Their very definition, according to non-Nobel Prize-winning entomologist Dave Barry, is shaped by political scandal: “Cicadas,” he once wrote, “are repulsive five-eyed insects that come out of the ground by the millions every 17 years to see if Richard Nixon has been indicted yet.”
In that case, the cicadas never got what they were looking for. But they have had starring roles in several other Washington dramas.
For instance, the budget.
In June of 1987, President Ronald Reagan traveled to Camp David, the rural Maryland presidential retreat that, given the terrain, must have been deluged in cicadas.
It was there that the president of the United States, a fiscally conservative Republican, equated his Democratic rivals in Congress to those repulsive five-eyed insects plaguing Washington.
“Cicadas, it seems, come in cycles,” the president said during his weekly radio address. “Their larvae bury deep into the ground and only hatch out every 17 years. They’re big, awkward, flying things and, in large numbers, make a loud, screeching sound that reverberates in the humid Washington air.”
For an ex-Hollywood actor, the president showed a remarkable grasp on cicada biology. Then he unleashed his political fly swatter.
“Well, I’m afraid that, like the cicadas, the big spenders are hatching out again and threatening to overrun Congress,” the president said. “For a while, they seemed to have gone underground.”
They were back, Reagan said, with a joint agreement calling for $41 billion in increased federal spending.
“Let’s make the cicadas in Congress go back underground,” Reagan said. “Until next week, thanks for listening and God bless you.”
The president refrained from directly comparing politicians by name to the bugs. Seventeen years later, when Brood X showed up again, John F. Kerry wasn’t as lucky.
The senator from Massachusetts was running for president against George W. Bush. The Republican National Committee released an attack ad in which a cicada literally morphed into Kerry’s face.
“Like a cicada, Senator Kerry would like to shed his Senate career and morph into a fiscal conservative,” the ad’s narrator said. “When the cicadas emerge they make a lot of noise, but they always revert to form before disappearing again.”
A Kerry spokeswoman in Ohio, a perennial battleground ground state where Brood X typically appears, emerged with an entomological retort, telling the Cincinnati Enquirer that the campaign wasn’t “bugging out” about the attack.
“Maybe, if given another 17 years, President Bush could create a job in Ohio,” the spokeswoman said.
Entomologists found the whole episode puzzling.
In a 2004 essay in “American Entomologist” magazine, May Berenbaum, a University of Illinois entomologist, tried to work through her bewilderment. She wrote:
As an entomologist, I confess to being slightly baffled by the use of insect imagery to promote a political candidate. If I’m for Kerry, does that mean I’m against cicadas? Are cicadas Republican or Democrat? Do other insects have party affiliations? As far as metaphorical metamorphic transformations go, I don’t exactly get it, either — cicada nymph to cicada adult is hardly the most dramatic to come to mind. Were I picking campaign metaphors, I might have gone with just about any holometabolous species over the periodical cicada — say, grub to beetle, or maggot to fly; there’s lots more metaphorical power there.
The Cincinnati Enquirer article sought to frame the Kerry face-morphing cicada ad in historical terms.
“With the 17-year cicada cycle and four-year election cycle converging only once every 68 years, politics and cicadas don’t often collide,” the article said. Perhaps overlooking the Reagan cicada radio address, the reporter wrote, “Indeed, the new ad may be only the second time in recorded history that cicadas have played a supporting role in national politics.”
The first time, the article said, was in 1902.
Theodore Roosevelt was president. On Memorial Day, Roosevelt delivered a speech at Arlington National Cemetery defending his administration’s handling of the military and other scandals in the Philippines.
Among the president’s critics that day were bugs, wrote historian Edmond Morris in his biography “Theodore Rex.”
“Invisible choirs of 17-year cicadas,” Morris wrote, “buzzed in counterpoint to his speech.”
At this very moment, somewhere on the White House lawn, a cicada or two or 3,000 is getting ready to commute back into the political life of Washington.
Read more Retropolis: