Looking for Tom Lehrer, comedy's mysterious genius

The space for one of the animating forces in Lehrer’s music, his liberal politics, was shrinking too. Lehrer was a hero of the anti-nuclear, civil rights left; he occupied the bleeding edge of the elite liberalism of the day. “I Wanna Go Back to Dixie” minces no words in its scorn for the industry of American nostalgia, and particularly for the American South: “I wanna talk with Southern gentlemen / And put my white sheet on again / I ain’t seen one good lynchin’ in years … The land of the boll weevil / Where the laws are medieval / Is callin’ me to come and nevermore roam.”

But his left was the square, suit-wearing, high-culture left. His circle at Harvard included Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the renowned historian, JFK biographer, and then-nominal chairman of the Cambridge chapter of Americans for Democratic Action. His political hero was Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, the man whom Richard Nixon damagingly dismissed as an “egghead.”

Stevenson’s losing battle marked the end of a political tradition, and also the beginning of the end of a kind of Ivy League liberal intellectualism’s place atop the Democratic Party. What was coming was the New Left and the counterculture, something whose aesthetics Lehrer couldn’t stand, even if their politics weren’t necessarily at odds.