Although he can croon through watered down doo-wop tunes easily enough, former president Bill Clinton also displays a surprising capacity for grit when he delivers a soul-grinding rendition of "Heard it Through The Grapevine" ("Read It In the Headlines"). He even throws a greasy bone to his delta roots with a hearty "Whitewater Blues."
And that's just in the first collection of political humorist Paul Shanklin's parodies, a key stapleand one of the wittiest weaponsof the Rush Limbaugh Show since 1993. Shanklin scored the job when he phoned Limbaugh's producer as Bill Clinton and said, "I don't feel Rush and I are as close as we used to be. Can you work things out between me and Rush? I don't think we're really that far apart on the issues." Since then, he has written and produced over 800 political song parodies, skits, and spoof commercials, which have been compiled into eight albums.
As an impressionist, Shanklin's specialty has always been the wayward ex-president, whose voice he can not only imitate but take to falsetto. The unique ability to sing with a politician's voice allowed Shanklin to become a symbolically accurate documenter of Clinton's eight-year song and dancethrough such lyrically-altered classic tunes as "Wakin' Up Is Hard To Do," "In The Polls," and "Hey Paula":
Hey hey Paula,
It's kinda scary to be two.
If you swear it's true
Then I'll say you're loose….
Dispersed between these and many other songs in Shanklin's first album, Bill Clinton: The Early Years, are clips in which we hear Clinton denying any responsibility for Rwanda, never met her in his life, and placing a call to Jimmy Carter to ask him to build a secluded forest cabin, "just a one room with a Jacuzzi, that would be nice." One of the dryer bits involves our vice president: "Hi. I'm Forrest, Forrest Gore. You know, it's funny how things work out sometimes. I wasn't always vice president. A few years back, I was in the Senate. And then, for no particular reason, Bill Clinton asked me to run with him."
After listening to this album, you are left to wonder only two things: how did Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones" ever skip Shanklin's attention? And why didn't the real Clinton hire him to ghost-read his memoir for the audio book?
Reviewing Paul Shanklin definitely falls in the Bikini Contest Judge category of irresistible gigs. His comedic and vocal range stretch far beyond Clinton (indeed, he began his radio career by doing Ross Perot), as finely displayed on his last three albums: Vice Vice Squad (2000), The Usual Suspects (2002), and Mama Told Me Not To Run (2004). The juiciest offering in the former is a "C-Spam" interview of Edmund Morris:
CS: In your book, Stretch, we find some surprising revelations about the life and work of Ronald Reagan, such as his being abducted by aliens at age 11, that he spoke Japanese as a first language, and sold crack for the first three years of his administration
EM: No no, those are merely literary techniques to engage the reader and help reveal the enigma that was Ronald Reagan.
CS: So Dopey, Sneezy and the Sheriff of Nottingham were not actual cabinet members?
EM: No no, of course not. The fairy godmother banished them from the kingdom in chapter 5.
The Usual Suspects includes a variety of such delights, covering just about every figure-head of '90s liberalia. A skit called "Scare Wars: Attack of the Clowns" features cameos from them all, including Jesse Jackson: "Luke, am I your father?" Programming is interrupted by a commercial from Osama bin Laden: "Experience the magic of 70 Virgins laundry detergent and you will believe in it, too…or else." We are then treated to a truly hilarious Jimmy Carter Christmas Memory (inspiration for which was provided by Florence King, according to the liner notes). Anything that begins with the Nobel Laureate saying, in his typical hesitant tones"Many people have wonderful memories of Christmas. But I think about dietary fiber and painful bowel movements"can only go great places, and it does. Still, Shanklin's greatest feat is a refreshingly effective lampooning of President Bush's speech problems:
Maybe sometimes it seems I'm so carefree
With a verb or noun that's hard to hide.
And sometimes it seems with all I have to do I hurry
then your bound to hear me say that I am the bride.
I'm just a soul whose inventions are good,
Oh lord, please don't let me be misunderstand.
Every one of Bush's public announcements should by now be prefaced with a warning: "The following is subject to excessively trite mimicry." That Shanklin was able to spoof it in a funny way, when so many have tried and whole television series have been dedicated to the task, is final proof of the triumph of conservative political humor in the last fifteen years.
