Making ‘Duck Soup’ out of 2009

A guest commentary by Bill Moyers and Michael Winship of PBS’ “Bill Moyers Journal” posted by permission for your reading pleasure:

As 2008 ends and this New Year begins, with all its fledgling promise despite turmoil and crisis, it’s also that time when the media offers its lists of ten best or worst this and that of the previous year, an exercise that simultaneously entertains and infuriates.

Forced at knifepoint to make such lists, at least ours would be a little different. One would be favorite headlines of the year from The Onion, the hilarious weekly that doesn’t bill itself as “America’s finest news source” for nothing. If you can read it without laughing, you probably have been paying too much attention to your 401K.

Some of the ones we liked best:

$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

CHINA RECALLS EVERYTHING

HOUSING CRISIS VINDICATES GUY WHO STILL LIVES WITH PARENTS

FACTUAL ERROR FOUND ON INTERNET

Of course, the problem The Onion’s editors have is that reality too often resembles parody. Take the story of Chip Saltsman, the guy campaigning to be chairman of the Republican National Committee by promoting himself with a CD featuring a song called, “Barack, the Magic Negro.” That ditty, you’ll recall, was made famous on Rush Limbaugh’s minstrel show, as sung by an Al Sharpton impersonator. Even The Onion couldn’t come up with that one.

Or the claim by Governor Rod Blagojevich that those wiretaps actually reveal how hard he’s been working for the people of Illinois. And the circus that ensued when he tried to appoint Roland Burris, a veteran Illinois politician, to Barack Obama’s Senate seat — the one the governor allegedly was ready to sell just weeks ago to the highest bidder — and Senate Democrats said, “No.”

No? From members of Congress for whom pay-for-play is as casual a game as Tic-Tac-Toe? Look at New York’s Senator Charles Schumer, chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. According to The New York Times, the week after he attended a breakfast of financial high rollers and promised them that Democrats would make sure their $700 billion bailout got through Congress, those same fat cats sent $135,000 in campaign contributions.

Or New York Congressman Charlie Rangel, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, who reversed himself on a tax break for a business called Nabors Industries the same month that company donated $100,000 to a City College school for public service named after — all together now, class — Charlie Rangel.

Life imitates satire — and vice versa. Which brings us to our other unusual list. The best movies of… 1933.

Naturally, the original King Kong is on our list. So are The Invisible Man and 42nd Street. But our number one choice: The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup.

Why? Because as we enter this final month of the Bush years, the parallels are remarkable. Sometimes it feels as if we live not only in the United States but also in the side-splitting state of Freedonia, the imaginary country in which Duck Soup takes place. In 1933, a time much like now of calamity, fraud and peril, the Great Depression gripped America. Franklin D. Roosevelt had just become President and declared a New Deal, while in Germany, Adolph Hitler was named chancellor, the beginning of the Third Reich.

As all of this was taking place, the Marx Brothers — there were four of them then; Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo — shot Duck Soup, a comedy that almost inadvertently transcended slapstick, becoming a trenchant send-up of power and vanity and the disastrous consequences of both.

Freedonia is bankrupt and asking for a bailout — sound familiar? The wealthy Mrs. Teasdale, played by the redoubtable Margaret Dumont, says the only way she’ll come up with the money is if the country appoints as its new leader Rufus T. Firefly — played by Groucho, as only a true clown can play a charlatan. He sings, “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.”

Cabinet meetings are run with a decorum worthy of contemporary Washington. (Finance Minister: “Here is the Treasury Department’s report, sir. I hope you’ll find it clear.” Groucho: “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.”)

Freedonia’s Axis of Evil includes neighboring nation Sylvania, and Groucho/Rufus Firefly handles diplomacy with all the tact of a neo-conservative. In anticipation of a meeting with his rival’s ambassador, he says he will offer his hand in friendship. But suppose the ambassador doesn’t do the same? “A fine thing that will be,” says Firefly. “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? …Why the cheap ball-pushing swine, he’ll never get away with it, I tell you! He’ll never get away with it!”

Before you know it, the two countries are at war for no good reason, the rabble-roused, flag-waving public buying in as if taking directions from cable news.

Duck Soup is now seen as one of the great antiwar comedies of all time, right up there with Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (written with Terry Southern and Peter George).

Back in 1933, the world situation was grave and it was hard to hear the laughter over the sounds of civilization collapsing. Our chuckles today 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.

Our situation may not be as desperate as the one that faced the first audiences of Duck Soup, who found in darkened theaters some relief from the grim world outside. Our current woes, nonetheless, are real, which maybe is why a little humor is the best antidote. As Beaumarchais, that 18th century playwright who doubled as a politician said, “I quickly laugh at everything 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.

Bill Moyers is managing editor and Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog.

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