Mark Tapscott: Teaching the pig to dance and American national destiny 

Among the more interesting episodes within the 2008 presidential race was the too-brief effort of former Tennessee Republican Sen. Fred Thompson to offer GOP voters a solidly conservative alternative to the doomed inevitability of John McCain.

After two disappointing third-place finishes, however, Thompson wisely called it quits and returned to the vastly more realistic venue of television sitcom acting for a role in which he portrays a Southern country lawyer who somehow becomes a New York City prosecutor.

Fortunately, he also took the opportunity to sit down and write a delightful book about growing up country in Lawrenceburg, Tenn. -- once the home of frontier legend and Siege of the Alamo hero Davy Crockett. The book is good enough to earn Thompson a provisional place in the pantheon of memorable modern Southern humorists such as Lewis Grizzard, Jerry Clower, and Will Rogers. (Yes, Rogers belongs in such a group. The last Confederate general to surrender was from Oklahoma).

Unlike New England, something about the South has for centuries encouraged serious social and political commentary masquerading as folk humor. "Teaching the Pig to Dance" is not the second coming of Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," but it is genuinely funny in the wry way that pretentious city folks invariably mistake for mere country drollness. The book comes liberally sprinkled with wise aphorisms and insights that recall the book of Proverbs and the Common Sense School of Scots Philosphers.

Consider this passage about the equanimity of a certain Lawrenceburg High School Latin teacher:

"Mrs. Garner was a heavyset, middle-aged lady of mild disposition. Even I didn't know how steady her temperament was until that day she walked into class -- as usual, exactly at the time for the class to start -- and took her seat at her desk.

"I, along with another classmate with no visible signs of redemption, had come into possession of a small supply of 'cracker balls,' which were very popular around the Fourth of July and Christmas season. They were like little round firecrackers, not much bigger than a large pea, and when you threw them down on the sidewalk, they made a pretty loud pop.

"Before class that day, we put a cracker ball under each of the four legs of Mrs. Garner's chair. She came in, sat down, and two or three of them went off. In the classroom, it sounded like gunfire. Then something remarkable happened -- nothing.

"Without so much as flinching, she proceeded to scoot her chair in behind her desk and begin the class as if nothing had happened. Man, this was awe-inspiring. And with that, she managed to cause me to experience the one emotion I hated most, shame."

Evidently the shame was only temporary because Thompson quickly added that he was so impressed with Garner's equanimity that "I even made a half-hearted attempt to learn a few Latin words. I just never learned what they meant."

By the way, Garner also inspired Thompson's title: "Teaching Latin to someone like me in high school was somewhat like trying to teach a pig to dance. It's a waste of the teacher's time and it irritates the pig." Especially not to be missed are the chapters entitled "Rebel without a clue" and " 'Play ball' ... but not forever." (And don't miss the explanation for why a certain coach was called "Stumpy.")

Lurking behind these ribald tales of misspent youth are what might be called Thompson's teachings: Second chances for "bad" kids are almost always justified, the patience of parents is a priceless blessing, hard work does indeed bring reward, you never know you can't do something until you succeed at it, and so forth.

Only time will tell if this work, like Twain's "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calevaras County," heralds more to come and better from Thompson. But we can always hope, and Lord knows America is due for a good serious laugh.

Mark Tapscott is editorial page editor of The Washington Examiner and proprietor of Tapscott's Copy Desk blog on

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