A posting or two ago I promised to tell the story of Groucho Marx and the FBI. As they used to intone at the opening of the Lone Ranger radio show, "Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear...." Except it's not the Masked Man and his Mighty Horse Silver who are riding out of the dust of history. It's the FBI in hot pursuit of - can you believe it? - Groucho Marx!
It's 1971. Nixon is grinding his way through the presidency, and a lot of us are worried about what's going on. Among those concerned is Groucho Marx. We all tend to forget that comedians pay close attention to what happens in the world. But after all, it was the Fool who was with Lear on the moor that night in the wild storm that represented the political breakdown of their world.
Groucho looked the situation over, chewed on his cigar, and said that the best thing that could happen was the assassination of Nixon.
He was clearly right because Nixon's campaign cornerstone, his "secret plan" to end the war in Vietnam, had actually meant going on with the war for years and years and causing the deaths of hundred of thousands more Southeast Asians and thousands more Americans. He was also poised to try to steal our country, steal elections, and generally mess up everything. Being a trouble-maker himself when in character, Groucho sensed all this about Nixon.
The FBI heard what Groucho had said and high-tailed it to see him. Following the assassination of John Kennedy and the gross mishandling of evidence in the shooting. as well as the carelessness of local police in letting their star suspect get shot down, Congress had enacted a law making it a federal crime to kill a federal officer or even threaten one. Or a federal candidate. The FBI were understandably eager to exert their new jurisdiction over would-be federal malefactors.
But, honey, not all the king's horses nor all the king's men are a match for the likes of a Groucho Marx. Catching out a comedian is like catching quicksilver in a sieve. When the FBI asked Groucho if he had indeed threatened the life of the president he emphatically denied it and then craftily added, "Besides everyone knows I'm a liar."
I don't when, if ever, the FBI realized they'd been flummoxed. When did Groucho mean he was lying?
When he urged the killing of Nixon? Or when he denied doing so? One can envision the FBI about a half hour after the interview wondering what in the hell Groucho had actually said to them. But apparently there are no second acts in pursuing a Groucho. Having originally acted like idiots the FBI now had the good sense to slink away without arresting the 80-year-old Groucho, instead being content to merely give Groucho Marx a case number, identifying him as a threat to the president.
How outrageous, you exclaim. Giving a case number to Groucho Marx and starting a file on him. But it's okay. In those bad old days, we mouthy types all had FBI case numbers. It was our badge of courage.