Leslie Nielsen and The Meaning of Life — Josh Marshall.
Leslie Nielsen died 6 1/2 years ago at the age of 84, a respectable degree of longevity after a working life as an actor that stretched over 60 years. I started thinking about him today for no particular reason: I was paddling around the Internet, reading one thing and then another and then happened upon Leslie Nielsen. For what it’s worth, my browsing history shows a series of searches and pages tied to the firing of Reince Priebus followed by stuff about Leslie Nielsen. How I got from one to the other I do not know.
Today I poked a bit deeper into something I’ve thought about here and there many times. Nielsen began his career in 1950 during the so-called ‘Television Golden Age’. According to his Wikipedia page he appeared in 46 live TV episodes in 1950 alone. His first big success was in the 1956 sci-fi flick Forbidden Planet. From 1950 to 1980 he worked more or less in this vein as a successful TV and movie actor. But if his career had ended in 1980 he would be indistinguishable from and largely immemorable as one of hundreds or thousands of mid-grade actors and actresses who populated film and television over many years but who few of us today would remember or have any need to remember.
But in 1980 Nielsen appeared as Dr. Rumack, his first ever comedic role, in Airplane!, a wildly successful spoof of the then popular transportation disaster movie genre. (Nielsen had also appeared in one of the classics of the genre, 1972’s Poseidon Adventure.) The Dr. Rumack character was an early iteration of the deadpan/ridiculous Det. Frank Drebin character Nielsen went on to play in the Police Squad!/Naked Gun franchise, the character he is now known for.
If you’re my age or older you’re old enough to have some memory of the pre-Airplane! Nielsen, which I think is at least marginally necessary to fully get the magic of the characters he played for the next 34 years of his life. It wasn’t just that Nielsen wasn’t a comedy actor. Nielsen specialized in a genre of mid-20th century American male screen roles from which all traces of comedy or irony were systematically removed through some chemical process in pre-production or earlier. He was the straightest of straight men. That’s what made his comedic roles – playing against that type or rather playing the same type in a world suddenly revealed as absurd – just magic.
There’s a great life lesson here about hope and the unknown, I’ve always thought, for those willing to see it, whatever our age. When Airplane! premiered, Nielsen was 54 years old, well into mid-life and at a stage when most of us are thinking more about what we have accomplished than what we will. It is certainly not like Nielsen had been any sort of professional failure in life. Far from it. He’d worked successfully as an actor for three decades. And yet not only was the story not over; it was really only beginning.
Years later, after his true calling as a comedic actor was widely recognized, he told an interviewer that rather than playing against type, comedy is what he’d always wanted to do. He just hadn’t had a chance. This makes me think of a gay man who only lets himself come out in the middle or late in life and yet still has a chance – enough time – to live as himself. Hopefully, happily, this seems likely to be less of a type in the future than it was in the past. But it applies as much to anyone who finds their true selves or calling with enough time left in the race.
Two years after Airplane! in 1982, the same team of which created Airplane! cast Nielsen as Det. Frank Drebin in Police Squad! This is the ur-Nielsen comedic character, the straight ahead and no-nonsense character walking through and oblivious to a world that is only nonsense. I watched this show at the time and absolutely loved it. It was in 1982 and I was 13, lonely and deeply damaged without really knowing it, having lost my mother in a car wreck a year earlier. I needed comedy and I found it. I could scarcely believe when I was reading up on Police Squad! earlier this afternoon that not only did the show not make it past one season, it aired only 6 episodes! Six episodes! I remember looking forward to each new episode every week. It’s hard for me to believe it went on for such a short period of time. But memory plays tricks on us.
Let me quote at length from Police Squad’s wikipedia entry on the failure of the show (which of course wasn’t really a failure since it spawned the Naked Gun movies) with particular reference to Matt Groening on how the show was actually far ahead of its time …
ABC announced the cancellation of Police Squad! after four of its six episodes had aired in March 1982. The final two episodes were aired that summer. According to the DVD Commentary of “A Substantial Gift” (episode 1), then-ABC entertainment president Tony Thomopoulos said “Police Squad! was cancelled because “the viewer had to watch it in order to appreciate it.” What Thomopoulos meant was that the viewer had to pay very close attention to the show in order to get much of the humor, while most other TV shows did not demand as much effort from the viewer. In its annual “Cheers and Jeers” issue, TV Guide magazine called the explanation for the cancellation “the most stupid reason a network ever gave for ending a series.”
Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, has said, “If Police Squad! had been made twenty years later, it would have been a smash. It was before its time. In 1982 your average viewer was unable to cope with its pace, its quick-fire jokes. But these days they’d have no problems keeping up, I think we’ve proved that.”
