Bill Strauss: He Was the Life of the Parody
Saturday, December 22, 2007
Washington is not exactly known as a center of verbal, much less musical, wit, which makes all the more grievous the loss this week of Bill Strauss, the antic, cerebral founder of the Capitol Steps satirical group and a sort of puckish polymath for all seasons.
Strauss, 60, who died Dec. 18 after an eight-year battle with pancreatic cancer, somehow combined the dyspeptic fatalism of a failed idealist with the rapier mischief of a court jester in a way that put a human face on Washington's political shenanigans. He taught an entire generation of elected leaders to laugh at themselves.
Whether he was presaging the 1989 invasion of Panama ("We Need a Little Isthmus") or simultaneously sending up both Yuletide extravagance and the firearms debate ("Gun Nuts Boasting They Can Open Fire"), Strauss and his troupe of theatrical co-conspirators often had more to say about current affairs than did the city's pundits, whom they also lampooned. And in an era of shock jocks, broadcast porn and general cultural downdraft, Strauss consistently proved that even the most salacious Washington scandals were funnier when handled with wit rather than wallowing.
"I grew up on Tom ('Fight Fiercely, Harvard') Lehrer in the '60s," Strauss once told me. "He wrote satirical songs that said something but weren't offensive. Nowadays people write songs that are offensive and don't say anything."
Born in Chicago, raised near San Francisco and schooled as a Harvard lawyer, Strauss knew before the end of law school that he preferred government to the bar. He had been a Capitol page during his junior year in high school, and moved to Washington with his wife in 1973 after getting his master's degree from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He worked for various government agencies and co-wrote two books before joining the staff of Sen. Charles Percy (R-Ill.) and landing as chief counsel and staff director of the Senate subcommittee on energy, nuclear proliferation and government processes. It was not the most obvious launching pad for a career in musical satire. Or maybe it was.
In December 1981, as Percy staffers kicked around ideas for the office Christmas party, they thought about doing a Nativity scene. But, as Strauss used to say, in all of Congress they couldn't find three wise men or a virgin. Instead he teamed with Elaina Newport, a college music major who played piano, and a few others and worked up skits that poked fun at newly installed President Ronald Reagan ("Workin' 9 to 10") and administration appointees such as Interior Secretary James Watt ("Mine Every Mountain.") They took their name from the spot famously used for a midnight tryst by Rep. John W. Jenrette (D-S.C.) and his wife, Rita.
The group was such a hit it was recruited for performances at other Christmas parties and soon at other venues. Each performance in those days, he once told me, carried a subversive elan akin to Soviet dissidents performing underground in Moscow. Republicans were not known for their sense of humor: "We all worried we might lose our jobs."
Reagan, however, heard about the Capitol Steps and invited them to the White House to entertain members of Congress, instructing them: "Don't make fun of Congress. Just make fun of me."
For years Strauss insisted that everyone in the troupe keep a day job, and decreed that all those jobs had to be on Capitol Hill. By the late '90s the Steps had grown far beyond their congressional confines and were performing on radio, television and around the country. They even had a run off-Broadway.
There was always plenty of material, from the floating Bimbogate aboard the good ship Monkey Business with Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) -- or as Strauss referred to him in his backward-talking monologue: Hairy Gart -- to President George W. Bush ("Do You Fear What I Fear?") Perhaps the biggest challenge of Strauss's satirical career occurred during the Clinton White House, when, as Newport remembers, "Tom Brokaw was using words on the news that we wouldn't use on our shows. Humor is based on exaggeration and how could you exaggerate Monica Lewinsky?"
The beauty of the Lewinsky scandal, Newport and Strauss said at the time, was that everybody knew about it in every appalling, hyper-glandular detail -- even high school kids. The challenge, Strauss said, was to "play off its ironies and absurdities without dragging the level down even further."
So they came up with an upbeat Clinton character singing that old (sort of) Walt Disney standard "Unzippin' My Doo-Dah."
For all his satirical talent, however, Strauss was anything but a one-note samba. He wrote or co-wrote not only three musicals but nearly a dozen books, including (with Neil Howe) the seminal "Generations," in which he discovered cyclical characteristics in American history that, he argued, shed light not only on the past but on the future. For example, the generation of the 1950s was ever conscious of and overshadowed by the warrior deeds of their World War II fathers, he said, even as the generation of the 1870s was by those of the Civil War.
He co-founded the Cappies, an awards program to encourage high school theater and theater critics. And he remained a keen political analyst, always generous with his insights, as well as his parodies, to any reporter phoning him for comment.
Pancreatic cancer usually kills its victims within a year, but Strauss had made such improbable and long-term progress against his illness, Newport said, that everyone around him had become increasingly hopeful with each passing year that he would beat the disease. "But about a month ago," she said, "it became increasingly obvious that was not to be."
In the end, he died peacefully -- in the season of the Christmas parties, when it all began.