"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 25 April 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Kids Are People Too




"Why then, Sir, still he is like a dog, that snatches the piece next him. Did you never observe that dogs have not the power of comparing? A dog will take a small bit of meat as readily as a large, when both are before him."

-- Samuel Johnson, in Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson


"Children are like dogs."

-- Livia Soprano, in season two of The Sopranos



Like the Bay of Pigs, the Battle of Images that rounded out the stunning Elián González endgame was over before it started. Miami exiles and GOP opportunists like Senator Bob Smith (ably representing New Hampshire's vast Cuban-American constituency) have tried hard to get us outraged at the "federal child abuse" implicit in Alan Diaz's photo of a well-armed federal agent cornering the boy and his keeper in a closet that — in mute tribute to the benefits of our free market — appeared too full to contain them. But more than a decade of COPS has taught the public to expect an overpowering, debate-preempting show of force during any good police raid. Pipe down, Senator Smith! Haven't you ever seen a "warrant served" before?

The appearance, a few hours later, of a photo that showed Elián smiling and embracing his father staved off the "disaster" that solemn frequency-detector Dan "Kenneth" Rather spent much of Saturday morning predicting; but again, skilled observers recognized the juxtaposition of the two photos as classic good-cop/bad-cop strategy. With little to get worked up about, the press began to turn and eat of itself. At least one lefty member of the chattering class made a show of being outraged at anybody who was outraged — as sure a proof as we needed that, barring a surprise Bronco chase or a tenth-inning defection by Juan Miguel González, it really is all over but the shoutin'.
Well, maybe there's still time for a little what-did-it-all-mean skylarking. Dispatching with the easy opinions first: We'd like to urge all sides to put politics aside and think about what's best for the boy. We'd also like to welcome readers to "Day 4 — Elián: Captive of Communism," part of a series, Castro's Children: The Littlest Victims, soon to be available in a handsome boxed set from Suck Books. Last of all, we'd like to mention in a voice loud enough to be overheard by everybody in the room that we're so sick of this story, and when are they going to just give it a rest?
But trying to patch together some meaning from the cascade of González images is a little like trying to remember everything that happened during a five-day bender. The raid/reunion diptych is now an open and closed book. Nor have our various leaders told us much with their own televised image making. Attorney General Janet Reno's willingness to parse trajectories in the infamous closet shot (and it's true — if you look closely, the gun isn't pointing at the kid!) indicated that the top cop's inability to get a coherent message out to the public remains as intact as her love of heavy weapons. In Cuba, President Fidel Castro — basking in his zillionteenth victory over the entire Miami brain trust — fared no better. Our only conclusion after watching The Beard's Commander McBragg-style reminiscences of victory at the Bahia de los Cochinos was No wonder Cuba makes such a swell theme park for communism nostalgists.



Our search for even a thousand words of meaning in all these pictures yielded only one solid clue: the insinuation by Marisleysis González (you may remember her as Elián's frequently fainting, frequently bedridden, 21-year-old Surrogate Mother) that the boy seen smiling and embracing the father was in fact not the real Elián, but a longer-haired changeling planted — in a subplot swiped from the Franz Pökler episode in Gravity's Rainbow — by shadowy government agents. After all, who better than a surrogate mother to identify her own surrogate son? (Late-breaking reports that an American Airlines 767 carrying surrogate mother/expert witness Mary Beth Whitehead had just touched down at Miami International Airport could not be confirmed by press time).

At a more elemental level, the idea that there is a fake Elián — perhaps many fake Eliáns — being paraded for the cameras has a strong appeal. The entire Elián saga has been built of alarmingly shopworn, 19th-century dramatic materials: a shipwreck, a mother martyred, a wilting heroine, a child in jeopardy, kindly fishermen and the slow, hateful grinding of Chancery. Who wouldn't welcome a slick cloning reversal in Act 3?



