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All the presidents' dogs

By Jake Tapper

July 7, 2007

The Los Angeles Times

AS A BIT OF COLOR in a recent profile, the Boston Globe revealed that in 1983, current GOP presidential aspirant Mitt Romney hoisted a kennel containing the beloved family dog Seamus atop the roof of the family Chevrolet station wagon for a 12-hour summer drive to the family manse at Lake Huron, Canada.

Seamus did not appreciate the accommodations and was soon expressing his concern with a gastrointestinal discharge, as is an Irish setter's wont. Amid groans of disgust from his five sons, Romney pulled over and washed off the car, thereby demonstrating what the hometown paper described as characteristic "emotion-free crisis management."

Other publications quickly tracked down animal rights activists, who thought the story revealed something else entirely about the former governor of Massachusetts. His state's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals hypothesized that Seamus' traveling penthouse may have been illegal. The more aggressive People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wondered whether Romney was missing what neurologists term a mirror neuron, a condition that prevents basic compassion.

Amid the hullabaloo, the candidate's wife, Ann, posted on the family blog that "Mitt and I love our dogs" and, moreover -- Seamus' scatological protest notwithstanding -- the dog loved that kennel. "Every time he saw it, he jumped up on the tailgate, walked in and lay down," she wrote. "It was just like the kennel he curled up in at home."

Lest anyone think her husband callous, Mrs. Romney offered that the whole family cried when their Weimaraner Marley died last year. As for Seamus, he "lived to a ripe old age, basking in the affection of a large family."

From George Washington's hounds to the current president's Scottish terrier Barney, Americans seem to like presidents with pets, and presidents have generally embraced the humanizing effect the creatures can bring. Calvin Coolidge once said: "Any man who does not like dogs and want them about does not deserve to be in the White House."

But the history of politicians and pets can be a complicated one. Not every president has embraced animals the way that, say, President Clinton loved his chocolate Lab, Buddy -- seemingly his only friend during the dark days of impeachment.

Harry Truman may be famously quoted as saying, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog." But when a cocker spaniel puppy named Feller arrived as an anonymous gift in December 1947, Truman announced he didn't want to keep the dog, causing a minor controversy and upsetting dog lovers across the country. "Feller the unwanted dog," as he came to be known, ended up on an Ohio farm.

Lyndon Johnson shocked animal lovers when, in the Rose Garden, he lifted his beagles Him and Her by their ears. LBJ assured the crowd that the subsequent sounds were yelps of joy. "It's good for them," he said. "It does them good to let them bark."

Unconvinced, pet lovers yelped as well. A West Virginia dogcatcher told a reporter he'd run the president in were he to lift a dog that way in Charleston.

Hands down, no politician has an odder pet story than onetime presidential aspirant and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). As a student at Harvard Medical School in the 1970s, Frist would regularly visit local animal shelters, adopt cats, promise to care for them and then conduct scientific experiments on them.

What a treasure trove of opposition research it must have seemed to the 1994 campaign of then-Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.) to read Frist's autobiography, in which the cardiothoracic surgeon described his thinking at the time as "not going to let a few sentiments about cute, furry little creatures stand in the way of his career."

But even with this rather distasteful treatment of his adopted cats used against him by his opponent, Frist won that race -- overwhelmingly.

"Feller the unwanted dog" is an obscure passage of Truman hagiography; Johnson survived Beagle-gate. And the Romney controversy as of now seems nothing more than an odd media indulgence during these, um, dog days of summer.

Americans love pets, but when it comes to pet abuse, we seem to take a "don't ask, don't tell" approach, respecting the sanctity of family life and extending the boundaries to include the doghouse in the backyard. Who among us can fairly judge what complicated understandings a man may arrive at with his dog?

