Here’s an excerpt from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff’s opening statement on Sept. 26, the day the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, testified before the committee. Schiff is talking about the now-infamous Trump-Zelenskiy phone conversation of July 25. He begins with a short preamble: “Shorn of its rambling character and in not so many words, this is the essence of what the president communicates:
“We’ve been very good to your country, very good. No other country has done as much as we have. But you know what? I don’t hear much reciprocity here. I hear what you want. I have a favor I want from you, though. And I’m gonna say this only seven times, so you better listen good. I want you to make up dirt on my political opponent, understand? Lots of it, on this and on that. I’m gonna put you in touch with people, not just any people, I’m gonna put you in touch with attorney general of the United States, my attorney, Bill Barr. He’s got the whole weight of the American law enforcement behind him. And I’m gonna put you in touch with Rudy, you’re gonna love him, trust me. You know what I’m asking, so I’m only gonna say this a few more times, in a few more ways. And by the way, don’t call me again, I’ll call you when you’ve done what I asked.”
Republicans on the intelligence committee virtually plotzed with indignation. How dare Schiff “make things up,” as one put it. Nothing but “fiction,” another sniffed.
As a former English teacher, I mourn the death of parody in our age. There was nothing mysterious or nefarious about what Schiff was doing. He wasn’t producing fiction or pretending that President Donald Trump actually said the words in question. Parody is a time-honored artistic device that puts an intentional, usually exaggerated, imitation of another work of literature, music, art or film to another purpose.
Usually that other purpose is comedy, though there’s nothing funny about the transcript’s original statements or Schiff’s parody of them. But parody can also be used for commentary and instruction. It’s another way of telling the truth, at least as the parodist sees it.
Why did Schiff feel that it was necessary to parody the reconstructed transcript of the phone call? Because Republicans were looking at the same transcript and ignoring the context of the favor that Trump was asking of Zelenskiy. They claim that the phone call conveyed no pressure, no demands, no quid quo pro. They refuse to take into account the life-and-death necessity that the withheld military aid represents for Ukraine.
Zelenskiy may have said there was no “pressure,” but the pressure is baked into the context of the phone call. Schiff’s parody was an effort to highlight the obvious arm-twisting that was taking place.
I doubt seriously that the Republicans on the intelligence committee are as ill-educated as they pretend to be. I suspect that they recognized Schiff’s real intentions as immediately as I did. Their overwrought responses were disingenuous and easily dismissible. In fact, in the midst of everything else going on, I did not think this minor incident was worth writing about, at all.
The problem is, Trump just cannot let go of Schiff’s modest attempt at the art of parody. Schiff has become a focus of Trump’s wrath. Here’s one tweet among others:
“Rep. Adam Schiff illegally made up a FAKE & terrible statement, pretended it to be mine as the most important part of my call to the Ukrainian President, and read it aloud to Congress and the American people. It bore NO relationship to what I said on the call. Arrest for Treason?”
Treason? For parody? In Trump’s mind, this association led directly to another suggestion, which he made publicly, without evidence: the idea that Schiff actually helped the whistleblower write the complaint.
Which shows that as long as Trump is in office, parody may be imperiled, but we do not have to worry about the survival of another time-honored literary genre: fantasy.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service.