Blog No. 11: P.T. Barnum Redux

WASHINGTON, DC --- There were two seemingly unrelated events last that were both were newsworthy. Both were about famous Washington, DC institutions. And in a way, these two separate announcements were very much linked together.

The first announcement was that Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus, a 97-year-old American icon, originated in 1919, proclaimed it was going to close forever.

The advent of several mergers, including the legendary showman Phineas T. Barnum’s own Circus and Sideshow, Ringling Brothers came to personify the very word Circus. It’s amazing acrobats, wondrous lion tamer, the amazing freaks, including the Bearded Lady and the Alligator Man, made children of all ages joyous as they settled under the big top and munched their cotton candy. “Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls,” the Ring Master would pronounce at each show, welcome to The Greatest Show on Earth.”

Few people knew that Ringling Bros., as it was shortened in press reports, was actually based in McLean, VA, two doors down from where America Online was first launched. When I worked at AOL, my office was right near the Ringling Bros., offices. In fact, you could see the Ringling team through my window. We would often share some of the local restaurants and watering holes together. They were very cool guys. And boy, could they party!

In fact, I met with them in 1995, and asked if they’d like to do some promotional work and cross marketing with AOL. They told me their audience wasn’t the “online type,” and declined. But I got to visit their offices. See the cool posters. And of course, got to visit the clowns and the elephant act at their circus at the US Air Arena in Landover, MD.

Some say the beginning of the end of the Ringling Bros., was when they cancelled the elephant act. Animal rights activists claimed it was cruel to the pachyderms. It probably was. But it was also cruel to circus fans around the world when the elephant act was withdrawn from the show. In fact, without the elephants, it didn’t seem like the Greatest Show at all.

Barnum’s promotional brilliance was on full display in the early days of the Circus. His giant elephant, Jumbo, was actually stuffed and is still on display at the Smithsonian. His famous creation, Tiny Tim, the midget, was extremely popular for many years, too. Though fortunately the good people at the Smithsonian didn’t stuff Tim.

When I lived in Connecticut, I took my family to see Barnum’s amazing home in Bridgeport. It’s vibrant colors, and amazing art from around the world, were to me part of the magic of the showman. His home, not unlike Mark Twain’s, also in Connecticut, was a way of meeting the man long after he was gone.

To me, Barnum was a genius promoter. The precursor to Cecile B. DE Mille, David O. Selznick and Louis B. Mayer, The master showman who always made sure that no matter what happened, “The Show Must Go On.”

The second announcement last week, of course, was the Inauguration of the 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump.

As one showman’s ultimate expression of entertainment was ending, another, showman’s story was unfolding its stupendous act. The rainy day in Washington did not deter hundreds of thousands of people from pouring into the streets and witnessing the great pageantry this nation puts on every four years as it swears in its president.

The marching bands, the dancers, the Air Force fly-overs, the singers, the city slickers, the country dudes, and their entourages, and even some House Democrats --- descended upon Washington on Friday to celebrate the peaceful transfer of power, proving once again without question, the validity of the great American experiment in democracy.

Never mind that the very next day, more people descended upon the Capital Mall to protest Trump and his politics than actually attended the Inauguration the preceding day. Didn’t matter. They were talking about Trump, and that’s what Trump wanted. The Show Must Go On.

Trump and Barnum are two guys cut from the same cloth. Trump’s magic act, of getting us to pay attention to him virtually by the minute, is unprecedented in American politics. When he talks, when he twitters, when he addresses rallies, when he wrestles with members of the press, it is indeed today’s version of “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

Love him or hate him, just don’t misspell his name. And please, come back tomorrow for the matinee.

Will Trump be able to keep our rapt attention? At some point, won’t we get bored? Nearly 100 years ago, nobody ever thought we’d get tired of the lion tamer, the clowns, the acrobats or the dancing elephants. But we did.

One thing magicians and showmen are great at is the old misdirection trick.

Watch the left hand, see what it is doing; while of course, nobody is looking at the right hand while the act is dramatically going on. The audience is misdirected into believing one thing, only to be astonished when something completely different happens.

So far, Mr. Trump has been given a free ride to say --- and with majorities in both the Senate and House perhaps do --- anything. And, in his defense he said he was going to do things. And sure enough, he’s been doing them:

  • Approve the oil pipeline? Done.

  • Shut down Obamacare? Underway.

  • Appoint serious business people to his cabinet? Check.

  • Curtail foreign immigration? Underway.

  • Cut funds for abortions? Check.

  • Get rid of the do-nothing liberals at the State Department? Underway.

  • Kill NAFTA? Done.

  • Kill TPP? Check.

  • Signed a Republican Pledge never to support Trump? You’re gone.

  • Don’t like Trump’s politics? You’re on the new White House enemies list.

It’s almost surreal to watch the process unfolding.

  • The treasury secretary nominee forgot to pay personal income taxes on $100 million?

  • The nominee to head the Energy Department didn’t know it is the keeper of American’s nuclear arsenal?

  • The nominee to head of the Department of Education wants school vouchers and wants to slash Federal funding for teachers and schools?

  • And the guy they want to run the EPA has been suing the very same agency for the last half dozen years?

Hey, you can’t make this stuff up. As one wag said this week, it’s like a feeding frenzy for comic writer material.

Of course, if this is simply part of the magic act’s misdirection, then where does Mr. Trump want us to look? What is he really up to? And what will happen next?

Stay tuned.

As the Ringling Bros., show ends, a new circus has now come to town. The new Ring Master is Trump. His top hat, bright red coat, whistle, shiny black boots and toothy smile are there for us all to see, admire and follow.

You got to admit, it’s getting good ratings. And it’s plenty entertaining and fun to watch.

Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to The New Greatest Show on Earth.

Barnum would be proud.

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