Did Bullies Torment Richard Perle?

Calvin Trillin’s joke springs to life.

Calvin Trillin writes political doggerel every week for The Nation. On Sept. 16, he published a poem titled “Richard Perle: Whose Fault Is He?” The satirical conceit was that schoolyard bullies who pushed Perle around as a child “have got a lot to answer for,/ ‘Cause Richard Perle now wants to start a war.” (Perle, who was assistant secretary of defense for international security during the Reagan administration, now chairs the Defense Policy Board, which advises the Pentagon, and is America’s leading Iraq hawk.)

Imagining the childhood slights suffered by famous political figures is nothing new for Trillin. Years ago he wrote a hilarious Nation column purporting to excerpt Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s childhood diary:

Today I asked those cool Kennedy boys again if I could play in their touch football game on the quad and they said again that I was a wonkand a weenie and a wimp and a grind and walked like a duck. I told them that someday I would be a famous historian and if they ever let me play with them then I would write whatever they wanted. …

The Perle poem wasn’t quite as funny as that, but apparently it hit closer to the mark. After it appeared, a couple of Perle’s childhood acquaintances contacted Trillin. “These sources basically said, ‘How did you know this? We went to school with him,’ ” Trillin told Chatterbox. “It’s kind of disillusioning. You can’t even invent a slander in this country anymore.”

Reminiscences about childhood bullies seem right now to be in vogue. The new Miss America, Erika Harold, has talked extensively about hers, and the Nov. 20 Wall Street Journal carried a Page One story in which reporter Jonathan Eig detailed the gratifyingly short and unhappy life story of his. (Becoming a journalist is perhaps the greatest method ever devised to exact revenge on a childhood bully.) Clearly, though, nobody bothered to explain sissy chic to Elaine Shrager, a self-identified classmate of Perle’s at Third Street Grammar School in Los Angeles. Apparently slow to grasp Trillin’s satiric intent, Shrager wrote The Nation a letter, published Oct. 21, arguing strenuously that bullies had not tormented Perle:

I saved a “slam book,” which was popular at the time, in which we wrote our thoughts of one another and joked about our feelings, the way kids do. Eleven classmates signed, including Richard, and I recently reviewed it. Richard was remembered as very smart—not a “nerd” or a “wimp.” Respected. I remember him as serious and polite in his Eisenhower jackets. … Richard was not teased more than anyone else—if at all.

Trillin replied:

You were not one of the fourth-grade girls who used to push Richard down the hill on Fuller Street, and you didn’t laugh once in sixth grade when Rocco Guntermann, from Mrs. Flynn’s class, referred to Richard as “Perlie Girl”?

Shrager answered (in the Nov. 18 Nation):

Regardless of your references to Mrs. Flynn and to Fuller Street, where Richard Perle did live, your “take” on Richard’s childhood is pure fantasy, having no bearing on reality. The person whose name you mention—supposedly a fellow student in Mrs. Flynn’s class—is a fictional character. None of us who were in Mrs. Flynn’s class (I remain in contact with many of her students) ever heard of Rocco—your invented man.

Trillin seized the last word:

I suppose Rocco Guntermann, the classmate whose existence you deny, did not say to me just last week, “We can settle this if Perlie Girl meets me near the swings at 5 o’clock on Friday—and tell him not to bring two teachers and his mother this time.” Would it surprise you to learn that Rocco is now a psychotherapist in Sherman Oaks?

Rocco Guntermann is, of course, Trillin’s invention, and the fourth-grade girls, he admits, are “a stretch.” But the rest, Trillin insists, is true, or at least true according to the two who tattled on Perle to Trillin. (Who are they? “Reporters do not give up their sources,” Trillin sniffed. “I would go to jail for this.”) Hoping to corroborate the bully story, Chatterbox phoned and e-mailed Perle, but did not hear back. After his poem ran, Trillin received an off-the record e-mail from Perle. When pressed for its contents, Trillin would only say, “He apparently does not remember Rocco Guntermann.”