Harrison Ullmann"s "Rat"s Ass Republicans and Other Hoosier Tales" He" s back. And he"ll never be yesterday"s newspaper again. Newspapers eventually go to the bottoms of canary cages; books go to shelves and go on forever. In Rat"s Ass Republicans and Other Hoosier Tales, we have a tremendous treat served up by the late Harrison J. Ullmann, the wise Hoosier historian, philosopher and master NUVO Newsweekly craftsman of words.
On Sept. 8, 1993, Harrison wrote, "A ghost is all that is left from something that is dead." He was being too modest; there is a lot left of him in his wise and poetic words. By the way, what do you think of the title? If you"re a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, you might have something in the nature of a shocked smile on your face. If you are a dedicated Republican, you might be thinking of some equally flattering comment about Democrats. Try this one from my father"s Republican friend Asa J. Smith: "Stewed cats and fried rats are good enough for Democrats." There. Now that both sides have had their say, all of us can settle down and savor the genuine wit and wisdom of an Indiana Jones called Harrison. His son Thomas H. Ullmann has deftly selected and enshrined in this book a generous menu of delicious NUVO columns in which Harrison works his magic. Ullmann columns are like what is often said of sex: "all good, some better." This collection adds up to Hoosier history, a treasure house of information about how our society and its leaders behaved for roughly the last tenth of the 20th century. The value of this work to the public record is incalculable. This is an important book. But it is a laugh-out-loud-alone fun book as well. Move over, Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy and George Carlin and make room for one other comical curmudgeon. Harrison Ullmann is a latter-day Will Rogers and a continuation of Kin Hubbard. He"s profound and profoundly funny. For example, he writes about the obscene and bizarre case of a city cop who demanded and got sex from female traffic offenders in return for not arresting them. Hardly a funny thing, but Harrison"s sparkling wit knows how to say it in funny-ese: "The cop would let them off if they"d get him off." Harrison dispenses the cure for our social ills with the spoonful of humor that "makes the medicine go down in a most delightful way." This book is not only "a good read" and a fun read, but also an easy read because of what educators call "chunking." That means reading by segments separated by breathers that cause the reader to feel rapid progress. Since Rat"s is a book of two- or three-page columns, each seeming like a short chapter laced with information, wisdom and humor, a reader senses that rapid progress. Sufficient unto each pause is the column thereof. So grab an apple and have a ball at this picnic of words well said - and in spite of the entertainment, learn a lot about where our town has been and some sparkling hints of where it"s likely going. The celebrated World War II cartoonist Bill Mauldin said his journalistic philosophy was, "If it"s big, hit it. You can"t be far wrong." Harrison never hesitates to do so. And in doing so, he reflects the view of Hoosier broadcast journalist Elmer Davis: "This country was not created by cowards and it will not be maintained by them either." Harrison has a voracious appetite for the wrong that needs a writing. And in writing up a wrong, he is willing, first, to engage in the rarest of human activities, thinking, and, second, digging up the figurative bodies. The result is usually on the money - and who got it. To paraphrase a line from the play Born Yesterday, it seems someone is always hitting the jackpot with government machinery and getting away with it. And where the machinery itself is flawed, there is Harrison, the "quirky old man," as his son Tom put it, "furiously typing upstairs," to wake the town and tell the people that the "emperor" has no new clothes but is, instead, a streaker. People read but somehow seem not to heed the warning. In The Invasion of the Body Snatchers movie, the human hero escapes the body-snatched town to warn the rest of the world that the outer space demons are on their way to snatch more bodies. But as the sinister extraterrestrials look on, one says, "Let him go; nobody will believe him." When Unigov comes to Indianapolis, Harrison senses "something rotten in the State of Denmark" and blows the journalistic whistle. He spotlights the fact that there isn"t much "uni" in Unigov but, instead, there is an enormous amount of old fashioned gerrymandering. Sadly, though, he is blowing that whistle against an impregnable mother lode. His brainy breath tilts at the windmill. So the designers smile at the Ullmann alarm, saying, "Nobody will believe him." Harrison correctly tells us that, while the political architects are big, they still aren"t about to offend suburbanites by imposing real metropolitan government that will unify the schools, fire and police services and will step on the toes of other suburban fiefdom feet. Neither, however, are those "powers that be" willing to forego the extraterritorial suburban votes necessary to win Indianapolis mayoral elections. Kin Hubbard"s Abe Martin says, "There"s always plenty of money for everything but the necessities." Harrison flings wrathful words to paper about such pathetic public purse priorities, "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable." In a world stuffed with the shirts of "yes"-men, Harrison is a "no"-man, a dissenter who reminds us to remember not to forget that even our strongest views may be based on incomplete consideration. Probably partly because of dark premonition, toward the close of this book and his career, Harrison begins to reminisce. The angry young man has become the bemused "old man" as he puts it. On Aug. 14, 1997, he wrote, "If I"d been asked, I would have requested something more useful than the powers to influence the traffic and trash collections on my street. I would have liked (among other things) the power to inflict good sense and compassion upon the bubbas and fools who sit in America"s Worst State Legislature." There, I suspect, he"ll get an argument from Molly Ivins. Occasionally, Harrison piles us into his time machine and we journey to earlier Hoosier days when life was simpler and slower. He has favorable faith in the future because of his family, especially the grandchildren. On Christmas Eve, 1998, he wrote, "I am unfashionable in my optimism, ruined for pessimism by my children and grandchildren. You should be so fortunate. God bless us all, as God has already blessed me." As the book continues to close, the fertile writer"s eye of and ear of Harrison Ullmann give us gorgeous literary paintings of nature"s stunning beauty along the Monon Trail. Those descriptions alone are worth 10 times the price of the book. In his reveries about the work of "the master painter from the far away hills," there is wisdom about the way to live. On Oct. 28, 1999, he shared this: "I have learned the world we share is a hard place. But I have also learned we may find our ways in it with less hurt if we give comfort to each other whenever we can." In a sense, Harrison writes his own epitaph, his last column. It is about his adopted church, All Saints Episcopal Church at 16th and Central in Indianapolis. Fittingly, it is read at the funeral there. Dry eyes are scarce as the words in the second to last paragraph fill the sanctuary: "I am old now, closer to my end than I am to my beginning Ö" Those words were published in NUVO 35 days before Harrison J. Ullmann passed beyond the sounds of our voices. But with the arrival of this splendid, ratty book, he"s back.