How the Marx Brothers (Almost) Rescued Wall Street
For a while on Monday, it appeared that the Marx Brothers had taken over Capitol Hill. There was "Groucho" Pelosi standing in the well of the House doing her best imitation of a partisan harpie while the financial system of the United States was crashing down around her ears.
Her spittle-flecked rant against Republicans and the president may not have been helpful to promoting a spirit of bipartisanship, but as a comedy bit it was a huge hit with the Democrats. I half expected Margaret Dumont to leap out from the Republican side of the aisle and start feeding the straight lines to Madame Speaker. No doubt it would have brought down the House -- except Pelosi was doing a fine job of that all by herself.
Then there was John "Chico" McCain after the bailout's defeat, off stage somewhere, piously remonstrating about how necessary it was for a bipartisan solution to the crisis. It sounded something like President of Freedonia Rufus T. Firefly in Duck Soup:
Rufus T. Firefly: I'd be unworthy of the high trust that's been placed in me if I didn't do everything in my power to keep our beloved Freedonia in peace with the world. I'd be only too happy to meet with 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 of which it is offered. But suppose he doesn't. A fine thing that'll be. I hold out my hand and he refuses to accept. That'll 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 of me in front of all my people? Think of it -- I hold out my hand and that hyena refuses to accept. Why, the cheap ball-pushing swine, he'll never get away with it I tell you, he'll never get away with it.
Rufus T. Firefly: So, you refuse to shake hands with me, eh?
In other words, "Can't we all get along -- even if my opponent is a jerk?" McCain may have suspended his campaign (sort of) in order to appear to be doing something about the crisis but all he ended up accomplishing was getting Democrats mad at him, Republicans wondering what he was doing, and voters moving to Obama en masse.
Well, that worked out fine, didn't it, John?
Then there's Barack "Harpo" Obama. As we all know, Harpo never says a word, simply makes beautiful music on his harp. I was tempted to refer to Obama as Zeppo Marx since he was invisible in most of the group's later films but didn't want to spoil the harp analogy. I mean, if all we have to do to fix America is elect Obama, even if things don't work out quite as planned, we'll always have that soft, soothing harp playing beautiful music -- or Obama making those gorgeous speeches -- to comfort us as we're standing in soup lines or, best case scenario, in the unemployment line.
Obama thought it best to stay silent and not urge his Democratic colleagues to vote one way or another on the bill. Now some doubters might take that as political cowardice and a demonstrable lack of leadership in a crisis. I beg to differ. I think it shows good old-fashioned American common sense. There are times it is best to stick your head in the sand while the world is falling to pieces around you. That way you remain blissfully unaware of everything catastrophic that might be happening while avoiding the necessity of having to take a stand.
If Obama's behavior in this crisis is a preview of his presidency then I would suggest we start printing milk cartons with his picture on it now to beat the rush.
Finally, and least of all, there's George Bush. As a casual observer, Bush makes a great president. He reminds me of one of the characters from George S. Kaufman's brilliant one-act play The Still Alarm. (Kaufman wrote many of the Marx Brothers scripts on Broadway and Hollywood.) The play is about a fire at a hotel but performed in a most unusual manner. Kaufman's instructions to the actors are simple; every line must be delivered as if you are inviting the other character for a cup of tea. Hence, the deadpan, polite banter between the characters is side-splittingly hilarious when juxtaposed against the backdrop of the hotel's raging inferno.
George Bush hasn't been missing in action in this crisis. That would require him to have been present in the first place. Our president with the 27% approval rating has proven to be such an impotent lame duck that he makes a gimpy, Viagra-popping Mallard a towering statesman by comparison. His serenity is admirable but a little misplaced, don't you think? Then again, given how Republicans have ignored him in this crisis, perhaps he and Dick Cheney should put on those horrid orange reflective vests and stand in the Capitol Hill parking lot hoping that a couple of Republican Congressmen will recognize them and take pity.
Of course, making light of the failure of our political leaders to address the credit crisis on Wall Street probably gets some people upset. This is good. At least you are getting upset about something -- if not the $700 billion we don't have in the treasury being paid to people who clean their teeth with golden toothpicks. And if that doesn't get your goat, how about the possibility that this is all some kind of sham, that bailing out a bunch of greedy profligates really isn't necessary to keep us from going into a deep recession?
I don't buy it for a minute. But really now, if things were really as dire as the president says -- really as serious as the entire Democratic and Republican leadership on Capitol Hill tells us it is -- how is it possible that Congress acted like a bunch of immature louts with Pelosi screaming gibberish across the aisle and grown men who call themselves Republicans whining that the reason the bill failed was that Madame Speaker dressed them down in public?
(If Republicans had shown some hurt feelings on behalf of the taxpayer while spending all those trillions of dollars over the last decade, someone, somewhere might feel a little sympathy for them.)
If we really are at the edge of a precipice, why did they all join hands and jump over the edge together? If the only thing that unites them is their hatred for each other, maybe there's a way we can find a consensus using that as a starting point. I suggest pistols at 20 paces. At dawn. On the Mall.
Perhaps I'm being too kind when comparing the principles involved in this fiasco to the Marx Brothers. Maybe I should have used a more apt analogy. Porky Pig comes immediately to mind for obvious reasons. But I think an even more apropos mascot for this crew is Daffy Duck. Daffy's catch phrase -- "you're dethspicable" -- is especially appropriate given the circumstances.
Our entire political leadership has gone Looney Tunes. Let's just hope for Wall Street's sake "That's all, folks" doesn't become a catch phrase for this crisis.