with walnuts." That way, her faux pas gets wiped out of our collective memory. I couldn't do it. Can you? Send your nominations to "Get Molly off the Hook" at the e-mail address below. I'll publish the best one.
Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is email@example.com. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon at www.washingtonpost.com.