This wasn’t the only way that Nielsen was and remained ahead of his time, even as the Drebin character and various permutations of that ur-Nielsen character became something on the level of pop cultural touchstones. Whoever wrote the lede of Nielsen’s wikipedia entry described his comedic oeuvre like this: “In his comedy roles, Nielsen specialized in portraying characters oblivious to and complicit in their absurd surroundings.”
I can scarcely think of a more concise description. That is also what makes Nielsen the great comedic interpreter of the Trump Era, even though he didn’t live to see it.
Can there be any description of our time, the last two years and especially the last six months, better than “characters oblivious to and complicit in their absurd surroundings.” I do not think so. It captures so much of the comedy, horror, absurdity and moral rot of our times. It is unquestionably why this “nothing to see here” gif of Nielsen as Det. Frank Drebin has become so ubiquitous a signifier during the Trump presidency.
While there’s life, there’s hope, as the aphorism has it. And humor, which Nielsen gave us so much of, is one of the things that makes life both joy (at the high moments) and endurable (at the low). You will never know till your life is over entirely what it meant or fully who you were. And sometimes not even then. There is always possibility.
Taking It To The Streets — Charlie Pierce on how resistance worked.
All week, the South Lawn of the Capitol had been the scene of protests of varying sizes, all of them directed at the U.S. Senate for the purposes of demonstrating how unpopular were that body’s attempts to slice and dice the Affordable Care Act. There were protests in Upper Senate Park, too, across Constitution Avenue, the home of the world’s most off-key carillon. On Wednesday evening, there was a big rally there supporting Planned Parenthood. Both Senator Al Franken and Senator Professor Warren spoke at that one. At odd moments, I’d wander out and talk to the people gathered there.
They were from all over the country. Some of them had been very sick. Some of them still were. All of them were very uneasy about their personal future. On Tuesday night, when it looked like Mitch McConnell had won his gamble against representative democracy, there were 15 people on the South Lawn, at midnight, chanting up at the empty Capitol. They were the stakes in McConnell’s gamble, and they were shouting at a vacant building. This was a scene that seemed suitable, and sadly symbolic, to the moment at hand.
All that changed early Friday morning, when 51 senators raided McConnell’s game. You could hear the cheers from outside in the halls of the Senate. Various senators, including SPW again, went outside and congratulated the people on the South Lawn. The last (for now) attempt to chloroform the ACA formally through legislation had failed. (Watch, however, how the campaign to sabotage it ramps up now, led by the White House, whose petulant occupant will gladly pull your temple down on his head.) As I walked back into the Capitol, what came to mind were all the people I have heard over the years who told me that political activism was a sucker’s game, a rigged wheel, a space for performance art with an audience of rich people. I agreed with a lot of the last part of that, and still do. But there are only two ways to go, even if you accept the latter part of the premise. You can accept that political activism is a sucker’s game and give up, or wrap yourself in the robes of ideological purity as though they were suits of armor. Or, you can accept that political activism is a sucker’s game and then engage in political activism to make it less so. And, as I went back and forth between the Senate chamber and the South Lawn in the dark of the early morning on Friday, I thought a lot about Alaska.
In 2010, the American people elected the worst Congress in the history of the republic. (This distinction held until 2014 when, against all odds, they elected a worse one.) One of the reasons this happened was that the well-financed AstroTurfed Tea Party movement took down a number of Republican incumbents in primary elections in favor of an odd lot of utter whackadoos. (This is how we got Sharron Angle’s running against Harry Reid on a platform of putting America’s currency back on the poultry standard.) Nowhere was this more clear than in Alaska, where incumbent Lisa Murkowski lost her primary to a militia-tinged meathead named Joe Miller. (Among his other deeply held positions, Miller was quite complimentary toward the late East Germany for how effectively its wall worked.) Instead of walking away, Murkowski organized a write-in campaign to run in the general election. Granted, it was better funded than most such efforts, but it was still the first successful write-in campaign for the Senate since 1954.
(And, let’s be fair, “Murkowski” is tough sledding for a write-in candidate. In fact, one of the causes of action in Miller’s subsequent endless litigation of the results was trying to disqualify any ballot on which Murkowski’s name was misspelled.)
And that happened to be how Lisa Murkowski was even in the Senate at all this week to stand firm against the pressure from her caucus and against clumsy threats from down at Camp Runamuck. That happened to be how she was even in the chamber at all to stick to John McCain like his shadow through the long run-up to the climactic vote. That happened to be how she was in the Senate at all—because, in 2010, a lot of people in Alaska went the extra mile to keep her there. That’s how political activism works—one little ripple seven years earlier becomes a kind of wave at the most unexpected time.
