Historical Laughter

Those who don’t have power tend to make fun of those who do. But what happens when the power shifts?

Lytton Strachey picked his moment to make sport of Thomas Arnold and other Victorians. (Tate Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY)
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November 5: The Grand Marshal [Montholon] is angry because the Emperor told him he was nothing but a ninny....

January 14 [1817]: Dinner, with trivial conversation on the superiority of stout over thin women....

January 15: [He] looks up the names of the ladies of his court. He is moved. ‘Ah! It was a fine empire. I had 83 million human beings under my government—more than half the population of Europe.' To hide his emotion, the Emperor sings.

A disillusioning close-up—the debunker's friend—may excite hilarity at the expense of greatness. Poor Napoleon: in the 1970 film Waterloo, Rod Steiger played the emperor, giving an over-the-top performance in Steiger's smoldering sanpaku Actors Studio style. In the heat of the battle of Waterloo, Steiger's Napoleon, exasperated at Marshal Ney, yells: "Can't I leave the battlefield for a minute?!"

In its prospering days before television, Henry Luce's Time magazine had an assortment of lenses for heroes and bores, and a prose style that could turn into a resonant travesty of the Homeric. Often the cover-story formula—ritualized by the magazine's less imaginative editors—called for a paragraph devoted to what the cover subject had for breakfast. A 1936 story on Republican presidential candidate Alf Landon of Kansas, for example, stated: "At 7:20 he was down to a breakfast of orange juice, fruit, scrambled eggs and kidneys, toast and coffee...husky, broad-shouldered Governor Landon...a wide smile crinkling his plain, friendly face. ‘Top o' the mornin' to you all.'" Such close-up details (called "biopers," for "biography and personality," in queries that the editors in New York sent to correspondents in the field) were meant to give the reader some unexpected sense of what the person was like—and, equally important, to impress the reader with the magazine's intimate access to the powerful.

The Breakfast Technique had antecedents—from Plutarch and Suetonius up through Elbert Hubbard, the turn-of-the-20th-century writer and propagandist for can-do American inventors and tycoons, famous as the author of A Message to Garcia. Theodore H. White, who was Luce's Chungking correspondent during World War II and, much later, the author of the Making of the President books, used the closeup-and-breakfast technique in his sketches of candidates and presidents; White went in for the organ tones of Big History. But by 1972 he had grown a little ashamed of the Inside Glimpse. He remembered how reporters, himself among them, swarmed in and out of George McGovern's hotel room after McGovern received the Democratic presidential nomination. "All of us are observing him, taking notes like mad, getting all the little details. Which I think I invented as a method of reporting and which I now sincerely regret," White would tell Timothy Crouse for Crouse's book The Boys on the Bus. "Who gives a f— if the guy had milk and Total for breakfast?"

Emerson's dictum about heroes becoming bores applies not just to people but to literary styles, hemlines, to almost all trends and novelties, even to big ideas. Marxism and Communism, heroic and hopeful to many in the West after the October Revolution, became something more sinister than a bore—the Stalinist horror. Almost concurrently, during the 1920s, prospering American business seemed a hero to many ("The business of America is business," Calvin Coolidge famously said), but came to seem to many a villainous fraud and betrayer after the Crash of 1929. Herbert Hoover did not get far with his line, in November of 1929, that "any lack of confidence in the economic future or the basic strength of business in the United States is foolish." Franklin Roosevelt in the mid-'30s excoriated "economic royalists" or "Bourbons"—and then joked that his critics thought he "dined on a breakfast of grilled millionaire." ("I am an exceedingly mild-mannered person," he add­ed, "a devotee of scrambled eggs.")

Then came yet another flip, a new lens. After Pearl Harbor, newly and urgently mobilized American business and industry became heroes again, churning out the immense quantities of guns, bombs, planes, ships, tanks and other materiel that were, in the end, a chief reason the Allies won World War II. It was in that context that General Motors President Charles Wilson, who became Eisenhower's secretary of defense, declared in 1953, "For years I thought that what was good for the country was good for General Motors, and vice versa." The statement would be uprooted from its postwar context and satirized as neo-Babbittry, a motto of the consumerist/corporate Age of Eisenhower.

The 1960s, which seemed chaotically heroic to many—an invigorating idealistic generational turning that followed the '50s, when the young were silent and the elders-in-power were senescent—came to seem, by the time of the Reagan administration and fitfully thereafter, oppressive, a collective demographic narcissism that had used up too much of the American oxygen for far too long.

Each age ingests the previous one at the same time it rejects it. The new age builds upon the old. The work is not discontinuous, and the currents of transmission are complex.


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