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Snake Oil Salesman



Jack French, venomous reptile handler, pried apart the moveable maxillaries of the pit viper or black mamba or whatever scaled monster he was holding.

"See," he said as he placed a pencil inside the serpent's mouth. "There's the venom sack. Almost straight up from the glottis."

He's a little creepy, this Jack French. So far as anyone knows only two things interest him: the deadly reptiles that he keeps in his garage and rents out as experimental fodder to an unnamed area university and the intricacies of local politics, even though he's never been a registered voter. Poisonous snakes and slippery politicians. "Only a dumbass could miss the connection," he likes to say.

I was there not to witness the effect of a cottonmouth bite on the haunches of a gerbil, but because "some people" from the camp of one of the candidates in the mayoral run-off have approached me. About acting as our next mayor's press secretary in the new administration. Spokesman for City Hall. Spin Doctor Numero Uno. Mouth of the South.

"You know the drill," the candidate's man had said. "You just gotta make it sound like the mayor's responsible for everything that happens good and NOT responsible for anything else. Say, for instance, the standardized school tests. If the scores go up, you remind every one of the mayor's long support of public education. If the scores go down, you remind everyone that City Hall has nothing to do with public education.

"It's just like junior high. If times are happy, you want all the attention on yourself. If trouble comes, you break your finger pointing at someone else."

I repeated all this to Jack French. "So it's a job, a paying job," Jack French said, as he kissed the pit viper on its vertical pupil before slipping it back into its cage. "You ain't exactly got a surplus of those these days."

This I grudgingly admitted, but went on to say there was something disquieting about a journalist speaking on behalf of a politician. "It's like one who listens with one ear speaking for someone who talks out of both sides of their mouth," cheerfully agreed Jack French.

He then proceeded, moving with bulletproof certitude, to milk the venom from the fangs of a diamondback rattler into a little glass vial. All the while sharing his thoughts about press aides in general and me in particular.

"I just hope your boss gets involved in some sex scandal," he chortled. "Just to see you be a talking head like that Mike McCurry was for Slick Willie. I'd love to hear you explain why fellatio isn't being unfaithful."

"If I could do that, I might still be married," I mumbled.

"Of course, guys like McCurry or Nixon's Ron Nessen can always write books after their official jobs are over," Jack French pointed out. "But mayor of a bankrupt city? Who wants to know more? You'd write a pamphlet and hafta try to give it away outside Harrah's."

I mentioned that I personally knew some of the reporters who covered the City Hall beat and wondered if I was being sought because I might be able to use our friendships as cloaking devices.

"Naw." Jack French sounded very sure of himself here. "First of all, none of those gentrified little carpetbaggers wouldn't lock you in a Port-O-Let with a grizzly if it could get them a two-minute exclusive with mayor with no one else around. Second, they'll turn on you the moment you take the job. One day, one slow news day, you'll slip and say something colorful, and the reporters will jump on it, and the next thing you know, the mayor'll be firing you, and the reporters -- your old pals -- will be saying, "It's about time."

I confessed that I had started to feel intimidated by the prospect of having to handle an inquiry on some subject the mayor had never discussed with me. Jack French stopped scratching the diamondback's belly and regarded me with as much surprise as if he'd just witnessed an Airedale driving a DeLorean down DeSaix Boulevard.

"Say, you must be the illegitimate son of a half-wit! A quarter wit!" he exclaimed. "Look. There's only two things to remember: votes and money. All mayors' opinions are based on one or the other. And if they're on one side -- like this Wal-Mart thing -- then that is where you place your money."

As Jack French prattled on about me getting "quoting" privileges like Larry Speakes had for Ronald Reagan, I began to fret about potential public relations disasters booming on the horizon. What could I say if my boss met a councilman-at-large at Morton's Steakhouse and they ended up rolling amidst the porterhouse? What if Tom Benson wanted to build a new stadium on a hazardous waste site? What if Harry Connick Sr. wanted to sing at the Grammy Museum opening?

" ... and so you could form up an Information Center or a Macro-Doppler center and just be like one of those weathercasters, wrapping 12 seconds of facts around six minutes of repetition and a half-minute of cow chips," chatted Jack French. I told him of my fears.

"Well," Jack French said, as he fished a puff adder from its cage. "There's always the old mayor's quote from Victor Schiro, the sure-fire political credo that covers all cases. 'If it's good for New Orleans, I'm for it.' Still defies criticism. And you should spend more time here."

I looked puzzled. Jack French, a fortress of inner serenity, got the puff adder to open its mouth and gestured inside.

"So you can learn more about forked tongues," Jack French said with a big wink.

As he likes to say, only a dumbass could miss the connection.

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