In this broadcast essay, Bill Moyers makes the case for fake-news humor in a world of troubling real-life news.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal.
We'll begin this new year with some of our favorite headlines from the old. They're all from The Onion.
Yes, The Onion, this newspaper of humor, remains the most reliable over-the-counter relief for the blues. We journalists can sometimes be vultures, plucking morsels from a collapsing civilization; it can be a depressing job.
So take it from me, when you're down in the dumps, The Onion offers a mood-altering experience that's completely legal, and guaranteed to lift your spirits at least until the next bulletin from the Middle East, the White House or Congress. Here are some of the paper's best headlines of '08 as selected by a panel of Journal judges jealous of The Onion's skill with the scalpel of satire.
The best political headline came from Wasilla, Alaska:
"Area Woman Becomes Republican Vice Presidential Candidate"
A close second, from Washington, DC:
"Lincoln Memorial Seems More Relaxed After Obama Victory"
"$700 Billion Bailout Celebrated With Lavish $800 Billion Executive Party"
"GM Covered With Giant Tarp Until It Has Money To Work On Cars Again."
"American Airlines Now Charging Fees to Non-Passengers"
"Factual Error Found On Internet"
"China Recalls Everything"
"Housing Crisis Vindicates Guy Who Still Lives With Parents"
And, in the wisdom of our judges, "The Onion" magazine's cover of the year.
"Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff: 'Everyone Was Close To Dying Only 7 Times This Year.'"
Nowadays, it's hard to tell "The Onion" from the straight press. How many times a week do you read or hear a story and think, "This has to be a joke."
Take this week's story: Chip Saltsman. Saltsman wants to be Chairman of the Republican National Committee and he has been touting himself for the job by circulating a CD that includes the song "Barack, the Magic Negro." That's the tune made famous on Rush Limbaugh's minstrel show, as sung by an Al Sharpton impersonator.
AL SHARPTON IMPERSONATOR: Barack, the Magic Negro lives in DC. The LA Times they called him that 'cause he's black but not authentically.
BILL MOYERS: When I read that story I naturally suspected The Onion was putting us on. To recommend yourself to fellow Republicans by sending them "Barack the Magic Negro," surely, only The Onion could concoct something so bizarre. But the story's true and Chip Saltsman is counting on it working in his favor as he seeks to be the savior of his party. Who's to say it won't work?
Then there's the circus starring Governor Rod Blagojevich and his fellow Democrats. The Governor's still in office despite allegations that he offered to sell Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat to the highest bidder. This week, Blagojevich announced that arrest or no arrest, he is appointing a veteran Illinois politician, Roland Burris, to the job. But Senate Democrats in Washington are saying "Over our dead bodies." And speaking of dead bodies, Burris has already placed a monument in the local cemetery that proclaims his accomplishments with room left to add his tenure in the Senate. Memo to my friends at The Onion, you can't make this kind of thing up.
The Senators say anyone Blagojevich names will be tainted by the circumstances. But hold on. Isn't what he's doing just another version of how the Senate itself does business, and the House too? Except that when money changes hands on Capitol Hill it's not called a bribe it's called a campaign contribution. That, as The Onion might say, is the biggest joke of all.
Meanwhile, President Bush is racing against the clock to polish his legacy for posterity. In an interview the other day on ABC News he claimed credit for trouncing Al Qaeda in Iraq. Journalist Martha Raddatz promptly reminded him there were no Al Qaeda in Iraq until he invaded the country. Where upon the President replied.
PRESIDENT BUSH: Yeah, that's right. So what?
BILL MOYERS: There you have it. Our own judges' choice of the defining quote of '08 and the mantra of the Bush years: the facts don't matter, so what.
So bring on The Onion and Jon Stewart. And Stephen Colbert, and Doonesbury, and all the others who channel Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce and Will Rogers, reminding us that as we live in The Twilight Zone of politics between reality and parody, we are really living in America's 51st state, the state of Freedonia.
That's right, Freedonia, the make-believe country imagined by the Marx brothers in their classic comedy Duck Soup. The parallels with the soup we're in are notable, even if the movie is older than I am.
It hit the theaters 75 years ago, in 1933, an era like ours of calamity, chicanery, and peril. The Great Depression gripped America, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had just been elected president and would soon launch the New Deal, while in Germany, Adolph Hitler was named chancellor.
