The Politics of Walter Mitty, a Giant in His Own Mind Since he first appeared in print 69 years ago, the fictional Walter Mitty has become synonymous with ineffectual optimism. From Nixon to Bush and even Hillary Clinton, many a politician has been compared with scorn to James Thurber's fictional henpecked daydreamer.
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The Politics of Walter Mitty, a Giant in His Own Mind

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The Politics of Walter Mitty, a Giant in His Own Mind

The Politics of Walter Mitty, a Giant in His Own Mind

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Politicians don't especially like being compared to Walter Mitty, but it happens all the time. It's been happening ever since The New Yorker magazine published the short story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," 69 years ago this week.

In the latest installment of our series In Character, NPR's David Welna introduces us to the hen-packed daydreamer who's more than a little like his creator, James Thurber.

DAVID WELNA: The fictitious Walter Mitty has become such a fixture of the real world that he's in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. It defines him as: a commonplace, unadventurous person who seeks escape from reality through daydreaming.

But that's not the impression you get as Thurber's tale begins…

Mr. JOHN PRITCHETT (Voice Actor): (Reading) We're going through! The commander's voice was like thin ice breaking. He wore his full-dress uniform with a heavily braided white cap pulled down rakishly over one cold gray eye.

WELNA: It's a voice of a fearless naval flight commander. In this reading of the story done by John Pritchett for North Texas Radio for the Blind, the commander's crewmates clearly are terrified.

Mr. PRITCHETT: (Reading) We can't make it, sir. It's spoiling for a hurricane if you ask me. I'm not asking you, Lieutenant Berg, said the commander. Throw on the power lights. Rev her up to 8,500. We're going through.

The pounding of the cylinders increased, pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa.

WELNA: For the commander, it's a moment of triumph and vindication, or so it would seem.

Mr. PRITCHETT: The crew, bending to their various tasks on the huge, hurtling, eight-engine Navy hydroplane, looked at each other and grinned. The old man'll get us through, they said to one another. The old man ain't afraid of hell.

Not so fast. You're driving too fast, said Mrs. Mitty. What are you driving so fast for? Hmm, said Walter Mitty. He looked at his wife in the seat beside with shocked astonishment. She seemed grossly unfamiliar, like a strange woman who had yelled at him in a crowd.

WELNA: Yanked from his reverie, Mitty briefly returns to the humdrum world happening outside his head, then lapses back into a series of other fantasies invariably starring himself as the hero.

So just who was this Walter Mitty?

Mr. HARRISON KINNEY (Author, "James Thurber: His Life and Times"): Walter Mitty was James Thurber in 1939. He enjoyed being Walter Mitty. He was a great fancier and a great dreamer.

WELNA: Harrison Kinney is the author of "James Thurber: His Life and Times," considered by many the definitive Thurber biography. Kinney says Thurber was almost blind when he wrote "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" and was enormously dependent on his second wife, Helen.

Mr. KINNEY: Helen knew much too much about him and his infirmities, so every time he would climb into his balloon of, you know, fancies and take off, it was always she who grabbed the rope and pulled him back down.

WELNA: Thurber's Walter Mitty yarn gained fame after being reprinted in Reader's Digest. It was also included in a collection of Thurber stories sent to U.S. troops during World War II. It was a big hit. Air Force pilots named their planes after Walter Mitty; they used pocketa pocketa to signal one another.

Then in 1947, Hollywood discovered Walter Mitty.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty")

Unidentified Man: Samuel Goldwyn presents the James Thurber story that delighted millions, starring Danny Kaye, eight times as funny in eight hilarious roles.

WELNA: Some of those roles might ring familiar to those who've read the story.

(Soundbite of film, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty")

Mr. DANNY KAYE (Actor): (As Walter Mitty) The little schooner, India Queen, plowed through an ocean gone mad, straining pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa.

Up on deck, Captain Walter Mitty stood at the helm, fighting courageously to keep his tortured vessel from being smashed to bits.

WELNA: But spinning a two-hour feature-length film out of a 2,000-word story demanded some artistic license, such as when Danny Kaye's Walter Mitty becomes a zany Czech orchestra conductor.

