It has been said that “politics is a blood sport.” Even so, American politicians are expected to have some sense of humor, to be able to take a joke at their expense—at least under well understood terms of engagement. In New York City, those terms have included the annual political roast written, produced and performed by the Inner Circle of New York Political Journalists. The New York Hilton Midtown will be the site for this year’s show, titled “Curb Your Narcissism,” which will be held this Saturday, April 21.
The Inner Circle held its first show almost a century ago, in 1923. Focusing its satire on the high political ambitions of Governor Al Smith, that first show’s title was “The Supersmith.” Still, Smith accepted an invitation to attend, as did hundreds of other political figures. That remains the case down to the present, when attendance at the black tie affair will number about 2,000. The show is run as a fundraiser for charity and has grown increasingly elaborate over the decades. Yet its core remains consistent: musical comedy numbers lampooning a wide range of city, state and federal officials and providing satirical comment on political issues, with the mayor given time on stage for a “rebuttal.”
Inner Circle program, 1960, front cover; Henry Walter papers (MS 3016), New-York Historical Society.
The annual roast is not limited to the stage performance. Each year also sees the production of a program for the event with cover art, political cartoons and the song lyrics. New-York Historical Society is fortunate to hold many of these programs, including all those from 1956 to 1999, and several others from 2000 through last year. These were compiled by longtime Inner Circle member Henry Walter, and the programs were donated to N-YHS along with his papers in 2015. A few images here capture the flavor.
1960 was a presidential election year so naturally the March 1960 Inner Circle event focused on that and the down-ballot races. The program’s cover art, by W.F. Meehan of the Daily News, shown above features the string of candidates, special interests, political kingmakers, and others leading toward Washington, D.C. in the distance. Richard Nixon happily leads the charge. The Catholic John F. Kennedy, pursued by a Klansman, is well behind Lyndon Johnson and even a desultory Adlai Stevenson. Farther back, a fiery Eleanor Roosevelt, with “Herbie” Lehman and “Tommy” Finletter in tow, hounds Carmine DeSapio on his Tammany Hall tiger.
The cover art was not always a complex mix of people and messages. With New York mired in a financial crisis in 1975, political cartoonist John Pierotti made the issue clear as Mayor Abraham Beame drowns in red ink while Governor Hugh Carey flees in his battered ship, or rowboat, of state.
Inner Circle program, 1975, front cover; Henry Walter papers (MS 3016), New-York Historical Society.
Of course, cover art includes back covers as well as front, providing additional canvas for political satire. In 1994, cartoonist Randy Jones presented Governor Mario Cuomo and Mayor Rudy Giulani proudly cutting the opening ribbon on the new 42nd Street and its parade of Disney characters. But the old 42nd Street is close at hand, just behind the cardboard castles. Jones even works in something of the traditional “mayor’s rebuttal” in the form of the cynical, rumpled and boozy press representative toward the bottom of the image.
Inner Circle program, 1994, back cover; Henry Walter papers (MS 3016), New-York Historical Society.
Taking just one peek inside the 1994 program, we find the lyrics to the evening’s show, including a song that transports us back to that Wild West moment of the city’s history characterized by the self-help entrepreneur known as the Squeegee Guy. Sung to the tune of “The Locomotion,” we’ll fade out here: “So, come on, come on, Do The Giuliani Squeegee!”
Inner Circle program, 1994, page 7 (detail); Henry Walter papers (MS 3016), New-York Historical Society.
This post is by Larry Weimer, Head of Archival Processing.