As all this was happening the four Marx brothers, that's right, there were four of them then, shot a slapstick comedy that almost inadvertently transcended slapstick, becoming a trenchant send-up of power and vanity.
As Duck Soup begins, the nation of Freedonia is bankrupt. Sound familiar? And is asking for a bailout. Familiar, indeed.
MAN: Mrs. Teasdale?
MRS. TEASDALE: Yes, your Excellency.
MAN: I again ask you to reconsider.
MRS. TEASDALE: Gentleman, I've already loaned Freedonia more than half the fortune my husband left me. I consider that money lost and now you're asking for another 20 million dollars.
BILL MOYERS: Twenty million dollars? Chump change on Wall Street today. And anyway Mrs. Teasdale has real change in mind.
MRS. TEASDALE: In a crisis like this I feel Freedonia needs a new leader, a progressive, fearless fighter. A man like Rufus T. Firefly.
MAN: Rufus T. Firefly?
BILL MOYERS: Rufus T. Firefly is played by Groucho Marx.
RUFUS T. FIREFLY: The last man nearly ruined this place, he didn't know what to do with it. If you think this country's bad off now just wait 'til I get through with it.
BILL MOYERS: He might just as easily be leading his cabinet in consideration of a 700 billion dollar bailout proposed by Henry Paulson.
RUFUS T. FIREFLY: Alright, the meeting's called to order.
MINISTER OF FINANCE: Your Excellency, here is the Treasury Department's report, sir. I hope you'll find it clear.
RUFUS T. FIREFLY: Clear? Huh. Why a four-year-old child could understand this report. Run out and find me a four-year-old child, I can't make head or tail of it.
BILL MOYERS: Firefly's impatience with diplomacy is familiar too.
RUFUS T. FIREFLY: I'd only be too happy to meet Ambassador Trentino and offer him on behalf of my country the right hand of good fellowship. And I feel sure he will accept this gesture in the spirit in which it is offered. But suppose he doesn't? A fine thing that will be. I hold out my hand and he refuses to accept it. That will add a lot to my prestige, won't it? Me the head of a country, snubbed by a foreign ambassador! Who does he think he is? That he can come here and make a sap out of me in front of all my people? Think of it! I hold out my hand and that hyena refuses to accept it! Why the cheap ball-pushing swine, he'll never get away with it, I tell you! He'll never get away with it!
MRS. TEASDALE: Oh, please!
RUFUS T. FIREFLY: So you refuse to shake hands with me, eh?
AMBASSADOR TRENTINO: Oh, Mrs. Teasdale this is the last straw. There's no turning back now. This means war!
BILL MOYERS: The smoking gun you might say becomes a mushroom cloud so to speak.
RUFUS T. FIREFLY: Then it's war! Then it's war! Gather the forces. Harness the horses. Then it's war!
BILL MOYERS: And right on cue like Pavlov's dog watching cable news, his generals and the flag-waving rabble-roused public sign on.
GROUP SINGING: Freedonia's going to war! Each native son will grab a gun. And run away to war. At last we're going to war! We're going to war! At last the country's going to war!
RUFUS T. FIREFLY: Gentleman, this is the last straw! Where's my Stradivarius?
BILL MOYERS: Silly? Yes, it was silly. But audiences laughed and laughed until they laughed Duck Soup right into the comedy hall of fame and beyond. It's now seen as one of the great anti-war comedies of all time, right up there with Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator and Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.
It wasn't easy to laugh in those days. Civilization really was collapsing into the chaos of global depression and war. But audiences, my parents' generation found some relief in those darkened theaters from the grim specter waiting outside.
As for today, well, although our situation doesn't seem as desperate as the one they faced, our entire system does seem to be dissolving all around us, right into thin air, our own chuckles compete with the sound of renewed violence in the Middle East, melting glaciers sliding into the sea, and champagne glasses shattering on the gold bricks of Wall Street. We can use all the humor we can muster.
The 18th century playwright, Beaumarchais, who doubled as a politician, gives us a clue as to why. "I quickly laugh at everything" he said, "for fear of having to cry." This from a man who managed to survive the French Revolution.
So, Happy New Year. But keep your fingers crossed.