"The first draft of history" -- in moments of self-importance, that's what journalists like to call what they do.
Writer Kevin McDonough turned that idea on its ear. What if, he mused, history itself were recounted as if it were the front page of today's newspaper? And not just any newspaper. McDonough wanted to report the news of the ages in our most ageless journalistic form: the screaming tabloid headline.
The result is "A Tabloid History of the World" (Hyperion, $9.95 trade paperback), a collection of front pages from the imaginary World Past tabloid that reduces a stack of high school history lessons to their most elemental, screaming and lurid form.
Leafing through . . .
SLAYS DAD; WEDS MOM; BLINDS SELF. The ancient tale of Oedipus, accompanied by a ghastly photo of the mutilated man of myth.
SICKO SOCKO'S HEMLOCK COCKTAIL. Socrates quaffs his fatal brew. The headline comes with an explanatory subhead: Egghead Celebrity Even Defends State's Right to Kill Him.
RATS & FLEAS: 1; HUMAN RACE: 0. It's about the Plague.
MASS. HYSTERIA. The Salem witch trials distilled to their absolute essence.
UP AND ATOM! With the subhead: Super Brains See Super-Bombs as Quick End to War. That's a merry way to remember the Manhattan Project.
"A good tabloid headline, by using double- or even triple-entendres, really does tell the entire story at once," says McDonough, who lives in Narrowsburg in downstate Sullivan County and works as a television columnist for the United Feature Syndicate. "It both reduces everything to tawdry cliche and sums it up perfectly. . . . On one level the book is about the decline in journalism, but on another level it's a celebration of everything that's great about the tabloid style.
"I'm lampooning the tabloids as much as anything. If you think it's horrible what they write about Bill Clinton or Princess Di or Marv Albert, what if this same journalistic practice were applied to historical figures -- would we have any heroes at all? We have this fishbowl mentality combined with a kind of neo-Puritanism and a general joylessness. There's just a gotcha mentality about everybody."
Hence the World Post's depiction of young George Washington and the cherry tree: HATCHET BOY! Brazen, Arbor-cidal Maniac Owns Up to Dad after Cherry Tree Killing Spree. Or another icon deflated: LINCOLN IS A MANIC-DEPRESSIVE; White House Doctor Shocker: Sez Melancholy Prez Is a Walking Time Bomb.
McDonough, whose own tabloid of choice is the New York Post, says the idea came to him during the 1984 presidential campaign, after Barbara Bush let loose her famous comment on Geraldine Ferraro. The Post headline that day was BABS ON GERRY: IT RHYMES WITH RICH. "It occurred to me," he says, "that the headline would mean nothing if you hadn't already seen (the news) on TV or heard it on the radio. The tabloids are really a kind of Greek chorus to stories that you already know. They kind of add a salacious commentary, and what they do best is the mythical or salacious stuff. And boing, it came to me: What if they covered all these historical stories?"
He shopped the idea around a little, but there was a technical problem: In those days before desktop publishing, assembling the pictures and words would be an enormous amount of work. So McDonough shelved the project for a while, and when the advent of computer graphics programs made it doable, he launched into it. The book, whose photos are mainly old movie stills, was designed by his wife, Kay Schuckhart.
Is he worried that overserious historians will see the project as trivializing the great march of human achievement? Does he fear that the faithful might take offense at the biblical references? (For example, the headline on Jesus' resurrection of Lazarus is: DEAD MAN WALKING.)
"I tried to spread the irony around," McDonough says. "Almost every group and every period gets its satirical comeuppance. There's a lot of biblical material in there because the Bible is so rich in incredible drama. . . . This book is meant to appeal to the smart-aleck, and I think our popular culture now is so oversensitive, so politically correct, and so insensitive to the power of language, that I hope this book shakes people up, makes them laugh, makes them think."
OK, last one: There's a famous New York Post headline that read HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR. In "A Tabloid History of the World," the report on John the Baptist's bloody death (he's beheaded at the demand of sexy Salome) gets a similar treatment.
TOPLESS DANCER, HEADLESS SAINT, it says.