The Old Joke Peddler (Oh, goody!)
Presidential campaigns have a tendency to bring out America’s nostalgic side. Candidates on both sides evoke some glorious past—whether a real era, or only the ideals represented by it—and hint that recapturing such glories can only be achieved by enacting their specific policies. Donald Trump’s “Make America great again” slogan, for instance, represents an especially fevered and noxious version of this appeal, but he is tapping into that stream of nostalgia common to all politicians.
It’s a message that sells, even among those who should know better, so it’s good to have reminders that all American eras past have contained a mixture of good and bad—that no golden age has existed. This need makes the political satire of Tom Lehrer more welcome than ever, 50 years after he wrote his songs. Lehrer is not often considered as a political satirist, since his songs eschew parodies of specific events. In the end, though, that’s what has given them a lasting power well beyond the tunes of other would-be political satirists like the Capitol Steps and Mark Russell. Just like his melodies, which forego aping specific songs in favor of lampooning entire genres, Lehrer’s lyrics tackle the deep seated American political urge toward nostalgia.