I had expected Shanklin's older Clintonian stuff to sound hackneyed. Some of it did. Much more if it, however, struck a poignant nostalgic chord. The early '90s, after all, saw the establishment of an alternative media through which the political Right came to dominate edgy humor and commentary. Epitomized by the talk radio revolutionof which Shanklin, paradoxically, is an unsung heroand the more recent advent of Fox News, this movement also included the likes of the aforementioned Florence King's National Review essays, P.J. O'Rourke's wildly successful political books, Christopher Buckley's novels, and the rise of Mark Steyn. The triumph transpired in both intellectual and popular realms. My own Generation X-Box (a.k.a. the Millenials)whose supposed conservatism has been the topic of much banter latelygrew up on this stuff. The voices of talk radio were often the first to tickle our sense of outrage, leading us to the literature that would refine it into a political consciousness. The first time I heard a Limbaugh parody was in the backseat of my dad's car, on my way to kindergarten.
Yet here's what gets me. How come until now I'd never heard of Paul Shanklin, but had heard of Air America's Randi Rhodes? As the mainstream media were busy writing hopeful profiles of Al Franken, whose idea of political comedy is to remind everyone of how funny he is, one realized that the rise of conservative talk radio had been treated like a cancer. Aside from the diagnosis and an occasional lament, the talk radio revolution wasn't televised, until of course it grew to the point of an immutable presence. Now it's referred to as if it were just another day in the week all along. Talk about it enough, and you can create something that never existed (see "Red Scare, the")but it doesn't work the other way around.
Bill Clinton's famous "Who is Rush Limbaugh?" line could be considered the epitaph for the Democratic Party. The same liberal myopia that once ignored the growth of talk radio is now motivating a lazy explanation of the phenomenon. The general assumption is that the alternative media was a response to conservatives feeling marginalized. True as this is, it only tells half the story. Conservatism may have been marginalized by the establishment media, but it was in its influential prime when talk radio took off in the early '90s, riding high off Reagan's triumph and the Soviet Union's demise. In the 1992 presidential election, nearly 60% of the vote went to conservative candidates. The rest went to the most conservative Democrat in decades, and the fervor with which Clinton was incessantly attacked proves beyond all else that the success of conservative media is primarily driven by a rigorous ideological force, rather than mere market demand.
Hopeful analysts predicting an upsurge in partisan liberal media are ignoring the power of integrated ideas. They might compare Howard Dean to Barry Goldwater, but extremism in defense of bike-paths is no virtueand it's no commitment to principle, either. After all, what does Dean actually believe in? Angry rhetoric and invective don't compel unless backed by a clear and consistent philosophical base; a base which liberalism has been notoriously lacking for a long time. Liberal politicians are clinging to the lame tenets of statism while accepting the successes of free-enterprise, admitting in the process that the two are entirely unrelated.
Whereas conservative self-deprecation is directed at the hypocrisies of the self, liberal self-deprecation is usually directed at the hypocrisies of liberalism. This is revealing. In the former, the ideas (one of which is the limitations of man) are still sacred and even validated; in the latter, they are undermined. And though the excesses of the current Republican leadership have provided valuable fodder for the successful Daily Show with Jon Stewart, even that show is driven by an overall ironic skepticism, not ideology-based comedy.
So it's not surprising that Shanklin's in full form in his most recent work, collected in Mama Told Me Not To Run, despite the fact that Republicans are holding all three branches of government. Among the highlights in this one is an injection of comic relief into the omni-annoying gay marriage debate:
Do you, Frank, take Maggie to be your lawfully wedded wife?
And do you, Maggie, take Frank to be your lawfully wedded husband?
And not to be left out, Senator Robert Byrd informs us that he wants "nothing but the best for you and your dirty laundry. Don't let subhuman contamination darken your linens! Get Mighty White…the detergent that not only cleans, it sanitizes your personal history of racial hostility."
Yes, it seems while dour liberals continue to build their administrative state into a Tower of Babel, Paul Shanklin and his fellow rightward wits will continue to lampoon the political culture, leaving conservatives and libertarians with the bestif not always lastlaugh.