It is the Mrs. Grundy of the opinion polls from whom President Barack Obama begs the favor of a sunny smile, to whom the poets who write the nation’s advertising copy sing their songs of love, for whom the Aspen Institute sponsors summer and winter festivals of think-tank discussion to reawaken the American spirit and redecorate the front parlor of the American soul.The exchanges of platitude at the higher altitudes of moral and social pretension Twain celebrated as festive occasions on which “taffy is being pulled.” Some of the best of it gets pulled at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York when it is being explained to a quorum of the monied elite (contented bankers, corporate lawyers, arms manufacturers) that American foreign policy, rightly understood, is a work of Christian charity and an expression of man’s goodwill to man.

Nobody pulls the taffy better than Dr. Henry Kissinger, the White House National Security Advisor in 1970 who by way of an early Christmas greeting that year to the needy poor in Cambodia secured the delivery of thousands of tons of high explosive, but as often at the council as I’ve heard him say that the nuclear option trumps the China card, that the lines in the Middle Eastern sand connect the Temple of Solomon to the Pentagon, that America under no circumstances is to be caught holding Neville Chamberlain’s umbrella, I seldom find the hint of a sign that the other gentlemen in the room know or care that Chicolini here really is an idiot. Even if the gentlemen had their doubts about Chicolini, where would be the percentage of letting them out of the bag? Chicolini is rich, and therefore Chicolini is wise. To think otherwise is an impiety; to say otherwise is a bad career move.

Twain was careful to mind his manners when speaking from lecture platforms to crowds of Mrs. Grundys in both the western and eastern states. He bottled his ferocious ridicule in the writing (much of it in newspapers) that he likened to “painted fire,” bent to the task of burning down with a torch of words the pestilent hospitality tents of self-glorifying cant. He had in mind the health of the society on which in 1873 he bestowed the honorific “The Gilded Age” in recognition of its great contributions to the technologies of selfishness and greed, a society making itself sick with the consumption of too many sugarcoated lies and one that he understood not to be a society at all but a state of war.