Harper’s Offers Up a Risky Spoof

Times Staff Writer

In what may prove to be a much-publicized and controversial package, the April issue of Harper’s magazine asserts that Jesus would need a comprehensive, well-coordinated publicity campaign to make the Second Coming a success in the ‘80s.

In a series of cover stories meant to parody today’s obsession with the media blitz, the magazine asked a variety of experts to “offer Jesus frank advice on six tasks critical to winning over American public opinion: developing a media strategy, writing a monologue for a guest-host appearance on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ redesigning the cover of the New Testament and writing the jacket-flap copy, designing a contemporary wardrobe, and developing a storyboard for a one-minute television commercial.”

Senior editor Jack Hitt, who came up with the idea, said the articles try to answer the question “How would Christ get sold?” if he were to reappear on Earth as predicted in the Book of Revelation. The point, Hitt said, is to satirize the widely accepted notion that politicians, rock stars, denture creams and, yes, messiahs, all must employ “the same basic tools” to get their message, song or product across in today’s interlocking, interdependent system of print and broadcast media.

However, Ron Suskind, a former political campaign aide in state and national races who wrote the main story for the package, acknowledged that the point of the exercise may be missed by those who fail to see any humor in a satire that uses religion as a vehicle.


Braced for the Backlash

“I’m waiting with bated breath to see what kind of treatment puritanical Boston gives it,” said Suskind, now editor of Boston Business magazine. ". . . I guess we’re all waiting to see what the reaction’s going to be because it could be very interesting.”

He added: “We are not poking fun at Jesus but rather at ourselves. We are doing a parody of this huge packaging machine in this country. . . . We are trying not to underrate our fellow man and if he doesn’t get it, it probably means we have overrated him.” He conceded that some will see the issue as “probably sacrilegious and mean-spirited.”

In his memo outlining strategy for Jesus’ tour of the United States, Suskind advised: “For the first three days, we’ve planned several miracles of the modest water-to-wine variety that should verify Your authenticity but stop short of conjuring up the divisive flood-and-fire imagery of Armageddon. We want to show a willingness to perform miracles while, at least in the beginning, respecting the existing laws of physics. To encourage spontaneity, Your itinerary will note various ‘miracle opportunities'--miracle ops.”

Suskind also warns that Jesus should beware of the Washington press corps. “Leader of the corps is a man named Sam Donaldson, sardonic and versed in human sacrifices,” he writes, referring to the ABC television newsman. “He is trained to ask the question You most wish to avoid. He will try to test and embarrass You, probably with one of those theological chestnuts. Our sources indicate he will ask: ‘If you are omnipotent, can You create a rock You cannot lift?’ Think about it.”

‘Rags to Heavenly Riches’

The new jacket-flap copy for the New Testament, written by Norton book publishing’s Gerry Howard, reports that “At the age of 30 Jesus was an obscure Jewish carpenter in a backwater province of the Roman Empire . . . today, countless millions in every corner of the world call Him Savior. In an age devoted to the creation and near-worship of celebrity, His name recognition worldwide is uncontested.” Describing the work of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as “four novellas,” the jacket copy says that each book retells “the compelling personal saga of Jesus, a breathtaking rags-to-heavenly riches story of struggles and triumphs, of faith and betrayal, of suffering and death--and Eternal Life.”

Editor Hitt said he had a tough time obtaining articles suitable for the point he was trying to make. “I had to kill a lot of pieces because a lot of people assumed it was a lampoon on Christ,” he explained.


So far, Hitt and Suskind said they’ve had little reaction and most of that has been favorable. But both expect response--possibly even fulminations--from unappreciative quarters starting this week. Subscribers began receiving their copies of Harper’s last week, but the issue is only now showing up on newsstands, according to Hitt.

“My brother likes it but he said he wouldn’t recommend anybody reprint it in the South,” said Hitt, a native of South Carolina.

Of the two, Suskind seems to expect the more dire reactions, both short term and long term. For one thing, when he asked eight major political media consultants to help with the project, all declined, even though they expressed initial delight with the concept. In general, the consultants told him they were worried that their participation would “fall into the hands of my opponents in the next race and it would be used against my candidate,” Suskind recalled.

As for himself, Suskind figures he isn’t going to be able to work in politics again for a long time, if ever.


“I don’t think there’s any realm where there are more peculiar resurrections than politics,” he said. “I will never say never. But I have no plans to return to politics.”

Travelers’ Checks

Los Angeles was voted one winner and one loser in Entree’s second annual Excellence Awards based on the votes of more than 4,000 readers of the Santa Barbara-based newsletter for upscale travelers. The Hotel Bel-Air was selected as the best hotel in the United States while another local institution, Spago, was voted the “most overrated restaurant.”

Billionaire Donald Trump’s Plaza Hotel in New York was voted--for the second year--the “most overrated hotel anywhere” as Entree readers overcame “a brainwashing plethora of publicity and advertising from the glitzmeister Donald Trump.”


The newsletter’s readers also zinged the Beverly Hills Hotel, “proving that even if you are the Sultan of Brunei with a zillion dollars it doesn’t mean you can have a top hotel.” The sultan purchased the landmark hotel in 1987.

A San Francisco restaurant, Masa’s, was voted the best restaurant in the United States, while Taillevent in Paris was voted the best foreign restaurant. London got the nod for the best foreign hotel, the Connaught, while the Mauna Kea resort on Hawaii’s Big Island was voted the “best resort anywhere.” Singapore Airlines was voted the world’s best airline.

The magazine also reported other dislikes with airlines, particularly American carriers, getting the “most thrashing.” Entree’s readers disliked airline food, shrinking seat space, “babies and parents being bumped into first-class, excess hand luggage, lack of safety, chatty captains” and “lack of service.” On the ground they hated “over-friendly waiters, hotel phone systems, customs, mini-bar checks, pretentiousness, smoking, and sloppy, informal service.”