I've been asked if I think Romney a less-promising candidate for having hoisted Seamus atop the family car. I don't, though I do think the tale says something about him -- perhaps that he's a bit old school. It will be up to voters to judge whether Seamus' unpleasant trip to Canada matters more than the fact that other candidates, such as Barack Obama and Rudy Giuliani, don't own any pets at all. Now that's just weird.

***

 

Los Angeles Times
OPINION

October 10, 2004

John Edwards, You're No Tom Cruise

By Jake Tapper

All Kelly Ripa had to do was suggest that Sen. John Edwards, her guest on Thursday's "Live With Regis & Kelly," get Tom Cruise to play him if there were a movie version of campaign 2004. From there, Edwards ran with it.

Tuesday's vice presidential debate, Edwards suggested, was a replay of the courtroom scene from the 1992 film "A Few Good Men." Edwards was the young, handsome, idealistic Lt. Daniel Kaffee, played by Cruise. That left Vice President Dick Cheney in the Jack Nicholson role of the villainous Marine Col. Nathan R. Jessup defending his extremism in the name of national security.

Edwards even acted out the scene. "Cheney (saying), 'You need me on that wall! You need me on that wall!' "

The audience laughed. "And me saying, 'You can't handle the truth!' "

Overlooking the fact that Nicholson's character actually says both lines, Edwards was only embracing what has become an American ritual. Political analysts and entertainers constantly struggle to come up with such pop-culture metaphors for politicians -- and some have proved quite resilient. Jackie Kennedy could not have known how long the musical "Camelot" would stand for the "brief shining moment" of John F. Kennedy's presidency when, a week after his assassination, she urged journalist Theodore White to quote one of the show's tunes for a Life magazine epilogue. Such metaphors can also be wielded as a shiv; decades after then-Vice President Richard Nixon tarred 1956 Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson as an "indecisive ... pathetic Hamlet on the American political stage," the Shakespearean stain remains in Stevenson's biographies.

"A Few Good Men" is hardly the first film to be revived in this election cycle. Conservatives giggled when, just in time for both the presidential debates and the "Star Wars" trilogy DVD release, some began comparing Sen. John Kerry to C-3PO. Kerry defenders don't see any similarity between the decorated Vietnam War veteran and George Lucas' gold droid -- a multilingual, hand-wringing, fey Cassandra who advocates surrender.

Who's President Bush in this conservative universe? Swash-buckling Han Solo, who even says "Bring 'em on" when fighting the Death Star, though that sentiment was assuredly better received in 1977.

Perhaps even some Kerry advocates might find it amusing to consider the debate over prospects in Iraq through the lens of "Star Wars." Particularly if -- as the conservative bloggers who first came up with the idea -- one doesn't have a tough time transposing the president's head onto Solo's body.

"Sir," C-3P0 says to Solo in one scene, "the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1."

"Never tell me the odds!" retorts Solo.

In its purest form, the idea of the exercise is to find a preexisting dynamic that sums up both candidates' strengths and weaknesses through the dramas we find more understandable and entertaining. In that vein, it has been suggested that R2-D2 is a better stand-in for the president -- still on the side of the good guys, but shorter and sometimes difficult to understand.

Such metaphors work as lofty ways to insult a candidate. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer sees in Kerry too much of vain chess master Efim Bogoljubov, who said, "When I am White, I win because I am White" (White has the advantage of moving first.); "When I am Black, I win because I am Bogoljubov."

Far more accessible than the Bogoljubov metaphor are the comparisons between baseball teams and political parties, with the wealthy, winning Yankees mirroring the GOP, while Kerry's Boston Red Sox, most famous for choking, are Democrats.

The Bush-Kerry pop culture debate can take on the Shakespearean erudition from Stevenson's time. At www.shaksper.net, which bills itself as the global electronic conference for the Bard, it is a given that Kerry is the conflicted, discursive Hamlet; the great debate deals with whether Bush is Prince Hal from "Henry IV," emerging from his wasted tavern days to grow into a respected monarch, or Hamlet's impulsive but more assured Laertes.

