Column: Now Tell Me Again? Isn't Mel Brooks the President?





Mr. Carpenter is a writer and doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Illinois.

Ever since Ronald Reagan confused real events with Hollywood scripts, I've wondered how that would feel. I wondered, that is, until last Thursday morning. While reading a New York Times interview with Harvey Pitt, W's beleaguered chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, I got the feeling I had heard this stuff before. Almost verbatim. It was eerie. Eventually it occurred that I had heard it before--but in a movie. For a time, though, I couldn't distinguish that vague silver-screen memory from the reality in front of me.

To explain, in the hilarious 1978 House Calls, co-star Art Carney played a decrepit chief of medicine at an equally decrepit hospital. He had a bad heart, bad liver, bad kidneys, bad hearing, was senile beyond any pharmacological help and utterly without recall of ethical accountability. Yet he had no intention of resigning: "Chief of Medicine" was the only fancy title he ever really wanted. He lacked all credibility as a physician but kept the title by promising colleagues he wouldn't perform operations. It was the medical equivalent of legal recusal. Greasing the skids for another term as top doc, Carney again swore to keep his hands off patients. As he assured coworkers with that inimitable Art Carney delivery: "Odds are, I will expire before my term does." Once renominated and seemingly secure, however, he immediately pledged to be more aggressive by performing more, and ever-more complicated, operations. In his meshuga mind his professionalism was untainted, indispensable, and he intended to prove it--no matter what. He offered himself up as a favor to humanity and couldn't begin to see why anyone would question his worthiness.

You can understand, then, my discombobulation over Art Carney's film character and Harvey Pitt's true-life role when I read the latter's comments in the Times. The besieged Mr. Pitt said his tenure as SEC chief "is an enormous advantage to the public" and "it would be unthinkable to deprive people of my expertise." Despite having to recuse himself from numerous SEC operations for the last year to keep his job; despite all the legitimate dubiousness out there about his capability to ever do the job effectively; and despite possessing more conflicts of interest than Ken Starr or even Albert Fall--the Harding-Coolidge insider who traded public oil reserves for corporate kickbacks--Pitt now wants to prove his worthiness. "He promised to pursue an aggressive approach in enforcement proceedings," the Times reported, adding that Pitt had no intention of resigning. "This is the only job I really wanted," said the friendly fox. It was spooky and downright surreal to so readily, subconsciously fail to distinguish Carney's House Calls' script--a farcical comedy--from Pitt's deadly serious interview.

On that same news day--just one day, mind you--one could see other easy conflations of Hollywood farces and fantasies with real politics. Regarding the vastly different Senate and House versions of corporate-reform bills, for example, the Washington Post quoted George W. as saying he was "pleased the Senate has acted now on a tough bill that shares my goals." Yet the day before, a White House spokeswoman told the Post that George W. was "pleased" with the House bill as well. "He views the House legislation as tough and the Senate legislation as tough," she announced with unobservable cognitive dissonance. Since, as the editors noted, "there is a world of difference between the two" bills, only the most astute of metaphysical conjurers or a hapless bedlamite-in-chief could possibly reconcile the legislative opposites. So were these the musings of a peerlessly insightful president or a flashback to the borderline-autistic president-to-be Chauncey Gardner character in Being There? As that model of objectivity, Fox News, likes to say: we report, you decide.

Also on the same day was the story that state Republican leaders--understandably neurotic about the prospects of a November congressional Waterloo--have opted to lay the problem of corporate maladministration "at the feet of the Democrats." Asked and answered the Minnesota party chairman: "Take a look at this realistically. When did this corporate abuse start?... It was the 1990s when Bill Clinton was president." There are, of course, a couple trifling problems with that recent-history analysis. Because these nervous GOPers chose to focus on upcoming congressional races--not the distant presidential one--a few milligrams of sodium pentathol might prompt them to recall it was Republicans controlling Congress throughout most of Clinton's tenure, not Democrats. Second, the far more urgent problem lies in guarding against future abuses, not pinpointing dates of post-January 20, 1993 ones. With George "The Wizard" W. careening about, equating the corporate-happy House bill with the sterner Senate version, conservatives were merely saying "pay no attention to that man behind the curtain." So settle in for an Oscar-nominated performance this fall, though at times you may confuse it with Hollywood's depiction of doublespeak in 1984.

To repeat, all these rhetorical oddities appeared in only one 24-hour news cycle. George S. Kaufman could not have done better.

I'm working hard to overcome the dementia brought on by reading the news, almost daily confusing Hollywood's fiction, farce and fantasy with Washington's reality. And I just know I'll get better since we have the clarity of Blazing Saddles' Governor Le Petomane--meaning, in French, a virtuoso gas passer--in the Oval Office.


© Copyright 2002 P. M. Carpenter

P.M. Carpenter is published weekly by History News Network and buzzflash.com.


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