La Commedia è finita!

Dana Milbank describes the one of the saddest fates that can befall any politician: irrelevancy. Milbank notes:

Presidential addresses to Congress are often dramatic moments. This one felt like a sideshow. Usually, the press gallery is standing-room-only; this time, only 26 of 90 seats were claimed by the deadline. Usually, some members arrive in the chamber hours early to score a center-aisle seat; 90 minutes before Thursday’s speech, only one Democrat was so situated.


But if there is a fate worse than irrelevancy it is derision. Milbank noticed that each time Obama reached the intended climax of his peroration some members of the audience sniggered, even members of his own party, instead of being moved or inspired. It was as if something had gone horribly wrong with a movie script, with people laughing each time a zombie appeared in a horror movie. Milbank writes:

“You should pass this jobs plan right away!” Obama exhorted. Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) chuckled.

“Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary — an outrage he has asked us to fix,” Obama went on. Widespread laughter broke out on the GOP side of the aisle.

“This isn’t political grandstanding,” Obama said. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) guffawed. …

“We’ve identified over 500 [regulatory] reforms, which will save billions of dollars,” the president claimed. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) giggled.

It was, in a way, more insulting than Joe Wilson’s “you lie” eruption during a previous presidential address to Congress. The lawmakers weren’t particularly hostile toward the president — they just regarded the increasingly unpopular Obama as irrelevant. And the inclination not to take the 43-percent president seriously wasn’t entirely limited to the Republicans.


But you can see why. The key element of successful comedy is the mismatch, as when some element in the scene clashes with all the rest it. Laurel and Hardy, Mutt and Jeff, Obama and Jobs. Ha-ha-ha. The sense of both dismissal and amusement was encapsulated in Herman Cain’s reaction to the speech: “We waited 30 months for this?”

Yep. But it’s not entirely a laughing matter, especially for President Obama. Only a thin line divides comedy from tragedy. Mel Brooks once observed that “tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” By some strange coincidence Joseph Stalin is said to have uttered almost the same thing. “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” That Stalin didn’t actually say it is less important than the fact that most people think he would. Stalin was that kind of guy. And comedy and tragedy are related in that kind of way. Most individuals feel like crying when they lose their job;  but when a guy gets up in front of Congress and offers to do the same to millions, now that’s funny.


But if there is one political condition even worse than being derided, it is becoming pitiable. There is something pathetic about watching a beaten man pretend he can continue, like the boxer who has to be turned by his corner to face in the right direction because he no longer knows where the center of the ring is. Yet there is a kind of dignity in it.


However the audience’s sympathy for the beaten man usually hinges on the actor’s self-awareness. We feel a sympathy for Pagliaccio the clown because he understands his plight, and faces it; but probably less for Amy Winehouse’s former husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, who has taken a wrecking ball to those around him and thinks it’s somebody else’s fault. If the President were to say “la Commedia è finita!”, he would rise to a greater dignity than Fielder-Civil, now serving a jail sentence for attempting a robbery with a fake gun, who could only say about the woman he led into a life of drugs that “I’m sorry love was not enough”.

Yep. And the first stimulus wasn’t enough either.

Yet the tragedy also consists in this. The joke is ultimately on America.  The standup comedy routine in front of Congress is ultimately a judgment of the political process that put it there; and if only 26 of 90 members of the press showed up to take their seats in the gallery, there’s no hiding the fact that most of them signed up to hear the script in 2008 — before they got the punchline. Now there is nothing to do but wait it out; America will limp on to November 2012 essentially without a functioning Presidency, and the international ship of state will tack  rudderless as it enters upon dangerous seas.


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