How 'Major Kong' flew back into the political lexicon

When the usual adjectives won't do, a bomb-riding war monger is becoming a go-to image for what pundits see as absurd moments in politics. 

Jose Luis Magana/AP
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas waves to the crowd before he speaks, during the Values Voter Summit, held by the Family Research Council Action on Sept. 25, 2015, in Washington. Liberal critics have taken to referring to Cruz as 'Major Kong.'

“Major Kong.” A reference to the hydrogen bomb-riding warmonger in the classic black comedy “Dr. Strangelove,” in politics it connotes someone who’s recklessly hurtling toward certain doom.

As politics become more divisive and – to many – more absurd than normal, the political class looks for pop-culture references that can illustrate that absurdity. Few are more vivid than Slim Pickens’s cowboy hat-waving character in “Dr. Strangelove,” the 1964 film satirizing the cold war. Pickens plays Maj. T.J. “King” Kong, who near the movie’s end successfully rewires and then joyfully straddles a falling H-bomb like a bucking bronco bull before it detonates. It’s a character and scene that was given homage in “The Simpsons” and inspired the name of a Polish doom-metal band.

In the Washington Post this week, liberal blogger Greg Sargent summarized the various presidential candidates’ positions on whether to close the federal government over funding for Planned Parenthood. He tweeted, “Ted ‘Shutdown’ Cruz has become the Major Kong character in Dr. Strangelove” and linked to a post in which he said the iconoclastic Texas senator “is sitting atop a missile labeled ‘government shutdown’ and shrieking with hysterical, blood-curdling glee as it plummets towards Earth.”

Chris Matthews of MSNBC’s “Hardball” also has compared Cruz to Kong; during the 2011 standoff between President Obama and congressional Republicans over raising the federal debt limit, he used the description for the entire GOP. But conservatives have invoked the image as well. Writing in U.S. News & World Report, Ripon College political scientist Lamont Colucci complained last month about the Obama administration mobilizing support for the Iran nuclear deal, including Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz’s contention that the agreement contains unprecedented ways of verifying that Iran doesn’t obtain a bomb.

“And what real world does he live in?” Colucci wrote. “The world in which the only verification system is on-demand inspections or the world in which we replay the low-grade movie of the mid-1990s, where we knew the North Koreans were violating all the agreements, but could not get inspections on demand to verify it? This movie ends with the Kim family riding a nuclear missile down Tokyo’s tailpipe like Slim Pickens in ‘Dr. Strangelove.’ ’’

Obama, inevitably, has been compared to Kong. And Vice President Joe Biden, in turn, has compared Obama’s critics to him. But invoking the character isn’t confined to American politics: In Canada’s National Post, columnist Chris Selley used it to describe former Quebec Premier Pauline Marois’ ardent support of a “charter of values” that critics called Islamophobic because it banned public-sector workers from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols such as veils. Marois was defeated last year in an election that she herself had called.

“The polls told Pauline Marois that Quebecers supported her values charter, and she rode it to her demise like Major Kong in ‘Dr. Strangelove,’ ” Selley wrote.

Chuck McCutcheon writes his "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Politics Voices.

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