Continental Divides

Godspeed to the Nation’s Funniest Pianist

Russell didn’t give a hoot if his unwitting gaggle of congressional correspondents (read targets) wore Democratic or Republican stripes

By John McCaslin

I’m spending this morning of April 12 in remembrance at Washington’s Annunciation Catholic Church, three miles as the crow flies from a White House that political satirist Mark Russell could decipher like nobody else.

Departing the ongoing political circus at age 90, Russell “spoofed, teased and laughed at celebrities, politicians, politics and popular culture for more than 50 years behind his star-spangled piano,” the Washington Post wrote in its obituary. “From the waning years of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration through the presidencies of 10 succeeding chief executives, Mr. Russell poked fun at the foibles and flaws of the well-known, the pompous and the powerful in monologues replete with pithy one-liners and musical ditties.”

Penning the syndicated political column “Inside the Beltway” for many years, I strived with every stroke to emulate Russell. Better yet, gracious and obliging gentleman that he was, Russell within a moment’s notice would provide timely observations of Washington’s movers and shakers that left my readers in stitches.

Frequently asked if he had a team of writers, his familiar refrain (which I stole more than once) would be: “Oh yes, I have 535 writers. One hundred in the Senate and 435 in the House of Representatives.”

Russell didn’t give a hoot if his unwitting gaggle of congressional correspondents (read targets) wore Democratic or Republican stripes (as he once said, “I do jokes about what’s funny, and both sides are funny.”) Nor were his popular political roasts, airing often on public television, confined to Capitol Hill.

Take the unbridled euphoria among many Americans when Barack Obama ascended to president in 2009, equated to “the second coming.” With expectations raised to a level seldom seen in this country, I approached Russell on the night of Obama’s inauguration and asked for his assessment of the day’s festivities.

“I was upset after he finished his inaugural address that the cherry blossoms didn’t bloom and the Potomac River didn’t turn into Bud Light,” he quipped, gifting me the best quote of the entire coronation.

One of my favorite stories surrounds one of Russell’s countless concerts coast-to-coast (his loyal fan-base in Seattle has been written about), when Louisiana Democratic Sen. Russell B. Long was in the audience.

As the satirist later told the New York Times, the once powerful Senate Majority Whip not only took exception with his comedy bit about the Peace Corps, he became downright rude and disorderly.

“Look, senator,” Russell (a former U.S. Marine) shot back, “if you’ll give me equal time on the Senate floor tomorrow, I’ll let you have the mic. Otherwise, your time has expired. Sit down.”

At which point Long reportedly stormed out of the performance.

When I last bumped into Russell it wasn’t in the usual big Washington, but in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountain hamlet of “Little Washington” (pop. 120), where before moving back to the Flathead I tried my hand as a country editor.

As he sat in a porch rocking chair overlooking the town’s annual Christmas parade (similar in magnitude to Bigfork’s holiday procession), Russell spoke seriously for once about George H.W. Bush, whose state funeral was held the previous day.

“Jeb [Bush’s son and the former Florida governor] was mild mannered, and it did not serve him well in his short campaign for president because he tried to emulate his father,” Russell opined. “And then here [Donald] Trump comes along and calls him ‘low energy’ and whatever. That’s an example of the difference of the [socio-political] scene today and the scene during George H.W. Bush’s era.”

In fact, given his biting criticism of the Bush family, Trump surprised more than one political observer by showing up for Bush’s service at the Washington National Cathedral.

Russell surmised that in the days before he died, Bush insisted to his family that the polarizing president be seated in the church alongside past U.S. presidents.

“The old man, being the decent person he was, probably said let’s be noble about it and invite the president to the funeral of another president,” said Russell, imagining an “argument” between Bushes 41 and 43 — former President George W. Bush — “where George W. said, ‘You know, Dad, he’s a you know what . . . ’

“And 41 said, ‘Now son, that’s not the way we [Bushes] act, so he [Trump] will be there.’ ”

John McCaslin is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and author.

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