But Edwards' contribution to the exercise is worth a second look. Americans are being asked to reelect a leader whose team, like Col. Jessup's, has been accused of cover-ups and excessive force in the name of national security. But it remains to be seen whether Americans wouldn't prefer the zealous Jessup over the more dovish Kaffee to guard their families in the post-9/11 world.

Where Comedy Isn't King

By Jake Tapper

March 20, 2006

The New York Times  

Washington -- I WAS only a few hours into my recent two-week stay in Baghdad when I first noticed the discordant images on Iraqi television: Between the grisly shots of war dead, pools of blood and burnt-out shells of cars came bits of wacky slapstick.
 
Grown men and women joked around in silly makeup and goofy costumes, emoting exaggeratedly, acting like buffoons. It was difficult to compute at first: amid the horror, some Iraqis were actually trying to make the country laugh.
 
With the newfound freedom of speech here, more than 100 television and radio stations have been licensed; the American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, marveled at the transformation a few days ago, noting that until the invasion Uday Hussein's ''pen ruled supreme.'' This has resulted not only in more news and public affairs programming, but many new entertainment shows.
 
Every Tuesday night, for instance, the Kurdish TV station KurdSat runs ''Program,'' which offers music and skits about corruption and society. Every Friday afternoon ''Caricatures,'' on the satellite station Al Sharqiya, lampoons sectarian strife and the annoyances of day-to-day life like cellphones. The American Idol-esque ''Iraq Star,'' which recently completed a season's run on Al Sumariya, came with its own version of Simon Cowell named Mo Hadi.
 
On radio, every day the Rashid station offers a four-hour show called ''DJ Rashid,'' which brings listeners music, comedy and various contests. Callers share jokes and poems on the Mahaba radio station's ''Mahtata'' show every evening.
 
Struck by this phenomenon, my producers and I called Iraqi TV and spoke to Amjad Hamid, the manager of the entertainment division. He seemed very proud of a new sitcom set to debut next month. In 15 half-hour episodes, ''Me and Layla'' -- starring Odei Abdel-Sattar, an Iraqi Danny DeVito -- will show the misadventures of a hapless Romeo. Mr. Hamid invited us to visit the set to interview the producer, director and actors. He was convinced that what they were trying to do was important.
 
When we went a few days later to where they were filming in north Baghdad, we could have been on a back lot in Burbank. A one-camera crew shot a scene where the diminutive Mr. Abdel-Sattar and another actor -- the straight man, it seemed -- had an animated discussion. The director, Jamal Abed-Jasim -- bald, wearing a red shirt and tan vest -- barked out his vision; a woman in a business suit clutching a clipboard never left his side. The smooth-as-silk producer, Mazin Mohammed Mustafa, paced and smoked. Mr. Abdel-Sattar hammed it up off camera. Gaffers and grips tended to their tasks; extras milled around, waiting to shine.
 
For us, it was a chance to cover something besides car bombs, carnage and body counts. That perhaps understandable focus -- and concerns for our own security -- have clearly hindered the ability of journalists to tell stories about Iraqi society, about the less obvious ways that Iraqis are trying to rebuild their country.
 
''Iraqis have a real need to smile now to make them forget all the destruction and terrorism surrounding them,'' Mr. Abdel-Sattar told us, sunglasses perched atop his head. ''God willing, things will get better.''
 
Mr. Mustafa, the producer, told us more comedies were in production at Iraqi television stations now than at any time during Saddam Hussein's reign. And many of them were political -- something unheard of. He echoed the sentiment of so many Hollywood producers: ''Tragedy is easy; comedy is where the challenge is.''
 
''Every director in Iraq wants to make the Iraqi people smile,'' he told us. ''To ease what they are going through, to make the average Iraqi forget about the misery of his daily life.''
 
Yet tragedy still has a way of rearing its head.
 
