What Jack Benny and Poet Dorritt Carroll can Teach Joe Biden

Steven Drachman: I learned from my mistakes. So can Joe Biden. 

The Catastrophe in Bethesda

In 2012, I appeared at a book reading at the Bethesda Writers Center. Bethesda is my hometown. The local Bethesda newspaper profiled me. Friends from high school I hadn’t seen in years showed up, and my mother went all out to ensure a crowd. 

My first novel had recently been published, and I read from my planned sequel. I had been allotted “no more than twenty minutes,” so of course I read for nineteen minutes and forty-five seconds. I read one long section from my second novel, something that is (really) a tour de force on the page. As the time grew short, I read faster, to fit everything in. I was a bit inexperienced at this kind of thing. When I finished, I looked out over the crowd, and I wish I could say that everyone’s eyes were merely glazed.

The Afternoon Takes a Turn

The other reader that afternoon was “Dorritt Carroll” – a really good, accomplished poet with an impishly literary name that instantly and unconsciously conjures memories of Dickens and Alice in Wonderland, and a face from a 1974 Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of an old English novel you never heard of.

I didn’t write down her remarks, but here is what happened.

She arrived at the podium, she looked over at me, then at the crowd. She rolled her eyes and raised her eyebrows. 

She noted that the attendees probably wished they were outside, enjoying the beautiful weather, and they probably thought they were never going to get out of here. 

Don’t worry, she reassured them, she was not going to drag on and on and on and on. 

And she cast another sharp glance in my direction. 

She read a few brief poems, and between each poem she once again reassured the audience that she didn’t intend to keep them much longer, while looking in my direction, sometimes rolling her eyes again and sighing. 

After the reading, my mom came over to me and told me how awful and boring I had been. 

If only my mother had told me I was awful, I might have chalked it up to … well, that was pretty much the kind of thing my mother said to me all the time, may her memory be for a blessing. 

But getting heckled by another writer at a book reading! I’ve attended a lot of book readings, and only once in all those years had I ever seen one writer publicly heckle another writer at the event: Dorritt Carroll heckling me. This kind of thing doesn’t ever happen. Except to me at the Bethesda Writers Center in 2012.

Assuming it’s not her MO – and it cannot be, because otherwise she never would have been invited to read anywhere – then I could only conclude that she had done it because I had indeed been terrible, and she just couldn’t pretend.

I had to improve or quit. Not only for my own peace of mind, but to protect audiences in the future who might have to listen to a Drachman book reading.

How Did I Get on with My Life?

I learned a few things from this, to slow down my delivery, split a reading into a few brief and easy to follow excerpts, avoid anything overcomplicated and, importantly, never again read in my hometown, where complicated mixed emotions would prevent the sort of ease of delivery that would build an audience connection and sell books. 

I did improve, with more successful readings across the country (although in 2019 I bombed at the Bethesda Writers Center once again, proving my instincts correct).  

Most importantly,I learned that no one would do me any favors by telling me that I had done well when I had not, and that I would do myself no favors by lying to myself. 

So the BWC reading became my own personal Horn Blows at Midnight, an artistic catastrophe so appalling that the only way to recover from it is to make fun of it yourself and reevaluate your whole life. 

Not for nothing that every Yom Kippur I send out a Facebook post apologizing again to anyone who had to sit through my 2012 Bethesda Writers Center reading. 

Yesterday, at lunch, I reminisced about this with a couple of friends who had been at that reading all those years ago, and the great debt I owe Dorritt Carroll

So she was already on my mind yesterday, Dorritt Carroll, when the Biden-Trump debate began. 

Biden in Denial

I didn’t watch the debate, but I read about it in real time, and in an increasing panic.

Biden supporters are in despair today.  

Then this morning I read that Biden told reporters outside a Waffle House in Atlanta that he thought he “did well.” Retail campaigning at a waffle house, where real Americans spend their time, as though everything is normal today. The Biden campaign has indeed been insisting publicly that Biden did well, and so presumably this is what he is hearing inside his bubble, as he triumphantly visits waffle houses to meet real Americans who want him to be president. 

He did not do well. And people do not want him to be president.

“I watched the Biden-Trump debate alone in a Lisbon hotel room,” wrote Tom Friedman, “and it made me weep.”

So Biden needs his own Dorritt Carroll. 

How Should Biden Address This?

After my public humiliation, my own approach was to acknowledge that I had bombed, make fun of myself, and then improve. 

To take an example closer to home, Bill Clinton, when he was promising but still relatively unknown, rebounded from a disastrous convention speech by going on talk shows and making fun of himself, then upping his game. 

But Biden is not a young politician with potential and something to prove (or a writer with one novel to his name).

Learn from Jack Benny

This is where The Horn Blows at Midnight is instructive. 

Like Bill Clinton (and me!), Jack Benny rebounded from his worst humiliation (it was then, anyway) by making fun of himself. 

But unlike Bill Clinton (and me), after the relative disappointment of his 1945 film, The Horn Blows at Midnight, Jack Benny took a look at his career and made some changes. Earlier in his career, he had been a beloved radio comedian who wanted a promotion, he had wanted to be a movie star. And he did indeed become a movie star, sometimes a slapstick movie star close to his radio persona, sometimes a nearly suave leading man, and once he even starred in a bona fide classic with a great director. 

But in 1945, he wasn’t as young as he once was, he was too old to be a leading man and, correctly or incorrectly, The Horn Blows at Midnight showed him that he could no longer be a movie star. This was his view, not the universal view, but he didn’t want to take the risk of making more flops. 

As long as movies are around, people will still watch To Be or Not to Be, his great Ernst Lubitsch classic. But after Midnight, Jack Benny never starred in another movie. Midnight was an embarrassment, but not the beginning of a tragic downward spiral. Quitting the movies was no tragedy! He remained a beloved comedian for the rest of his life, in constantly professional demand, and when he made fun of The Horn Blows at Midnight, he always got a huge laugh. When he quit movies, he could spend more time with his family, who loved him. And his friends, who loved him. So he was also in constant social demand. 

Biden’s terrible performance last night can be either an embarrassment, his own Horn Blows at Midnight, his own Bethesda Writers Center, or the beginning of a tragic downward spiral. 

He is too old to be president, but he is not too old to continue to serve his country, as both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have done well into their dotage. If it is true, as colleagues insist, that he is as sharp as ever one-on-one, then he has plenty more to contribute to the world.

He has a family who love him and who need him now more than ever. He has friends. 

And if he quits now, he will have cemented his reputation as a figure of historic importance. 

^^^

This column is written by Steven S. Drachman, a novelist. 

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