I began my teaching at Bridgeport University, an institution in the city of the same name and built upon the once-estate of P.T. Barnum, an estate featuring a mansion which Barnum called “Iranistan.”
I worried that, on Barnum’s turf, students wouldn’t take me seriously. Or would. It was an odd place, spilling over with both eagerness and paranoia. I remember walking along a sidewalk with the dean of humanities. A small knot of students approached, and the dean leaned in and whispered, “Don’t let them push you into the bushes.”
I think he meant hedges. Was he playing with words? Hard to say: It was P. T. Barnum’s campus, the once-home, at any given moment, of an outsized philanthropist and huckster.
And here I am, a half century later, back on Barnum’s campus. Or in it. As the last election reiterates daily: There’s a sucker born every minute. Phineas is back at the helm, except our present-day Phineas is a man bereft of generosity, irony or whimsy. He’s a Phineas born again with a hyena’s heart.
I’m hardly the first to make connections. Stephen Colbert and Bill Moyers (among others) have beaten me to the punch. They’ve noted that both P.T. Barnum and D.J. Trump ran for office and experienced bankruptcies. They’ve observed that both schemer-dreamers created “fake-news” stories. And Stephen Colbert speculated that — what with D.J.’s various marriages — he, too, had at least three rings.
Still, there are deeper and more unsettling echos.
“Fortune always favors the brave, and never helps a man who does not help himself,” the original P. T. said. And, though I question whether our present P.T. can be called brave, certainly he is a man who helps himself. To women. To positions. To wealth. And — if the reports are true — most of which he helps himself to (unlike King Midas) turns into bankruptcy rather than gold.
“Nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American public.”
Bridgeport’s Phineas T. Barnum was both idealist and cynic: Teach them well, but don’t let them push you into the hedges. Or into the hedge-funds. Our current version is all disdain and tastelessness.
Where are the PBS-broadcast cultural soirees once hosted by Barack and Michelle —the music, the dance, the theater? Nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American public. Our current Phineas T. is a low-bar guy — the product of low-bar acculturation who continually sets the bar low for his constituents. “Defund the National Endowments!” he shouts. Perhaps he’d support a National Endowment for Doglegs and Approach Shots.
”I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.”
When Bridgeport’s P.T. said this, he spoke with a twinkle in his eye. The White House’s current P.T. is twinkle-less. But his need for attention is enormous. He is an elephant in a ballerina’s costume — posturing and parading in the middle ring of his tent.
Imagine a young university professor who, in the third week of the semester, announces, “Final exam next Wednesday!” The students scramble. They cram. They study. They sharpen their pencils and take something that looks like a final. Then the professor announces that what the students just took wasn’t the same as an end-of-the-term final exam and that, if the students want to get credit, they will have to re-enroll and pay additional tuition.
One of the most famous P. T. Barnum stories involves his posting a circus-sign, “This Way To The Egress.” Egress sounded like some sort of exotic cat or bear to many circus-goers. So they went through the portal that led them out of the circus (egress=exit) and had to pay a ticket price to re-enter.
This way to the egress, ladies and gentlemen. You walk the path at your own expense.
David Kranes is a playwright, fiction writer and writing mentor living with his wife, Carol, in Salt Lake City.