But to indulge in this sort of chop logic is to deny Elián's considerable skills as a performer. Everybody who has worked with Elián agrees — he's refreshingly easy to direct. Smiling on cue, frowning on cue, waving on cue, rueful, terrified, giggly on cue: Elián gave us the full range of emotions while maintaining that infantile impassivity that many of today's best child actors — seven-year-old Erik Per Sullivan, who plays the tormented youngest brother on Malcolm in the Middle, springs to mind — have learned to use so effectively. If there was a certain schizophrenia to Elián's performance, it was merely a mark of his ability to adapt himself to any environment, to stay on and in the moment at all times.

In the end, though, it was this emotional elasticity that doomed Elián's turn as a lead actor. You just couldn't depend on him to stick to the script. What joy was there in seeing the boy smile and laugh with his father when only a week before we saw him enact the same scene with his father's bitterest enemies? Kids are famously unreliable allies, forgetting allegiances at the first offer of an ice cream cone, smoothly adopting the preferences of whatever crowd they're in at the moment, proving, at the most inconvenient times, the Lockean principle that the human mind is a blank slate. And the reunion pictures showed a kid so open to suggestion that even sinister theories about how his Miami relatives had to brainwash him into mouthing pro-Marielito sentiments came to seem unnecessarily strident. We expect child stars — unreasonably, perhaps — to show gumption, but Elián's lack of a freestanding will made him hard to root for, less a game protagonist than a willing dunce. Even his survival on the high seas came to seem more mulish than heroic. This is one six-year-old who reminds us why the Roman Catholic Church (an organization with which, we understand, Fidel Castro remains at odds) defines the age of reason as beginning at seven.



But if Elián was tabula rasa there was no shortage of eraser-clappers ready to scribble any old meaning onto him. The effusions of the various political contestants are too numerous and dismal to go into here, and as all sides keep reminding us, this was never about politics. But a tiny Elián parable comes to us courtesy of Julia Lieblich, religion writer for the Associated Press: A mural near Lazaro González's Miami home depicts Elián in his inner tube on rough seas, protected by dolphins — which, Lieblich helpfully explains, are "a Christian symbol of love and tenderness" (also plucky but unpredictable patsies in plots to blow up the President).

Donato Dalrymple, who won fame as one of Elián's fisherman/rescuers and is now immortalized as the guy in the closet, saw mahi mahi — not dolphins — near Elián's inner tube. Nevertheless, when presented with a good story opportunity, Dalrymple proved ready to disbelieve his own two eyes. "I would like to believe that God used the dolphins as an instrument to keep him safe in the water," he told the AP reporter. It was their willingness to clutch at straws like these that showed how hopeless the case of the Miami zealots really was. The religious elements in the book of Elián (or, as we're happy to see headline writers still calling him, "Cuban Boy,") always seemed somehow forced, like Dante Alighieri's efforts to promote Virgil's strictly pagan fourth Eclogue as a miraculous text predicting the birth of Christ, or the conspicuous virgin-birth allusion in Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace (an unspecial effect for which we expect George Lucas to pay dearly in the world to come). Even the portentous Holy Weekend seizure of the child by Yanqui legionnaires managed to backfire as metaphor. "The same thing happened to Christ," one 76-year-old demonstrator calmly explained, "So Elián is the symbol of Christ." But no. Christ was executed on Friday. The Attorney General, showing a previously unremarked wit, chose Saturday, the day of quietness and reflection, for her surprise child-snatching. Not that it really mattered. When you start making with the Christ parallels, it's a sure bet you've got a weak storyline, and in the end Elián — a kid you could barely imagine asking the master for more gruel, let alone preaching to the Pharisees — just couldn't deliver.


Considering that wars have started over smaller causes, we should probably be thankful that this episode ended quietly and without eleventh-hour surprises. In terms of public drama, however, we retain fresh enough memories of the OJ trial (the original trial, that is, not the lackluster, anything-for-a-buck sequel) to feel cheated when a unifying national spectacle doesn't measure up. Given the promising pitch and how good it looked in the previews, it's regrettable that the Eliad was undone by its weak central character, and we all — Cuban-American and Other-American, parent and child, even communist and capitalist — share a vague feeling that we didn't get our money's worth this time around. But whatever is missing as drama is made up for by the story's simple moral, which bears repeating here: Never send a boy to do a man's job.

courtesy of BarTel d'Arcy
picturesTerry Colon

BarTel d'Arcy