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Riff and Parade

Riff and Parade

by William H. Benson

August 27, 2015

     “Life is a lot like jazz,” said George Gershwin. “It is best when you improvise.”

     During the 2004 political debates, the radio host Don Imus described the two vice-presidential candidates Dick Cheney and John Edwards as “Dr. Doom and the Breck Girl,” because Cheney appeared glum, dour, like a bulldog, whereas Edwards appeared well coiffed, “like a pretty girl in a shampoo ad.”

     A journalist in Florida named Roy Peter Clark then riffed on Don Imus’s comment. Riff is a jazz term that describes improvisation, when one musician borrows and builds on the musical phrase of another. In Clark’s hands Cheney and Edwards became “Shrek versus Breck,” “Dr. No versus Mister Glow,” “Cold Stare versus Good Hair,” and “Gravitas versus Dental Floss.”

     We now enter the 2016 presidential campaign, and it is a crowded GOP field. Real estate mogul Donald Trump leads the pack with an approval rating of 24% in the polls, and in the first debate on August 6, he hogged ten minutes of airtime, the most of any candidate.

     He brags, “I am a man of great achievement. I win. I always win. Knock on wood. I win. It’s what I do. I beat people. I win.” This is from the man who wrote the book The Art of the Deal. One wonders, “How did this bragging billionaire with so little substance on the issues even get on the stage?”

     A riff on the first debate. “Trump versus the trumped.” “’You’re fired!’ versus ‘I need to get hired.’” “The wild view versus the mild few.” “A clown versus the frowns.” “Exasperating versus uninviting.” “The cold stare and funny hair versus the horrified glare and less hair.” “The outrageous versus the ungracious.” “The Grumpy Cat look versus the bulldog spooks.”

     The columnist Maureen Dowd points out Trump’s major difficulty. “How does he curb the merciless heckler side of himself, the side that has won over voters who think he’s a refreshing truth-teller, so that he can seem refined enough to win over voters who think he’s crude and cartoonish?”

     Refined he is not. “George Will is a dope,” Donald Trump says, and George Will says that he has “other and better reasons for thinking it might not be altogether wise to entrust him with the nation’s nuclear arsenal.”

     Timothy Egan writes in The New York Times, “Normal politics can’t explain Trump. For that you need Freud. Trump fits the classic definition of narcissistic personality disorder. Everything that comes out of Trump’s mouth is junk, but at least it fits a pattern.”

     Life in America is a parade. Most stand on the sidewalk to watch, and we call them spectators or fans or voters. Only a few march in the parade, and those we call celebrities, stars, athletes, champions, or politicians. Certain spectators yearn to join the parade, to make the transition from fan to celebrity, from follower to leader, from politician to statesman, but few do so. Most are poorly equipped to handle the stardom or leadership. They falter and lose their way.

     For example, because of his musical talent, Elvis Presley led the parade for two decades, but he possessed zero talent to deal with the celebrity status. He faltered, lost his way, and died at forty-two.

     The parade demands our attention. It says, “Turn on the television. Watch this movie. Listen to him sing. Read this novel. Watch him pass the ball. Listen to this glib politician. The parade is passing by, and if you glance away, you will miss something exciting that will thrill you for a moment.”

     The parade’s quality is another matter. More often than not it is of low quality, even trashy, junky, degrading, or uninspiring, with scant fulfillment or substance. A Hollywood executive named Fred Friendly said it best. “Television and the movies make so much money at their very worst, why would they want to achieve their very best?”

     The English writer, Samuel Johnson said, “When familiarity and noise claim the praise due to knowledge, art, and elegance, we must beat down such pretensions.”

     Donald Trump represents all that is “familiarity and noise,” like a sugar high, but who among the Republican candidates stands for “knowledge, art, and elegance?”

     Matthew Continetti in the Washington Free Beacon approved of Senator Marco Rubio, saying that his “’crisp and compelling answers’ made him the clear winner of the debate, proving he’s a true ‘political talent,’ who appeared ‘confident, energetic, eloquent, and knowledgeable,’ with a great command of both domestic and foreign policy detail.” David Harsanyi in said the same, that Rubio is “the most gifted and well-positioned candidate in the GOP field.”

     More debates will follow, the parade marches on, and we shall see if Rubio’s “knowledge” can trump Trump’s “noise.” If life is a lot like jazz, then Rubio and the others might have to improvise. They might have to riff on Donald Trump’s bizarre statements. They might have to “beat down such pretensions.”