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Not laughing anymore

Fans once howled at Randy Newman's 'Political Science.' Now they're shaken.

August 30, 2003|Bob Baker | Times Staff Writer

More than 30 years ago, when America was under siege from many of its traditional allies during the endless Vietnam War, a young Randy Newman wrote a song of mock resentment that began:

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No one likes us; I don't know why

We may not be perfect, but heaven knows we try

But all around, even our old friends put us down

Let's drop the big one and see what happens

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Newman laughed at the simple-minded song, which he titled "Political Science," but he distrusted it. It had come to him too easily; it struck him as too exaggerated, even for the brilliantly warped songwriting sensibility he was developing. At first he would not play it for audiences. Then one night he trotted it out, and the crowd laughed. Newman put it on his third album, "Sail Away," in 1972, and it became a fan favorite.

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We give them money, but are they grateful?

No, they're spiteful and they're hateful

They don't respect us, so let's surprise them

We'll drop the big one and pulverize them

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The years passed, foreign policy ebbed and flowed, spats with allies came and went, but the wonderful thing about "Political Science," Newman realized, was that no matter how absurd America's behavior toward the rest of the world seemed to people like him, it could never approximate his song's hyperbolic jingoism. "Nobody talked like that, not even [ultra-hawkish Vietnam-era general] Curtis LeMay."

And then came Sept. 11, when somebody else "dropped the big one," followed by the buildup to the Iraq war, strident criticism from many U.S. allies and the stated determination of a popular president to invade. Resentful acts of American nationalism played out -- like Congress changing the name of French fries on Capitol Hill menus and calls for boycotting French wine.

And then, last Jan. 22, frustrated by the fact that Western European countries were largely opposing U.S. invasion plans, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a news briefing: "Now, you're thinking of Europe as Germany and France. I don't. I think that's old Europe."

Which made Newman think, with both delight and disbelief, of the first line of the third verse of his song:

Asia's crowded and Europe's too old ...

"I never thought anyone would say 'Europe is old' ... 'Old Europe,' " Newman said the other day, preparing for a series of live shows, including at stop Jan 23 at UCLA's Royce Hall. "This is as close as the song has ever come to coinciding with reality."

The price "Political Science" pays for its 21st century relevance is fewer belly laughs. Newman has always attracted literate fans who now find it harder to contemplate the song without being reminded of the world's mounting dangers and unpredictable nature. He recently played it in Switzerland and heard no laughter, leaving him only to rationalize: "Switzerland is like playing to a resort."

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... Africa is far too hot and Canada's too cold

And South America stole our name

Let's drop the big one

There'll be no one left to blame us

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Newman's not the only one noticing how neatly the song fits. It's become a handy bit of shorthand for political observers.

Two summers ago, Thomas Friedman, the New York Times' foreign-affairs columnist, was trying to show that Europe's resentment of American free-market capitalism, the death penalty and globalization had been around far longer than President Bush. So he began his column with the first two verses of "Political Science."

Months after Sept. 11, when the new color-coded government security alerts were making Americans edgy, TV commentator John Gibson ranted about the arbitrary feeling of life in the U.S. "If a guy named Hassan buys a CD with Randy Newman's 'Political Science' on it, 'Let's drop the big one,' " Gibson complained, "we would go from code yellow to code orange."

And in May, a week after Bush proclaimed the allies had prevailed in their move to oust Saddam Hussein, British newspaper commentator Miles Kington suggested that Bush's advisors stop making recommendations about how to patch things up with Europe. Instead, he wrote, they should simply have Bush study the lyrics of "Political Science," most of which the columnist reprinted, ending with a rhetorical question: "Who said that the Americans don't have irony?"

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We'll save Australia

Don't wanna hurt no kangaroo

We'll build an All American amusement park there

They got surfin', too

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Newman's pride in the staying power of the song is tempered by his anger at the war and his embarrassment at what he describes as arrogant behavior by the U.S. At one point in his life, he said, he'd promised himself he wouldn't make comments critical of the government while touring abroad, but on a recent European tour he let his sentiments be known. U.S. policy "is hard to defend, it's stupider," he said.

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