RETURN OF THE KNOW-NOTHINGS

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This country has never had a corner on weird politicians. Though we've had some doozies.

Consider this new book about good old chairman Mao, that towering figure of the socialist world, hero of The Long March, Yangtze River marathon swimmer, the man who fought us to a standstill in Korea and on whom Mr. Nixon finally called. It now turns out that besides being a legend, Mao was pretty much a slob.

His doctor reports he had a venereal disease which he routinely passed on to the teeny-boppers fetched to his bed and when the doctor chided him, Mao remarked that the girls ought to be honored they were sharing something with the great one. He didn't bathe much, either, and smelled. And since he didn't believe in tooth brushing, his teeth were "covered with a green slime."

No wonder Nixon came back shaking his wattles.

Then there's Yeltsin, who got stewed in his private jet the other day, and stood up the premier of Ireland and other dignitaries waiting there on the Shannon tarmac for old Boris to emerge during a fueling stopover and to have lunch. "A slight indisposition," said Yeltsin's spin doctors in Moscow. Boris himself claimed the security men had failed to awaken him from a little nap. "I will sort things out and have them punished," he promised.

Hitler, in addition to his other failings, suffered from "dynamitism." I don't know how more delicately to describe this ailment than as "uncontrollable" breaking wind. So you can imagine what it was like there on a hot day in the old fuhrerbunker with Adolf.

Frederick the Great's daddy, on discovering that Junior was dabbling with his tutor in alternative sexual lifestyles, had the tutor executed while forcing his son and heir to watch.

Prior to the revolution, Stalin robbed banks, a Georgian Clyde Barrow without his Bonnie. Is there anyone stranger than Colonel Gadhafi, who likes to wear dresses? Or Saddam Hussein, who enjoys losing wars. When things were going bad for the dead old Reich, Goering retreated to the basement to play with his collection of electric trains.

Churchill luxuriated in a good bath (unlike Mao) and drank scotch in the morning tub while occasionally doing barrel rolls and entire Immelmann turns under water (which rather sloshed about the bathroom and down into the hallways). He also startled young maids and secretaries by parading about the house starkers. But for a cigar.

Any number of French kings and British prime ministers have been certifiably mad while there are those at New Scotland Yard who continue to believe that "Jack the Ripper" was a member of the royal family.

And don't get me started on Idi Amin or Peron or Rasputin or the Last Empress of China.

But is there anything wackier going on anywhere than in this country as we approach November and election day? Well, yes, there's Ross Perot. And let's not forget Jerry Brown. But let's instead start right off there in Washington, the very capital of the great republic, where we have the spectacle of Marion Barry's return from the dead and proximate re-election as mayor. Can you imagine the fevered scenes there at the editorial board of The Washington Post, mulling over just how they phrase this year's editorial endorsements? No wonder Ben Bradlee retired.

A few miles further south, in Virginia, where Oliver North is running for a seat in the United States Senate, it is like a second pilgrimage to Lourdes, the way the great men of the Republican Party arrive in carloads to kiss the hem of Ollie's garment and bask in his benediction. Next thing you know, the galloping colonel will be making the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak and people will be discarding their crutches to get up and prance about.

What a peculiar affair. And yet how appropriate at Halloween time, with its masques and disguises and bizarre costumes.

Just why do they pay Ollie homage? James Baker, once Secretary of State. Senator Bob Dole, minority leader. Former Senator and Vice President Quayle, once the presiding officer of the Senate. All men for whom government institutions should hold enormous meaning. And they come calling on Ollie, who lied to Congress under oath and escaped prison when his conviction was overturned on a technicality regarding the scope of immunity granted. And who has been publicly disavowed by Baker's old chief, President Reagan.

And then there is Congressman Huffington out in California, who is also running for the Senate. The New Yorker did a piece on his lack of credentials. So did Vanity Fair. And Frank Rich in the Times, who lit into Huffing-ton and his wife Arianna as "an empty suit and a crackpot."

Everyone but Sports Illustrated has taken a good whack at abominable Huffington. And you know what? He, like Oliver North, is leading in the polls.

The New Yorker got a big GOP fund-raiser in Santa Barbara to say this of Mr. Huffington. "He's totally devoid of any intelligence. He has no idea of what life is all about. You don't have to spend much time with him to see how superficial he is. When you look in his eyes, you see the back of his head."

Wow!

Then they start up with Madame Huffington, who writes books ("trashy biographies" sniffs Frank Rich). She is an adherent of a New Age cult leader called John-Roger, "who sees himself as more powerful than Christ," and his followers convinced "they have the power to change weather patterns and dismantle nuclear weapons."

All this may tend to remind us that once upon a time, from 1853 through '56, we had in this country something called The American Party, or, The Know-Nothing Party. Its aim was to keep control of government in the hands of native-born Americans. Its membership was described as anti-intellectual, xenophobic, grossly ignorant, totally uninformed.

Will history repeat itself on Nov. 8? Stay tuned.

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