And that is the final and lasting lesson of this week in Washington. The primary force driving the events of Thursday night and Friday morning was the energy and (yes) persistence of all those people who swamped town hall meetings, who wrote, or called, or e-mailed various congresscritters to show them what real political pressure felt like. I remember watching town halls in Maine, to which people drove hundreds of miles to tell Susan Collins what they thought. Those people bucked up vulnerable Democratic senators so that Chuck Schumer could count on a united Congress.
They brought pressure on Republican governors, too. People like Brian Sandoval in Nevada and John Kasich in Ohio were handed put-up-or-shut-up choices from their constituents. Perhaps the most significant Republican governor was Doug Ducey of Arizona, whom McCain repeatedly said he would consult before voting. Late on Thursday afternoon, Ducey came out strongly against the bill. But it all begins with the people who put themselves in the streets, and the people in wheelchairs who got roughed up on Capitol Hill, and all those impassioned voices on the phone, just as Lisa Murkowski’s continued political survival depended on all those Alaskans who took the extra time to write in her name on a ballot.
We all decide, ultimately and individually, if the country is worth saving, one heavy lift at a time, knowing that, if the country is worth saving, we never will come to the last of them.
Crazy On Line 1 — Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker got a phone call. Warning: for those of you who don’t like harsh language, move on.
On Wednesday night, I received a phone call from Anthony Scaramucci, the new White House communications director. He wasn’t happy. Earlier in the night, I’d tweeted, citing a “senior White House official,” that Scaramucci was having dinner at the White House with President Trump, the First Lady, Sean Hannity, and the former Fox News executive Bill Shine. It was an interesting group, and raised some questions. Was Trump getting strategic advice from Hannity? Was he considering hiring Shine? But Scaramucci had his own question—for me.
“Who leaked that to you?” he asked. I said I couldn’t give him that information. He responded by threatening to fire the entire White House communications staff. “What I’m going to do is, I will eliminate everyone in the comms team and we’ll start over,” he said. I laughed, not sure if he really believed that such a threat would convince a journalist to reveal a source. He continued to press me and complain about the staff he’s inherited in his new job. “I ask these guys not to leak anything and they can’t help themselves,” he said. “You’re an American citizen, this is a major catastrophe for the American country. So I’m asking you as an American patriot to give me a sense of who leaked it.”
In Scaramucci’s view, the fact that word of the dinner had reached a reporter was evidence that his rivals in the West Wing, particularly Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, were plotting against him. While they have publicly maintained that there is no bad blood between them, Scaramucci and Priebus have been feuding for months. After the election, Trump asked Scaramucci to join his Administration, and Scaramucci sold his company, SkyBridge Capital, in anticipation of taking on a senior role. But Priebus didn’t want him in the White House, and successfully blocked him from being appointed to a job until last week, when Trump offered him the communications job over Priebus’s vehement objections. In response to Scaramucci’s appointment, Sean Spicer, an ally of Priebus’s, resigned his position as press secretary. And in an additional slight to Priebus, the White House’s official announcement of Scaramucci’s hiring noted that he would report directly to the President, rather than to the chief of staff.
Scaramucci’s first public appearance as communications director was a slick and conciliatory performance at the lectern in the White House briefing room last Friday. He suggested it was time for the White House to turn a page. But since then, he has become obsessed with leaks and threatened to fire staffers if he discovers that they have given unauthorized information to reporters. Michael Short, a White House press aide considered close to Priebus, resigned on Tuesday after Scaramucci publicly spoke about firing him. Meanwhile, several damaging stories about Scaramucci have appeared in the press, and he blamed Priebus for most of them. Now, he wanted to know whom I had been talking to about his dinner with the President. Scaramucci, who initiated the call, did not ask for the conversation to be off the record or on background.
“Is it an assistant to the President?” he asked. I again told him I couldn’t say. “O.K., I’m going to fire every one of them, and then you haven’t protected anybody, so the entire place will be fired over the next two weeks.”
I asked him why it was so important for the dinner to be kept a secret. Surely, I said, it would become public at some point. “I’ve asked people not to leak things for a period of time and give me a honeymoon period,” he said. “They won’t do it.” He was getting more and more worked up, and he eventually convinced himself that Priebus was my source.