We had been on the set for less than an hour when Mr. Mustafa got a phone call that clearly upset him. Grabbing Mr. Abed-Jasim by the arm, Mr. Mustafa took him aside and told him that gunmen had assassinated Mr. Hamid, the entertainment-division chief, outside his Baghdad home just minutes earlier.
 
The director told the cast and crew. Shock and grief turned to terror. Everyone on the set immediately became restless, anxious. Eyes moist with tears began darting about the street. Iraqi TV is widely perceived as being pro-Shiite and pro-government; the Sunni-leaning Baghdad TV had just had one of its anchors shot and killed a few days before. Not that any of the violence in today's Iraq needs a reason.
 
Mr. Mustafa told the crew to break down; within minutes everyone had jumped into cars and minivans and fled. My crew and I weren't far behind. Iraqi TV put a black band of mourning on the top left corner of its screen and spent much of the rest of the day covering Mr. Hamid's funeral.
 
It is American journalists' duty to try to look at the broader picture in Iraq -- telling the stories about those brave souls who seek to restore normalcy and laughter into the daily routine here. But there is no denying that the horrific violence will often make that task impossible.


***

 


New York Times

ARTS Section

July 3, 2005

GO AHEAD, SHOOT THE DOG
National Lampoon Grows Up by Dumbing Down

By JAKE TAPPER

IF you didn't happen to catch National Lampoon's Greek Games, held during spring break on South Padre Island, Tex., the comedy high jinks you missed went a little something like this: teams of college students with names like I Felta Thi and Tappa Kegga Day competed in events like the Salisbury Steak Toss, in which they tried to catch meat in plastic helmets, and the Lube Luge, sliding down plastic sheeting coated with something resembling K-Y Jelly. There was also something billed as Greco Roman Strip Wrestling.

Along with pay-per-view strip poker and television shows featuring battles between bikini-clad women, the Greek Games are part of what the new owners of National Lampoon Inc. are calling a resuscitation of an American comedic treasure. But veterans of the original National Lampoon and others who were greatly influenced by it are horrified by the wet T-shirt contests and worse. The new efforts may, in some sense, revive National Lampoon, but in another sense, they show how one of the most ambitious and influential experiments in comedy - which began with a group of young geniuses sending up J. R. R. Tolkien (1969's "Bored of the Rings") - is ending with beer-soaked soft-core porn.

Founded in 1970 by Henry Beard, Douglas Kenney and Rob Hoffman, alumni of the Harvard Lampoon, the Lampoon team changed what was permissible in American comedy. A twisted Algonquin Round Table, it helped propelled the careers of stars like John Belushi, Christopher Guest, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Gilda Radner, John Hughes, Ivan Reitman and Chevy Chase, not to mention influential lesser-known talents like Tony Hendra, Bruce McCall, Sean Kelly, P. J. O'Rourke, Rick Meyerowitz and Michael O'Donoghue. Its magazine, which started in April 1970, had more than a million subscribers at one point; its first film, "Animal House," was the highest-grossing comedy of its time. In its most famous live performance, the 1973 Off Broadway show "National Lampoon's Lemmings," the team devastatingly satirized Woodstock attendees and performers as mindless masses running off to engage in trendy generational suicide, complete with Mr. Guest as James Taylor singing, "Farewell, New York City, with your streets that flash like strobes, farewell Carolina, where I left my frontal lobes."

When asked about National Lampoon, the country's most influential contemporary comedians instantly rattle off their favorite articles. Al Jean, executive producer of "The Simpsons" on Fox, talks about the subversive power of O'Donoghue's "Vietnamese Baby Book" of 1972, which chronicles a child's first year in My Lai with dark wit ("baby's first word: 'medic' "). Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central's "Daily Show" quotes from O'Donoghue's influential 1971 essay sending up hackery, "How to Write Good." ("All too often the budding author finds that his tale has run its course and yet he sees no way to satisfactorily end it, or, in literary parlance, 'wrap it up,' " O'Donoghue wrote. "Observe how easily I resolve this problem: 'Suddenly, everyone was run over by a truck. The End.' ")

