The Movie: Duck Soup, 1933 (Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, screenwriters; Leo McCarey, dir.)
Who says it: Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly, president of Freedonia
The context: Firefly discusses what he and his advisors should do with the spy Chicolini (Chico Marx)
How to use it: Reliable political analysis in almost any situation.
Okay, that's probably a little too cynical. Washington is full of very bright people who really do want to save the world; I used to be one of them, and have many friends who still fall into that category. Washington is also full of the incredibly obnoxious kids from your high school who were presidents of the debate team and the student council (and I was one of those too, although I was president of the Fine Arts Council, not debate, so I was already a flake).
But I'll never forget the first time I met a Congressman who just wasn't very bright. I won't identify him, because I don't want the man to sue me -- although he might still be in prison, and not capable of suing anyone. All of my D.C. friends and former colleagues will know who I mean. This man represented a Southern mountain state, and had an extraordinary talent for remembering people's names -- and nothing else.
I remember sitting in a meeting with him about some bank regulatory issue (this would have been during the savings & loan crisis of the late 1980s), and suddenly realizing that not only had he not understood a word of the conversation, he wasn't even paying attention. And here I'd been thinking that only the best people in the United States got elected to Congress, as if it were some kind of beatification instead of a money-driven popularity contest.
It was the beginning of my understanding that desire and confidence are more important than talent in almost every area of life. We all know very talented people who can't seem to catch a break; they can't get their books published, they can't get promoted, they can't make their movies happen, they can't find investors, etc. The difference between these people and the successful idiots is that the successful idiots simply expect their success.
The best piece of professional advice I ever got was during this same period, from the master lobbyist who was my boss. "Don't think about what you're going to say, because then you sound scripted," he told me. "Think about the response you want." We all want to be liked, and the easiest way to do that is to give people the responses they're looking for. The key to lobbying, or to any kind of sale, is to let someone know what the "right" response would be.
Professional politicians understand that instinctively, even if they don't know anything else.