Mockingbirds on the White House perch

MY local mockingbird often perches atop the chimney and warbles a medley of songs belonging to other passerines. This mostly gray, drab species makes the sweetest music without apparent effort or purpose. In the span of a minute, it will mimic a bluebird, a chimney swift, a rufous-sided towhee, and a quail. Ornithological experts say the mockingbird's repertoire includes almost 40 avian songs, not to mention sounds like a dog's bark or even notes from a nearby piano. Perhaps more astonishing is the fact that high-tech electronic analysis cannot distinguish the ersatz tune from the real one.

The tip-off is that the various divergent melodies are strung together like beads in an endless procession of revolving imitation. The mockingbird will also burst into arias on a still, dark night, investing the gloom with a manic cheerfulness.

The other birds are never fooled by my mockingbird. They don't fly to greet it or challenge it. They want no truck with a multipersonality that has bizarre sleeping habits. Besides, despite its dulcet refrains, the mockingbird is a most aggressive chanter. It confronts those perceived as either threats or intruders with a kamikaze-like assault and a grating, guttural cackle. But this is rare, and my gray-drab neighbor is most content to play the chameleon.

As I listen to the mockingbird of late, I can't help thinking about another sweet-sounding, dissembling species, Politico americanus, which is so common in this season. The similarity between these birds may explain our collective discontent. We long for a leader who sings his own songs. If either of the two Big Birds vying for the White House is one, it is not apparent yet.

Michael Dukakis is intent upon repeating a golden oldie from 28 years ago called the ``Boston-Austin Rag.'' Other ditties of his include ``Good Jobs at Good Wages'' (sung to the tune of ``Good Vibrations'') and ``Opportunity, Leadership, and Results'' (`a la ``Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered''). Like the mockingbird's warblings, Mr. Dukakis's don't mean a lot. When was a candidate ever for ``Bad Jobs at Bad Wages''?

The governor's simple lyrics say that he is so competent (``du-lang du-lang'') that he orchestrated the alleged ``Massachusetts' Miracle.'' Yes, this candidate, ``He's so fine, that handsome governor over there, the one with the wavy record, du-lang, du-lang.'' Never mind that the fiscal noises emanating from the Bay State lately are a tad off key; ``So Fine'' has a great beat, we can dance to it, so let's give it a 50 (a veritable landslide), OK?

The Dukakis camp is hoping that the final verse of this hit record, sung by a chorus of voters, goes something like this: ``We don't know why we are doing it, but we're going to make him our president, du-lang, du-lang.'' Maybe yes, maybe no. It all depends on that other mockingbird, Ronald Bush.

Mr. Bush, of course, is not so much a mimic as an example of that new breed called ``lip-syncers.'' He has been known to parrot what President Reagan says virtually word for word. Bush's preference for other people's lyrics is almost pathological. He will scream from the rooftops ``No taxes, no taxes'' as if he invented ``Voodoo Economics,'' not merely the epithet. His campaign theme song may well go like this: ``I'll do that voodoo that you, Mr. President, do so well.''

On occasion, even my mockingbird will trot out its own compositions. Not so Bush. He wants to be all things to all species: i.e., the ``Education President'' who backs ``star wars'' to the hilt and who will stand up to the Soviets while not inconveniencing us voters with new taxes to pay for such multiple marvels. ``Lux et Veritas,'' on the flip side of ``Voodoo Economics, Part II'' will be another blast from the past, ``A Walking Miracle.'' Strap on your earphones, electors: ``The bleeping veep is a walking miracle, ou-we, a walking miracle, ouu-weee.''

The songs of most birds mean something, and that is what makes the mockingbird so peculiar. Its portfolio sounds pleasant enough, but that's as far as it goes. It is merely noise on the wind. No one really knows why they mock others' voices, or why they choose to sing so long and say so little.

I know when a crow is alarmed or when a quail is calling its young. I can hardly ever tell what my mockingbird is thinking or feeling.

I don't mean to malign the feathered species. They mean no harm and do none. And they do sing sweetly and long. Anyone who knows Harper Lee's book realizes that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird. Still, it doesn't necessarily follow from her commandment that we have to vote for one.

David Holahan is a free-lance writer.

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