(Soundbite of film, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KAYE: (As Mitty) (Singing in gibberish).

WELNA: Mitty's fantasies eventually give way in the film to him heroically solving a real-life murder mystery. One Thurber expert, retired Ohio State University dean James Tootle, recalls that Walter Mitty's creator went to see the movie version.

Mr. JAMES TOOTLE (Thurber Expert; Retired Dean, Ohio State University): And then when he came out of it with some friends, after sitting through it, he turned to them and said: Did anyone catch the name of that film?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TOOTLE: They had changed it so much, you know, from the story that he wrote to how it came out that he just wasn't very happy with it at all.

WELNA: Who knows what Thurber would say about more recent mentions of his iconic daydreamer? Here's commentator Dick Morris on Fox News earlier this year, belittling claims made by presidential contender Hillary Clinton.

Mr. DICK MORRIS (Commentator, Fox News): Now all of a sudden, she was the economic wizard and the diplomatic person. She's like Walter Mitty, inventing this alternate life.

Unidentified Man: Now let me ask you about…

Mr. MORRIS: And the voters are seeing through her.

WELNA: And here's Keith Olbermann, recently lampooning President Bush on MSNBC.

Mr. KEITH OLBERMANN (Newscaster): And the man your justice department selected to decide whether or not water-boarding really was torture had decided, and not in some phony academic fashion nor while wearing the Walter Mitty poseur attire of flight suit and helmet.

WELNA: I asked James Thurber about all this, not James Thurber the author, who died in 1961, but political scientist James Thurber of American University.

Mr. JAMES THURBER (Political Scientist, American University): I don't think it is a positive thing to compare a politician to Walter Mitty. It shows that there's a secret world inside of a person, and he's not really revealing, or she's not revealing, everything about what they really believe in.

WELNA: In 1973, with war breaking out in the Middle East, Henry Kissinger urged a presidential aide to have then President Richard Nixon remain in Florida, in Kissinger's words: to keep any Walter Mitty tendencies under control. Presidential historian Robert Dallek says Kissinger was on the mark.

Mr. ROBERT DALLEK (Presidential Historian): Richard Nixon had a kind of Walter Mitty fantasy life. He was a man with grandiose thoughts, dreams of not simply being president but maybe becoming one of the truly great presidents of American history.

WELNA: British politicians have been equally prone to Walter Mitty comparisons. Michael White, a political writer for the newspaper The Guardian, says Harold Wilson, Britain's prime minister during Nixon's presidency, was widely regarded as a Mitty type.

Mr. MICHAEL WHITE (Political Writer, The Guardian): Wilson had - although a clever man, had a sort of fantasy life, and he would come up with all these brilliant ideas which didn't really touch base much. One of them, for example, is he would send off peace missions to Hanoi.

WELNA: Thurber, the political scientist, says even Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton bring Walter and Mrs. Mitty to mind.

Mr. THURBER: He's soaring, and he's excited, and life is wonderful, you know, and the crowd is excited, and she comes in and says wait a minute, what are you talking about, let's get real.

WELNA: That such parallels are still being drawn makes Thurber the author's biographer Harrison Kinney confident that Walter Mitty is here to stay.

Mr. KINNEY: As long as people go on dreaming of becoming someone that they aren't or aspiring to become something that they would like to be.

WELNA: Or perhaps as long as the mundane provides fodder for fantasy, as in the final lines of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."

Mr. PRITCHETT: (Reading) Walter Mitty lighted a cigarette. It began to rain, rain with sleet in it. He stood up against the wall of the drugstore, smoking. He put his shoulders back and his heels together. To hell with the handkerchief, said Walter Mitty scornfully. He took one last drag on his cigarette and snapped it away. Then with that faint, fleeting smile playing about his lips, he faced the firing squad, erect and motionless, proud and disdainful. Walter Mitty, the undefeated, inscrutable to the last.

WELNA: David Welna, NPR News.

SEABROOK: Our parting words tonight also come from author James Thurber. They should provide some comfort to you if you feel a little guilty for not improving your mind or being productive on this Saturday night. Consider this. Thurber wrote: It is better to have loafed and lost than never to have loafed at all.

That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

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