76 Trombones

“A pool table, don’t you understand?”

– Professor Harold Hill in Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man”

It’s subtle in politics.

Health care reform, don’t you understand?

Dodd-Frank, don’t you understand?

Bain Capital, don’t you understand?

The Ryan budget, don’t you understand?

The debt ceiling, don’t you understand?

The president’s birth certificate, don’t you understand?

To paraphrase Harold Hill, “either you’re closing your eyes to a situation you do not wish to acknowledge. Or you’re not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated by the presence of a pool table/health care reform/Dodd-Frank/Bain Capital/the Ryan budget/the debt ceiling/the president’s birth certificate – in your community.”

Well, ya got trouble, my friend. Right here, I say trouble right here in River City.

In this case, River City is Washington, DC. And it’s only appropriate that Meredith Willson’s Broadway masterpiece The Music Man just opened at Arena Stage a mile or so from the U.S. Capitol.

You want to understand how Congress and politics work? Go see The Music Man.

For the uninitiated, this is the premise: Harold Hill is a charlatan. He gallivants from town to town, posing as a music professor. “Gary, Indiana Conservatory of Music, gold medal class of ‘aught-five,’” Hill claims. But other traveling salesmen know Hill is a fraud. “He don’t know one note from another,” fumes one of Hill’s rivals. “He can’t tell a bass drum from a pipe organ.”

Here’s what Hill does: He glides into town and concocts a bogus problem and offers a remedy. The solution is always creating a boys’ band. Hill whips the townspeople into a frenzy and then bamboozles everyone to buy band uniforms and musical instruments. Can he teach the kids to play? Of course not. Hill just employs “The Think System.” Think the notes and you can play. Hill then ducks out of town, having hornswoggled an entire community out of gobs of cash and sticking them with instruments they don’t know how to play.

“This is a refined operation,” Hill boasts. “I’ve got it timed down to the last wave of the brakeman’s hand on the last train out of town.”

When Hill arrives in River City, he tells his partner in crime Marcellus Washburn that he “must create a desperate need in your town for a boys’ band.” Hill then notices everyone cramming their way into a billiard parlor. They’ve seen billiard tables before. But never a pool table.

Hill seizes the opportunity.

“Either you’re closing your eyes to a situation you don’t wish to acknowledge… or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster…indicated by the presence of a pool table in your community!” exhorts Hill.

You know the rest, as Hill launches the show’s seminal musical number.

“Well, you got trouble my friends. Right here in River City.” Only because Hill makes an improbable, phonological leap that “trouble” starts with “T” and happens to rhyme with “P.” Which of course “stands for pool!”

Hill’s alarm has now worked the citizens of River City into an unmitigated lather. They are convinced the entire community is going down the tubes unless they purchase his boys’ band idea. Near the end of the tune, Hill jumps on top of a platform and beseeches the townsfolk with one final entreaty.

“Remember my friends, listen to me. Because I pass this way but once!” says Hill.

Even Jesus told the faithful He would come twice. But you only get one shot at salvation with Harold Hill.

The town’s mayor repeatedly dispatches four members of the school board to check Hill’s credentials. But Hill ducks the school board, morphing them into a barber shop quartet that goes around singing “Good Night Ladies.” Hill tells the school board that singing is nothing more than “sustained talking.” And these saps never do investigate Hill’s bona fides.

So all of the fiduciary functions of River City collapse. Hill fleeces the entire community. And Willson’s deft script even hoodwinks the audience into rooting for Hill in the end.

Surely no American voters could ever fall prey to the tactics employed by the likes of Harold Hill….


Democrats excoriated House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) last week when he spoke extensively about the need to again raise the debt ceiling. Boehner initiated the conversation, concerned that the issue could come up during an already encumbered lame duck session at the end of the year.

“They want to create a crisis,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) during an appearance on MSNBC.

“It is a phantom,” added Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn (D-SC) during his time on MSNBC. “I hope the president will not get roped into this foolishness because that’s all it is.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) joined the fray as well.

“Speaker Boehner is threatening to take our nation into another manufactured crisis that will harm America’s families,” she said in a statement.

Is there trouble in River City, as Boehner suggests? One thing’s for sure: the U.S. will have to tackle another debt ceiling increase either later this year or in early 2013. Is Boehner stoking a “manufactured crisis” ala Harold Hill to gin up the masses? Or is the latest debt ceiling debate legitimate?

“The president is getting some very bad advice from his campaign team, because he’s diminishing the presidency by picking fake fights, going after straw men every day,” said Boehner during a recent CNN interview. When it came to the student loan issue, Boehner suggested the president crafted “a fake fight to try to game his own re-election.”

And remember what some tea party Republicans said last summer about the debt ceiling? A few refused to vote to raise the debt limit, accusing the Obama Administration of engineering the issue. Some contended the debt ceiling didn’t need to be upped at all.

Issue creation? A solution in search of a problem? Health care reform. Dodd-Frank. Bain Capital. The Ryan budget. The debt ceiling. The president’s birth certificate. And do the people with the solutions all present these problems as dire, “last helicopter out of Saigon” moments?

Toward the end of the musical, it’s clear that Harold Hill has robbed the people of River City of their money. The mayor is apoplectic that Hill mesmerized the school board with this rouse, transforming them into strolling balladeers.

“The school board is singing up street and down alley instead of tending to city matters,” bleats the mayor.

People are coming to tar and feather Hill. But the bad guy wins. Hill successfully distracts the town by planting an image in their heads of the most rousing, bombastic marching band possible. A band so regal that it’s led by “76 trombones.” He elevates the propaganda by promising “110 cornets…double-bell euphoniums…50 mounted cannon in the battery…and trumpeters who’d improvise a full octave higher than the score.”

It’s all very electric. And hard not to get caught up in the pandemonium.

Of course, there’s never been a marching band that grand in the history of ambulatory music. But then again, it doesn’t matter. Professor Hill’s already conned everyone.

And that never happens in Washington.