Advice on manners and morals.
July 18 1998 3:30 AM

Drawing upon her rich experience of life, Prudence (Prudie to her friends) responds to questions about manners, personal relations, politics, and other subjects. Please send your questions for publication to prudence@slate.com. Queries should not exceed 200 words in length. Please indicate how you wish your letter to be signed, preferably including your location.

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Dear Prudence,

I'm writing to ask you a question about Sen. John McCain's extraordinarily mean-spirited joke about Chelsea Clinton at a recent Republican fund-raiser.

First, I wonder if you agree with many members of the press that the joke is, in the Washington Post's words, "too vicious to print." In my experience, vicious things reflect more harshly on the person who says them. To that end, I tend to think that not printing the joke has unfairly spared McCain from a well-deserved kick in the shins from the American public.

Second, I am intrigued by the idea that McCain and Chelsea may bump into each other any number of times before her father leaves office. How, in your opinion, should Chelsea conduct herself in the senator's presence? I'm certain that the apology from McCain to her father has likely left her with no option but to treat the senator with respect and courtesy. But is there a good way to make a boorish person squirm without being boorish yourself?

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--Puckishly, Kate Wrath

Dear Puck,

How nice to hear from you again. Your queries are interesting ones. Prudie is in agreement that withholding direct quotes by public people often protects the evil-sayer from others as well as from themselves. The mirror image consideration, however, is that it is unappetizing to give the offending remark wider circulation--especially when it is insulting to a person of tender years. Reality, though, must come into play, and in cases such as this there will always be a way for the outré remark to become known. (Curious readers who want to see the "joke" in all its tawdriness can consult David's Plotz's thoughtful "Assessment" of Sen. McCain in a recent Slate.) Also, the censoring process increases curiosity--as when one refuses to answer a child's question.

A sidelight that has been generally overlooked is that the U.S. attorney general took a double slam in the senator's joke. In any case, thoughtful people will surely wonder about the judgment and heart of a man who could publicly denigrate the looks of a young woman who has famously conducted herself like a lady. And Prudie knows in her heart that McCain is toast as far as the president is concerned, Prudie being old enough to remember Truman and the opera critic.

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As for your second thought: How should Ms. Clinton behave toward the senator while being both correct and shaming? My old Midwestern mother taught me the answer to that one years ago. Kill 'em with kindness, and they don't know where to look.

--Prudie, turning the other cheek

Dear P.,

My sister, her husband, and daughter are spending a few weeks with us. We love them all. Trouble is, little Alexandra does not know from discipline, and I nearly twitch when I see her talk back to her mom. I have bitten my tongue all week, but I finally said something to the brat. My brother-in-law then chastised me for being harsh.

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I realize that criticizing the kid is criticizing the parent (or at least the parenting), but somebody should say something to somebody. I muttered my apologies to keep the peace, but I felt sullied having done so. What do you think?

--Lost in My Own House

Dear Lost,

Prudie sympathizes with your situation. And you are indeed correct that admonishing someone else's child is also a comment on the parenting, but inappropriate outbursts by any youngster inspire most sensitive people to try to interject a little decorum. Then, too, the outré behavior you describe was taking place at your house, allowing you to feel (rightly, Prudie thinks) that l'état, c'est moo. ("I'm bossy around here.")

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The odds are not great, but sometimes an outsider's rebuke can serve to wake up the parents--in which case you've done a good turn all around. You might even continue the discussion with the tyrant tyke's folks, pointing out that discipline bespeaks love and that the kid will have hell's own time if she continues speaking to people in such a manner. If your one stab at being the kiddie kaiser causes your sister and her husband to invite you to mind your own business at least you will know that you tried.

--Prudie, civilly

Dear Prudie,

When a friend, colleague, or loved one stumbles, it seems inelegant to ask, "Are you all right?" How would you suggest I more properly offer sympathy? My best attempt: "Is your dignity intact?"

--Robert J. Lederman Ann Arbor, Mich.

Dear Rob,

Prudie suggests you go back to "Are you all right?" There is something peculiar about asking, "Is your dignity intact?" unless, perhaps, "dignity" is code for derrière in Michigan.

--Prudie, solicitously

Dear Prudie,

Your response to the query about the Zone Diet was rich in common sense and went halfway toward torpedoing the trendy, useless diet industry. The other half is to increase the calories one burns. There's a time-honored way to do this: It's called taking a walk. How does Prudie feel about exercise as the road to a trimmer, slimmer you?

--Gary, Reno, Nev.

Dear Gary,

Of course Prudie agrees that working out is the better part of weight loss; she just plum forgot to mention it. And walking is wonderful exercise. It requires no special equipment or membership fees, and you can't strain anything.

Modified eating with no physical exertion would be like putting lipstick on a donkey--perfectly pointless.

--Prudie, gratefully