With New Year's approaching I can't help but think of the classic movie The Blue Angel, in which hot young Marlene Dietrich lures doddering Emil Jannings away from academe and into burlesque. The last scene shows the old guy back at his deserted schoolroom, still in the chicken suit from their nightclub act. He clutches at his old desk, weeping, emitting pathetic little chicken noises, as the enormity of his squandered life comes crushing down on him.
Now, I realize it's pointless to hope that Bob Greene will be suffering similar pangs of remorse this December 31. It's too late for that.
But can't you just see him? Wandering gravely from room to room, lit only by candles, trailing his fingers over the flat surfaces?
Perhaps Bob too would be wearing a ridiculous costume--the tattered rags from some forgotten Bexley High School play. And he too would weep, as memories from the wasted year just past assailed him. The bells on his costume would jingle derisively as he moved through the dim hallways.
We need not rely upon such conjecture to delineate the enormity of Bob's failure this year, pleasurable as it may be. There's an engine now available that can outline Bob's offenses against thought and journalism with greater precision than mere subjective adjectives like "repetitive" or "infantile" or "dull" ever could.
I'm referring to the Chicago Tribune computer archives, which recently became available--at the usurious fee of $1.25 per minute prime time--on America Online.
A few keystrokes and we see that Bob had written 167 columns in 1995 as we went to press. And that 59 of those columns were about Baby Richard. A solid 35 percent of his entire output--with zero practical effect other than making certain people think that by focusing on one white boy who has two sets of parents fighting to love him, they were exercising supreme compassion.
Another 20 columns--about 12 percent--were spent denouncing major league baseball and embracing the scab players.
Scanning over his year's output, I find it difficult to pinpoint a nadir, though I would cast my vote for the pair of columns he devoted last month to reprinting old movie lines and old newspaper leads. It was a classic Bob straw-man tactic, in which the untrue premise (that the written word is no longer valued) is followed up by the canard reaction (let's have an "experiment" to see which medium, newspapers of 60 years ago or classic films, is better). Jesus, couldn't he have just used a sick day?
But why limit ourselves to the past year? The Trib archives also have a 1985-1995 search mode. You can view the full scope and horror of Bob Greene's world, the sad spectacle of his near-autistic fixation, suffocating narrowness, and tedious, head-crushing repetition.
I've just spent some time there, and boy, I'll tell you, it's like going down to hell and staring up Satan's ass.
In those 11 years, Bob has written 1,923 columns. More than a third--723--involve children, a reminder that before Richard there were Joseph and Sara and all the other wee ones Bob has used to cynically fill his columns with pages of court transcripts and letters of reader outrage.
A quarter of the columns--484--mention television. Bob's home state of Ohio pops up in 170 columns. Another 74 feature Elvis Presley in some capacity--often a starring role. Thirty-six columns dredge up Bob's pointless fictional character, Mike Holiday, the supermarket bagger last heard from, mercifully, in 1993.
Woody Hayes shows up ten times. One hundred and twenty-four columns pass through an airport; 72 mention a hotel room (though, oddly, none of these include a young intern). In a decade's worth of ostensibly soul-baring columns, none contain the words "hairpiece," "smarmy," or "too many vodka gimlets." Yet there are four references to Barbie, and two columns--nearly identical in content and five years apart--devoted to his old high school principal, C.W. Jones.
Michael Jordan appears in 67 columns, just three more times than the word "mall" appears. Spend enough hours working the archives, and weird parallels will start to pop out. In his column of June 6, 1994, the word "Elvis" is repeated 23 times; exactly two months later, a column repeats the word "mall" 23 times. Of the 32 columns containing the word "brave," each uses "brave" exactly three times, except for the November 13, 1991, column, "The U.S. Shrinks to the Size of a Mall," which uses it five times.
The clock moves toward midnight. The year 1996 stretches ahead of us, filled with promise and mystery. Only two things are certain: Bob will continue to boldly explore the bedpan ocean of his soul. And the Tribune is going to make a fortune on-line.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jeff Heller.