February 25, 2007

OK, if she starts to bend over, run...

Arnold Zwicky argues that in the controversy over a children's book where a rattlesnake bites a dog on the scrotum, the problem isn't the word, it's the reference to the concept of male genitals. If that's true, then the Sacramento Bee is heading for trouble with the nation's librarians. But this time it wasn't a snake biting an animal's genitals, it was a government lawyer.

According to David Whitney, "Sacramento lawyer's ascent takes a turn", Sacramento Bee, 2/25/2007

Sue Ellen Wooldridge received a hero's send-off from her partners at a Sacramento law firm when she took a job as special assistant to Interior Secretary Gale Norton in 2001.

Six years later, after climbing to a top position at the Justice Department, the lawyer whom the Sacramento County Bar Association journal said in a 2001 headline was on her way "into the stratosphere," instead is facing tough questions about her professional ethics.

Wooldridge has been linked by love, if little more, to a Justice Department target in the still unfolding Jack Abramoff scandal, J. Steven Griles, the former No. 2 person at the Interior Department.

The House Judiciary Committee also is investigating how she came to jointly own a $1 million beach house with Griles and the chief lobbyist for an oil company she let off the hook in a pollution case while serving as the Justice Department's top environmental prosecutor.

No scrotum-biting so far, right? But wait:

While Wooldridge has been charged with nothing and has explanations for everything, her linkage to unfolding corruption scandals has cast a cloud over her reputation that a matter of months ago was unassailed.

Wooldridge's attorney, Stephen Grafman, declined a request for an interview with her, and offered no comments himself.

Wooldridge, 46, grew up on a farm near Willows, where her father was superintendent of schools. She was an honors graduate from the University of California, Davis, and Harvard Law School.

As a government official, she was regarded as tough but fair. She once told a gathering of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service workers that "when I was growing up I used to castrate sheep with my teeth."

Try to explain that one to an urban pre-schooler...

When I was in the second grade, the girl who sat at the desk just behind mine -- let's call her Alice -- was excused from school for a couple of days because it was time to castrate the sheep on her parents' farm. That's how she explained it, unapologetically, in front of the class. In this case -- and we're talking about rural New England in 1954 -- the librarian wasn't involved, but the teacher didn't see any problem with either the word or the concept.

Arnold quotes a (news story quoting a) librarian about the snakebite in Susan Patron's story: "If I were a third- or fourth-grade teacher, I wouldn't want to have to explain that. I don't think our teachers, or myself, want to do that vocabulary lesson."

I can see that it might be difficult to explain to 9- or 10-year-olds what Sue Ellen Wooldridge really meant about castrating sheep with her teeth. But I believe that all the 7-year-olds in our class knew more or less what was happening on Alice's farm, though some of us had seen the process and others had only heard about it. (Teeth were not involved, at least not on the farm across the road from where I lived. And I can't imagine that Alice, a demure and gentle girl who was often my partner in class projects, would ever have pretended that they were. Though maybe law school would have changed her...)

In Susan Patron's book, we're talking about a straight-up normal rattlesnake bite, not the kinky fantasies of a top Justice Department lawyer. It's hard to believe that there are many 9- or 10-year-olds these days who don't know that rattlesnakes bite and that dogs have genitals, even if they haven't put the two concepts together before.

Would Susan Patron have kicked up as much of a fuss if her story had dealt with the castration of sheep? I'd hope not -- as long as she didn't feature a young girl doing it with her teeth. It looks like Sue Ellen Wooldridge is going to have some time on her hands, so maybe she can work that one up for the young adult market.

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 25, 2007 06:30 PM