Truffling through the frothy and tawdry scraps of pre-inaugural Zeitgeist, I found this on the front page of the Washington Post's Style section:


"The heart will be the favorite organ of the Bush administration," says Marshall Wittmann of the conservative Hudson Institute. "That's to distinguish it from the favorite organ of the Clinton administration."


Wittmann, formerly of the Christian Coalition, helpfully explained that among religious conservatives the term "heart" has become a friendly synonym for the more controversial "soul," and that this explains President Bush's frequent recourse to it–as in "Jesus changed my heart" or, more controversially, "The senators, if they are objective, they'll take a look at Senator Ashcroft's heart and his record and they'll confirm him."

Don't be fooled. The giveaway is in the comparison between the two throbbing items in the original excerpt and the strong subliminal connection between them. I think I can say I saw this coming during my controversial live stand-up act at the Washington Improv last year, where I was narrowly beaten by Senator Joseph Lieberman (who cheated by using cue cards) in the run-off. The trick consists, having lulled the audience somewhat by a snatch of song and a few consensual gags, in making them substitute the work "d**k" for the word "h***t" in any familiar context. You should do this, ideally, by citing or reciting the original and by letting them do the rest. Thus:

"I left my heart in San Francisco"

"Heartbreak Hotel"

"My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains"

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (scattered titters by now, or you're dead)

Heart of Darkness

"Two hearts that beat as one"

The Heart of the Matter

Jack of Hearts (mirth, mounting to spontaneous bursts of laughter)

The Heart Has Its Reasons

Gary Hart

"I * NY" (or "My Lab/Apso/honor-student daughter")

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

"Don't Go Breaking My Heart" (all rise; prolonged and stormy applause)

Then a few grace notes about the heartland, about speaking from the heart, about your heartfelt appreciation–don't overdo it, or that's where your heartaches will begin–and you can exit in a pelting tempest of undergarments.

Heart like a wheel; hearts afire; total eclipse of the heart; heart to heart; artichoke heart…it's of course utterly puerile to go on like this…be still, my heart; Kind Hearts and Coronets; heart bypass surgery; quadruple heart bypass surgery; heart transplant; heart murmur; heartburn; absence makes the heart grow fonder…

Actually, I dreamed up this ridiculous game with my dearest friend, Martin Amis, after a heavy dinner; we liked it for its pointlessness alone. And then, as so often happens, a point began to occur. Did Jimmy Carter not say that he had committed adultery but only in his heart? Did Ronald Reagan not say that while the evidence told him he had sold heavy weapons to the Ayatollah, his heart told him he hadn't? (According to various toadies, Clinton's heart told him the same thing, even more paradoxically, about not having "really" had carnal relations with Ms. Lewinsky.) When Woody Allen was upbraided for setting up housekeeping with his adopted daughter, he gave the shrug to end all shrugs and said, "The heart wants what it wants." In Vietnam, a "pacification" officer, wearying of bleeding-dick talk, exclaimed, "Grab 'em by the balls, and their hearts and minds will follow." The whole joke started, on mature reflection, to become a trifle eerie.

"Stylistically, it's very evangelical to talk about what's on your heart," Wittmann of the Hudson Institute continues breezily. "It's nothing scriptural, but it's a way of saying someone's a good man, almost a spiritual reference." And it would of course have to be a male reference, like Braveheart, say, or Kipling's encomium out of Bunyan to Teddy Roosevelt: "Great-Heart." Even the Nixonoids used to say, "You can't lick our Dick"; he was a hand-on-heart type if ever I saw one. (There were even those hooligans who yelled "Dick Nixon!–before he Dicks you.")

In the presidential "debates," Bush protested that Gore, by stressing the GOP emphasis on tax cuts over child health insurance, had impugned his heart. Gore couldn't back away fast enough from these fighting words. "It's not a statement about his heart. I believe his statement that he has a good heart." Typical boy behavior. "In the foul rag-and-bone-shop of the heart"; "Aaron's rod swallowed up their rods/And he hardened Pharaoh's heart"; "faint heart never won fair lady"; Dick the Lion-Dick; "Hearts of Oak"; My heart's in the Highlands–if you aren't careful the whole canon changes shape before your eyes.

Riposting to Wittmann, Jackson Lears of Rutgers University argued that though "the evangelical ethos of the 19th century became known as the religion of the heart," it was not axiomatically conservative. Indeed, by valorizing "the rule of the heart," it contributed to movements such as abolitionism. Probably he and Wittmann are both right; by signaling "soul" through the medium of "heart," and thus placating the believers, Bush is also gratefully de-emphasizing the cerebrum. Anyway, it will teach me not to make incautious jokes in the future. When Martin and I kicked off that fatuous postbanquet party game, we never dreamed of a President all of whose brains appear to be in his heart, a President who is seconded and held in place by a cardiac-arrest patient named Dick, who (as ill luck would have it) is only a heartbeat away…