“They’ll all be fired by me,” he said. “I fired one guy the other day. I have three to four people I’ll fire tomorrow. I’ll get to the person who leaked that to you. Reince Priebus—if you want to leak something—he’ll be asked to resign very shortly.” The issue, he said, was that he believed Priebus had been worried about the dinner because he hadn’t been invited. “Reince is a fucking paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac,” Scaramucci said. He channelled Priebus as he spoke: “ ‘Oh, Bill Shine is coming in. Let me leak the fucking thing and see if I can cock-block these people the way I cock-blocked Scaramucci for six months.’ ” (Priebus did not respond to a request for comment.)
Scaramucci was particularly incensed by a Politico report about his financial-disclosure form, which he viewed as an illegal act of retaliation by Priebus. The reporter said Thursday morning that the document was publicly available and she had obtained it from the Export-Import Bank. Scaramucci didn’t know this at the time, and he insisted to me that Priebus had leaked the document, and that the act was “a felony.”
“I’ve called the F.B.I. and the Department of Justice,” he told me.
“Are you serious?” I asked.
“The swamp will not defeat him,” he said, breaking into the third person. “They’re trying to resist me, but it’s not going to work. I’ve done nothing wrong on my financial disclosures, so they’re going to have to go fuck themselves.”
Scaramucci also told me that, unlike other senior officials, he had no interest in media attention. “I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock,” he said, speaking of Trump’s chief strategist. “I’m not trying to build my own brand off the fucking strength of the President. I’m here to serve the country.” (Bannon declined to comment.)
He reiterated that Priebus would resign soon, and he noted that he told Trump that he expected Priebus to launch a campaign against him. “He didn’t get the hint that I was reporting directly to the President,” he said. “And I said to the President here are the four or five things that he will do to me.” His list of allegations included leaking the Hannity dinner and the details from his financial-disclosure form.
I got the sense that Scaramucci’s campaign against leakers flows from his intense loyalty to Trump. Unlike other Trump advisers, I’ve never heard him say a bad word about the President. “What I want to do is I want to fucking kill all the leakers and I want to get the President’s agenda on track so we can succeed for the American people,” he told me.
He cryptically suggested that he had more information about White House aides. “O.K., the Mooch showed up a week ago,” he said. “This is going to get cleaned up very shortly, O.K.? Because I nailed these guys. I’ve got digital fingerprints on everything they’ve done through the F.B.I. and the fucking Department of Justice.”
“What?” I interjected.
“Well, the felony, they’re gonna get prosecuted, probably, for the felony.” He added, “The lie detector starts—” but then he changed the subject and returned to what he thought was the illegal leak of his financial-disclosure forms. I asked if the President knew all of this.
“Well, he doesn’t know the extent of all that, he knows about some of that, but he’ll know about the rest of it first thing tomorrow morning when I see him.”
Scaramucci said he had to get going. “Yeah, let me go, though, because I’ve gotta start tweeting some shit to make this guy crazy.”
Minutes later, he tweeted, “In light of the leak of my financial info which is a felony. I will be contacting @FBI and the @TheJusticeDept #swamp @Reince45.” With the addition of Priebus’s Twitter handle, he was making public what he had just told me: that he believed Priebus was leaking information about him. The tweet quickly went viral.
Scaramucci seemed to have second thoughts. Within two hours he deleted the original tweet and posted a new one denying that he was targeting the chief of staff. “Wrong!” he said, adding a screenshot of an Axios article that said, “Scaramucci appears to want Priebus investigated by FBI.” Scaramucci continued, “Tweet was public notice to leakers that all Sr Adm officials are helping to end illegal leaks. @Reince45.”
A few hours later, I appeared on CNN to discuss the overnight drama. As I was talking about Scaramucci, he called into the show himself and referenced our conversation. He changed his story about Priebus. Instead of saying that he was trying to expose Priebus as a leaker, he said that the reason he mentioned Priebus in his deleted tweet was because he wanted to work together with Priebus to discover the leakers.
“He’s the chief of staff, he’s responsible for understanding and uncovering and helping me do that inside the White House, which is why I put that tweet out last night,” Scaramucci said, after noting that he had talked to me Wednesday night. He then made an argument that journalists were assuming that he was accusing Priebus because they know Priebus leaks to the press.
“When I put out a tweet, and I put Reince’s name in the tweet,” he said, “they’re all making the assumption that it’s him because journalists know who the leakers are. So, if Reince wants to explain that he’s not a leaker, let him do that.”
Scaramucci then made a plea to viewers. “Let me tell you something about myself,” he said. “I am a straight shooter.”
Since this article was published, Reince Priebus was fired as Chief of Staff and Mr. Scarmucci’s wife filed for divorce.
Doonesbury — Those parts are gone.