In 1968, while speaking at an Unbirthday Party for Lyndon Johnson held during the Democratic convention in Chicago, I revealed to the audience the true story of a reporter who had once interviewed LBJ. After the formal question-and-answer session, the president, referring to the Vietnam war, told him, “What the Communists are really saying is 'Fuck you, Lyndon Johnson,' and nobody says, ‘Fuck you, Lyndon Johnson' and gets away with it.”
“Well,” I continued, “when I count three, we're all gonna say it — and we’re gonna get away with it! Are you ready? One… two… three…” And from the Yippies and Mobilization-Against-the-War and Clean-for-Genes, it came at me like an audio tidal wave — thousands of voices shouting in unison: “FUCK YOU, LYNDON JOHNSON!!!” — a mass catharsis reverberating from the rafters.
And so, 33 years later, while emceeing a rally on Day 5 of the Retaliation — symbolized by CNN’s change of logo, from “America's New War” to “America Strikes Back” — I had a strong sense of continuity. The rally, held at Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco, starred Ralph Nader, making a stop on his “People Have the Power” grassroots-organizing tour.
At the Green Party convention in July 2000, Nader’s opponents in the presidential campaign — Jello Biafra (lead singer of the Dead Kennedys; political activist) and Steve Gaskin (founder of the Farm commune; author of “Cannabis Spirituality”) had each preceded Nader with a ten-minute speech. Biafra called the war on drugs “ethnic cleansing, American style.” Gaskin, sad and angry over Peter McWilliams' death, spoke with great passion, declaring that it was “as if Barry McCaffrey came out with a pistol like that South Vietnamese general and executed him.”
Nader watched this on the TV monitor and, during his own speech which was clearly influenced by Gaskin's tribute to McWilliams, he proclaimed:
“We've got to stop this drug war that does these horrible things to our people. At home, our criminal justice system, being increasingly driven by the corporate prison industry that wants ever more customers, grossly discriminates against minorities and is greatly distorted by the extremely expensive and failed war on drugs. These prisons often become finishing schools for criminal recidivists. At the same time, the criminal justice system excludes criminally behaving corporations and their well-defended executives.”
Now, although the event I emceed was originally supposed to be about corporate domination generally and about the energy crisis specifically, the international situation had intervened: Nader had morphed into an antiwar leader.
As a political satirist, my role was to provide comic relief. Comedy may be tragedy plus time, but in the middle of an intensifying tragedy that showed no signs of dissipating, I was apprehensive.
Both “Vanity Fair” editor Graydon Carter and “Time” magazine contributor Roger Rosenblatt had already declared “the end of the age of irony,” and this rally marked the first time I'd performed since the suicide bomber attacks. However, the audience was enthusiastic.
I introduced former stand-up comic and teacher Tom Ammiano, the openly gay president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
“You all know me,” he began. “I’m the president you can believe when I say, ‘I didn't sleep with that woman’.”
Medea Benjamin, founder of the human rights organization Global Exchange and Green Party candidate for US senator from California in 2000, asked the audience: “What one word can sum up the real reason why we're there?”
And 3,000 voices shouted back in unison: “OIL!” (The US government has been negotiating to build oil pipelines running beneath the Caspian Sea through Afghanistan.)
And then there was Nader, who noted that Bush's campaign slogan, “I trust the people, not the government,” utterly reeks with irony. “Truth is the first casualty of a nation in crisis,” he said, stressing the importance of guarding our liberties. “Americans must be vigilant about attacks on civil liberties in the wake of the September 11 terrorism.”
Nader insisted that the “inhumane and criminal” terrorists be brought to justice, but advocated an end to the bombing. He posed a question to the audience: “How many of you, since Sept. 11, have wanted to express an opinion that was something other than the thought-police stampede?”
To all those who raised their hands, he advised:
“If you feel yourself inhibited, that's the moment to break out and make yourself known. Otherwise, your silence is allowing suppression of the Constitution.” The prolonged standing ovation Nader received was indicative of the burgeoning peace movement, with teach-ins at college campuses and, in effect, on the Internet.
A couple of hours before going on stage, I had watched George W. Bush's press conference and, now at the risk of committing comedic treason, I felt compelled to report my own version:
“Bush explained that simultaneously dropping bombs and food on Afghanistan is just an example of compassionate conservatism,” I said. “He divulged that the ABM treaty had an expiration date in tiny print … and he pointed out that the United States gave $43 million to the Taliban because they’re a faith-based organization.”
I reminded the audience that ABC News correspondent Cokie Roberts had been asked if there was any opposition to the war. “None that matters,” she replied. Hissing and boos.
“Well,” I responded, “would you all care to join me in saying, 'Fuck You, Cokie Roberts' when I count three?”
“Okay: One… two… three!” and it came at me like an audio tidal wave — thousands of voices shouting in unison:
“FUCK YOU, COKIE ROBERTS!” It was a moment of deja vu supreme.