Memorialized in Memo; or, where what we purpose proposes to parody

Louis Menand, in the September 20 New Yorker, takes the opportunity, with the recent publication of The Oxford Book of Parodies, to briefly discuss the world of parody, a world that currently, it seems, is too much with us, and “we lay waste our powers,” as Wordsworth said, a mother-lode of potential parody, if anyone knows Wordsworth anymore, for one of Menand’s points is that parody works only on the assumption readers “…[are] presumed to have a lot of literature at their mental fingertips.” In other words, parody is only effective if the reader knows the original.

Yet winter has indeed icussed us, and we are drenched in parody, for parody is now ubiquitous and can occur at random, without antecedent. Parody now springs from its own source; it does not even need a source. Life itself seems a parody of nature. It’s a dark matter, for, as Menand concludes, “…everything is quasi-parodic, when everything presents itself with a wink of self-conscious exaggeration…it has become virtually indistinguishable from the real thing.”

Consider, for example, the memos exchanged between Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Ron Ziegler published in Harper’s October issue, culled, apparently, from “100,000 pages of presidential records released by the Nixon Library in July.” Moynihan, 43 at the time and  Nixon’s counselor for urban affairs, wrote, or perhaps dictated, given it’s 1970, a memo to Ziegler, at the time Nixon’s press secretary (at 29, the youngest ever, Harper’s point out), berating the youthful neophyte for walking to a reception rather than taking a seat in an official White House car and riding to the event: “I know that appearances mean little to you, Ron, and that many of the supposed perquisites of the White House office seem more like burdens or even unnecessary expenditures to someone whose life has been so much lived in the more easygoing atmosphere of the Far West…But you have got to keep ever in mind the rule that appearances count.”

The Vietnam War is running; it’s two months after the Kent State massacre of duped students by the even dupier National Guard, and Moynihan sounds more like the counselor for etiquette rather than urban affairs.

Yet Ziegler responds with a full court press: “Can you blame me for disdaining, this once, the sycophantic procession of shiny black Chryslers in which lesser men cloak their insecurities, and choosing instead the leisurely promenade up Connecticut Avenue, throwing a little class on the otherwise benignly neglected locals and reveling in the charms of the summer evening?” But even that is all a throwing off of the scent prelude to Ziegler’s real thrust, the accusation that Moynihan’s real motive is to usurp Ziegler’s position as press secretary, for why else would Moynihan “put out all kinds of bad vibes about me [Ziegler].”

It’s the politics of parody that today draws interest – perhaps parody is always political in its intent, partisan in its tone, for, as Menand says, “it is harder for someone to subvert you if you are already subverting yourself.” As I read and reread the Moynihan/Ziegler to walk or ride memo exchange, I thought surely they can’t have been serious. They had to have been lampooning themselves in private: “1768-74 TUCKER Lt. Nat. (1834) II. 362 Thwarted in the cabinet, baited in parliament, and lampooned in public” (lampoon, OED), and memorialized in memo.

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