Saturday, May 5, 2012

Magicians: the Real Avengers?

This week, the latest Marvel Studios blockbuster, "The Avengers," opened, breaking box office records all over the world. The quote that Marvel chose to lead with on the movie's Web site is from Nick Fury, (played by Samuel L. Jackson). "There was an idea," Fury says, "to bring together a group of remarkable people to fight the battles we couldn't." Sadly, we have no super heroes to balance the Federal budget or to use their mighty strength to raise the level of debate. But history does show us a group of remarkable people who were often called upon by their governments to use their extraordinary skills in time of need: magicians. In fact, one magician even stopped a war! (Click here to see the video.)

I am referring to the French magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, the father of modern magic, after whom Harry Houdini named himself. In 1856, the French government faced an Algerian uprising fueled by quasi-magical religious fanaticism. In a rare burst of creative insight, government officials realized that the best way to avoid bloodshed while keeping the status quo was to prove French magic superior to that of the native Marabouts. They called Robert-Houdin out of retirement, and he succeeded in quelling the rebellion without shedding a drop of Algerian blood. (The video clip above, was broadcast - only once - in 1996.)

In World War II, British stage magician Jasper Maskelyne volunteered his expertise in developing new camouflage techniques to counteract the Nazis' air reconnaissance. According to Wikipedia, his largest illusion was to conceal the entire city of Alexandria, Egypt and the Suez Canal to misdirect German bombers. Maskelyne also famously created fake tank divisions in Calais out of cardboard and silver paint to pin down Nazi tank divisions away from the D-Day landing sites. If you are a fan of war stories, check out David Fisher's riveting The War Magician.

After the war, American magician and author John Mulholland left the editorship of the magic journal "The Sphinx," ostensibly due to ill health, but in reality to work for the fledgling CIA. Along with developing sleight-of-hand and psychological techniques for spies (many of which are still valid today), he trained field agents and wrote The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception (1953).

Let us not forget the thousands of U.S. magicians who have volunteered their time at military and VA hospitals, events for military families and White house events, as well as those who did benefits shows for the troops, both at home and in war zones, and who raised millions of dollars in War Bonds.

Among the U.S. government projects I am allowed to talk about, my own experience of being sent as an expert speaker on a diplomatic mission to counteract Fidel Castro's influence in the West Indies, while not quite a ripping yarn, will have to wait for another article. Suffice it to say that I know whereof I speak.

This week's inside-the-Beltway mess involves the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and their online request for proposals for a magician/speaker for a June event. They were looking for a very specific person, a magician with top public speaking credentials and familiarity with the works of Harvard's Prof. Howard Gardner on multiple intelligences. The idea was to infuse an upcoming conference with creative energy and make the learning more enjoyable.

Unlike its namesake, NOAA's timing could hardly have been worse. Coming on the heels of the GSA's Las Vegas junket scandal, which has already cost GSA head Martha Johnson her job, the word "magician" in the RFP was a red flag to House and Senate Republicans looking to score easy points against President Obama in an election year. While NOAA's proposal was hardly out of line - indeed, the fee they offered was quite small compared to the going rates for full days by expert speakers - the sound and fury it generated was like, well, a sudden tornado. NOAA removed the RFP the same day, possibly (as one reporter accidentally revealed to me) at the behest of the White House.

This time, Washington's tempest-in-a-teapot hit close to home. As a professional speaker and magician, I have worked at many Federal government and military events, some as an entertainer and others as a speaker. This gives me an unusually good perspective on the subject. called and interviewed me for a follow-up article which has been picked up by other outlets.

My point is simply this: in the wake of Washington's latest tempest in a teapot, and in the light of history, the idea of a government agency hiring a magician is not ridiculous, nor is it reprehensible. In fact, it may be just what we need. 

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Eric Henning Magician