Mr. Jean, who worked for the magazine in the 1980's, added that "Saturday Night Live," which absorbed writers, performers and attitude from the Lampoon, often received the credit for changing comedy that the Lampoon truly deserved. Up until the Lampoon, Mr. O'Rourke recalled, Jewish comedy had been the big influence. "That's more 'What a fool am I,' you know, comedy as a shield," he said. "The Lampoon's humor came out of a more British or Irish tradition - 'What a fool are you.' Humor as aggression."

The writer-director Harold Ramis, who co-wrote "Animal House" with Kenney and Chris Miller, joined the "National Lampoon Radio Hour" right before the group was to record a musical parody of "Moby-Dick" as if it were being performed by a community theater in Maine. "They were the smartest group of people I've ever encountered," Mr. Ramis said. "Everyone was fast - everyone."

Mr. Colbert credits the Lampoon with introducing satire that not only eviscerated its subjects, but also did so in the style of its target, like the magazine's letters to the editor, none of which were ever real, or myriad magazine parodies. The Kenney-led parody of a 1964 high school yearbook, morphed with Mr. Miller's stories about fraternity life at Dartmouth, eventually became "Animal House," one of the American Film Institute's Top 100 American comedies. "Animal House," like the company that spawned it, may be known now for ushering in gross-out film comedies like "Porky's," along with countless college toga parties. But the film was intended as a devious cultural and political satire with allusions to Vietnam, Kent State and Richard M. Nixon.

THE precise moment the brilliant minds that created the Lampoon lost control of it is difficult to pinpoint. Some say it was when the founders Mr. Beard and Mr. Kenney joined forces with Matty Simmons, a Manhattan businessman who had the foresight and moxie to take a chance on the Harvard kids but sharply disagreed with them about what National Lampoon should be.

"From the beginning we were pulling in the opposite direction he wanted to go," Sean Kelly said of Mr. Simmons. As editor in chief, Mr. Kelly was fired by Mr. Simmons in 1978. "We argued for years if we do what we do as well as we can do it there will be a market for it," Mr. Kelly said. "Matty's argument was we've got to sell to the people who buy Hustler. And that's the side that effectively won."

Mr. Beard left the company in 1975, Mr. Kenney shortly thereafter; Mr. Simmons fired Mr. Hendra and Mr. Kelly, senior editors, three years later, replacing them with Mr. O'Rourke, who didn't last much longer.

"After 'Animal House' came out, Matty Simmons decided this particular goose could lay larger, better quality gold eggs if it emulated what he saw as 'Animal House,' by which he meant adolescent," Mr. Hendra says today. "The significance of the choice that was made in 1978 cannot be underestimated."

Mr. Simmons denied that the company lost its way after the early editors' departures. In fact, he denied that they were ever partners. "Nobody founded the company with me," he said. "The other guys worked for me."

With the exception of the successful 1983 film "National Lampoon's Vacation" - based on a John Hughes short story published in the magazine in 1979 - the company, then run largely by Mr. Simmons's offspring, foundered for most of the 1980's. In 1989, the actor Tim Matheson, who played the mischievous heartthrob Otter in "Animal House," and his business partner Daniel Grodnik bought the magazine to create what they called the farm team for American comedy.

One year later, however, Mr. Matheson's financing fell through and the company was sold to J2 Communications, perhaps best known for the "Dorf" videos featuring Tim Conway buried up to his knees, pretending to be short. Since then, the Lampoon brand has been little more than a licensing opportunity, with output like "National Lampoon's Senior Trip," released in 1995. (A reviewer for The Times wrote that the film "deserves to be the last gasp of this threadbare comedy series." The review continued, "The roles here are so familiar and generic that this becomes the rare film in which Pauly Shore would be an asset.") The magazine slowed to one issue a year and finally stopped publishing altogether in 1998.

