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Commentary | PATT MORRISON

Nothing Up Their Sleeves? Look Again

The old political presto chango.

September 08, 2004|PATT MORRISON

There's a famous old house in Hollywood and another famous old house in Washington, D.C. They have a lot in common.

Both are big, rambling places of not altogether original design; the one in Washington was essentially from an English architecture book, and the one in Hollywood was essentially copied from a Franco-Midwestern chateau in Redlands.

Both are for members only, but if you know the right people, you can probably get invited in.

And both are pretty much in the same line of work. The Magic Castle, in Hollywood, does it for fun; the White House, in Washington, does it for -- whatever it is, it isn't fun. They're both in the business of fooling people.

After a long weekend's glut of campaign trumpery and tomfoolery, I wanted to ask an expert: Exactly how do they get away with that? The candidates were on the road, and Bill Clinton was on painkillers, so there went my primary sources. I had to look elsewhere for expertise.

Because tricking people depends on something called misdirection -- the art of making us look over there while someone's getting away with something sneaky right here -- I called the magician Johnny Ace Palmer, master of misdirection. Johnny Ace is playing in the "close-up" room at the Magic Castle this week. That's the center ring, the chamber where no more than two dozen people are watching, trying to "gotcha" the magician, like the Oval Office of magic.

He understood my premise right off the bat. "It's absolutely true," he said. "I am in politics -- I'm a magician."

There are, he explained, many variants on misdirection. The classic is tossing a rock into the bushes to distract a guard and sneaking in the gate when the guard goes to investigate the noise. "It works really well, and I see politicians doing it all the time," said Johnny Ace.

Don't read this bit if you're going to catch Palmer's show. He begins by telling the audience, "Here's my opener," and he pulls a bottle opener out from under his scarf.

While the audience is rolling its eyes, he does his first trick. As the onlookers refocus, he taps the scarf, clink clink, and produces a giant Coke bottle, saying, "What good is an opener without something to open?"

"All that," he said, "in the first 18 seconds."

If the Bush folks ever find themselves out of work and Wal-Mart isn't hiring, I think they could take the misdirection skills they learned with the Dazzling Dubya and apply them at the Magic Castle:

* Abracadabra! Gay marriage, a threat to the family! (While the middle-class family of any configuration is threatened with its ever-lower slide down the income ladder.)

* Ta-daaa!! Improved healthcare for seniors! (But don't take notice of the fact that Medicare premiums are going up by 17% for millions of the elderly and disabled.)

* Presto! 1.7 million new jobs! (Don't pay any attention to the fact that we're still almost a million jobs short of the number the nation had when President Bush took up residence in the White House.)

* Voila! Open elections in Iraq and Afghanistan, even during wartime! (But the GOP keynoter believes that campaigning during wartime isn't constitutionally mandated -- it's "Democrats' manic obsession to bring down our commander in chief!")

* Stupendous! America is the story of expanding liberty! (But at a New Mexico rally, if you wanted to hear your vice president make the case for four more years, you had to sign a pledge endorsing Bush.)

* Amazing! We have Saddam Hussein's pistol, right here! (But pay no attention to the man behind the curtain as you are endlessly told about weapons of mass destruction -- there aren't any.)

I love the Magic Castle, and I love the White House. I just wish that the voters and the campaigns didn't need a brochure to tell the difference.

The Great Prestidigitator, the Amazing Abe, who managed to be both a politician and honest, was fond of pointing out that "you can fool some of the people all the time" and so forth. But even Abe knew that eventually you run out of people to fool and time to fool them.


Patt Morrison's email address is

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