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The Bell Curve: The chill of the press

August 18, 2010|By Joseph N. Bell

It's been rather disquieting during the past two weeks to see my name in large black type on the front page of the Los Angeles Times almost daily. Rather as if they finally caught up with me and now the world is learning the grim details of my life in the cryptic language of headlines.

My name is short and fits well into tight spaces. It also has created a lifetime of high visibility in front rows, most notably in lecture classes at the University of Missouri, where I sat for two years beside a girl named Virginia Bell. She wore stockings on test days because the answers — supplied by her sorority — were conveniently tucked underneath them. My grades suffered on test days because my attention was divided.

But I digress. The astonishing performance of that pirate crew in the city of Bell carried me back to a similar situation many years ago. I was home from the war and working at a job I mostly hated. I was writing feverishly on the side but I couldn't cash rejection slips to support the wife and son I had acquired, so the perils of freelancing seemed hopelessly beyond my reach. We lived in the Chicago suburb of LaGrange, the same size but with a quite different constituency than Bell.

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But LaGrange offered similar temptations for exploitation, which I often heard about during cocktail party conversations with a teacher of social studies at a nearby junior college. So it wasn't surprising to me when a group of local citizens persuaded him to run for mayor and clean out a group of good ole boys who had been running — and exploiting — the town for many years. He won handily, and I saw a lot less of him after he became mayor, but the reports I heard were all positive.

So I was surprised when, a year into his reign, he called me for lunch and unloaded on me. He said that in order to run his city, he had gone through progressive stages of shock, disillusionment, anger, and resolution to, finally, acceptance of a certain degree of expedience that could be seen as "corruption." And an inflexible attitude toward these lesser degrees could and probably would result in getting nothing done for the citizens of the community.

"In short," he said, "I've learned to compromise with the tough school of professional politics."

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