Through licensing and residuals from vintage Lampoon items, the company staggered creatively through 2002, when Daniel S. Laikin of the Indianapolis venture capital firm Four Leaf Management bought it, becoming chief executive and bringing Douglas Bennett on board, eventually as president. "They're not into comedy but they're learning," Mr. Simmons said of the new management.

In what may seem to the original writers like a cruel twist, Mr. Simmons is the one member of the early Lampoon team who has been drafted to work with the new company. He's now producing a film, "National Lampoon's The Trouble With Frank," in which Jon Bon Jovi plays a ne'er-do-well who maxes out his credit cards to put together an all-girls hockey team. Asked if the new Lampoon should reach out to old contributors, Mr. Simmons said: "I don't think they have anything to offer. No."

"I don't remember a lot about the articles," Mr. Bennett, 46, said of the old magazine. He was appointed president of the Lampoon in January, having formerly run MacMillian Publishing, the reference and computer book giant. "The 70's were a very political time for our country, and the Lampoon was trying to make a statement. It's a very different time from what we live in today."

Instead, National Lampoon will license its name to movies like "National Lampoon Presents Dorm Daze 2: Semester at Sea" and "National Lampoon's Pledge This!," starring Paris Hilton. The company just completed its first year of spring-break tour packages to Las Vegas and Cabo San Lucas, bought a college cable-television network and announced a new Lampoon radio show. Soon Lampoon-themed wireless content - graphics, text and ring tones - will be brought to you by Starwave Mobile.

Mr. Bennett and his team hope to raise up to $10 million to finance their efforts with a public stock offering and to win listings on the American and Pacific Stock Exchanges. Shares in National Lampoon, which lost $5.1 million last year on sales of just $1.9 million, trade over the counter. The executives won't talk about the company's finances during the Securities and Exchange Commission-mandated quiet period ahead of the stock offering.

Mr. Bennett said that 68 percent of the public knew the Lampoon brand "represents general comedy," but that college students identified the brand with the semen- and diarrhea-suffused 2002 film "National Lampoon's Van Wilder," which had nothing to do with the Lampoon except for the film's licensing of the brand name. According to his research, only 18 percent of those polled remember the magazine, to say nothing of the radio show, record albums or live shows.

"When we find people who say, 'You guys aren't what you used to be, you're not writers like Doug Kenney,' those are normally people in their 40's and 50's," he said. "I don't want to make it sound like we've forgotten it - we're digitizing every single one of those magazines; there's a lot of funny stuff there." Mr. Bennett's voice grows a bit weary with all the questions about the Lampoon legacy. "We answer questions all day long about our direction."

"You know all the poker shows out there?" he asked. "We're doing our version of it, it's the Lampoon of poker shows, only we're making it strip poker." Available on pay-per-view and other similar services, "National Lampoon's Strip Poker" bills itself as " 'Animal House' at the poker table" and consists mainly of attractive women taking off their clothes.

Sean Kelly, the former Lampoon editor, now leaves mention of the magazine off his résumé and has not told his 13-year-old son about it. "We have to look back and see the best days of our lives" destroyed, he said. Mr. O'Rourke added, "It breaks my heart, to tell you the truth."

But Mr. O'Rourke also admitted it would have been tough to keep the original Lampoon alive. "If you're a bright, funny guy, you can now start out making $100,000 a year writing jokes for Bill Maher," he said. Jeff Greenfield, a CNN senior analyst who was a contributor to the magazine in the 1970's, seconded, "I hesitate to start quoting from Ecclesiastes, but to everything there is a season, and its time has gone."

Mr. Matheson disagreed, though he acknowledged that by failing in his bid to restore the Lampoon to its glory days, he shares in some of the blame for what it has become. "There is no national humor magazine," he said, "and it's so important to look at our society with that filter that says: How stupid is this? Is this as stupid as we think it is?"