What did The Onion actually publish 20 years ago? I try to find out
The Onion predicts George W. Bush's post-presidency love of painting, teachers and students get made fun of, and Campbell's Soup gets a new competitor.
Welcome back to The Onion: 20 Years Later, where we review the print issue from exactly 20 years ago, find out what’s still funny and examine the cultural impact. Today, we revisit April 11, 2001.
There’s an immediate problem: What stories actually published, and when? I’ll explain.
I’m grateful every week to share this with you. If you think someone else would enjoy this, please let them know!
What issue is this?
Today’s Issue 13 page is missing multiple stories. Read on for the biggest puzzle.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
Yes, what WAS the top story? I thought it was “Bush Regales Dinner Guests With Impromptu Oratory On Virgil's Minor Works.” But maybe it’s not? Please indulge me.
The Onion’s 2001 website archive of Vol. 37, Issue 13, is dated April 11, 2001, and has Bush as the top story. For further verification, there’s a Salon.com story from April 12, 2001, that cites the Bush headline. Case closed, right?
However, for roughly 19 years, The Onion has acted as if the Bush story appeared in the following week’s issue, Vol. 37, Issue 14. Today’s website lists the Bush story as from that issue, as does 2011’s archived website and official books released in 2002 and 2009. (To add to the confusion, today’s version is dated as 2005, but we know that’s incorrect.)
So … what’s the deal? Maybe it’s an error that got into the 2002 book and never got corrected. Or maybe the story was published online by mistake on April 11, 2001, and then appeared in the April 18 print issue. In that sense, the Bush story would exist in both issues.1
Since I’m not an actual historian with access to The Onion’s entire print archive, I’m declaring “Bush Regales Dinner Guests With Impromptu Oratory On Virgil's Minor Works” to be a story from this issue. And it’s a great one.
We get a look at what The Onion’s George W. Bush coverage might have looked like were it not for 9/11. In fact, you might say The Onion hasn’t tried to create an alter ego for POTUS since — Onion Joe Biden was the star of the Obama administration, the Trump Boys ruled the past four years, and it’s too early to tell with this version of Biden.
Much of The Onion’s Bush coverage was of him as a doofus. But this article and August 2001’s “Bush Finds Error In Fermilab Calculations” hint at what could have been a delightful turn: W, the renaissance man who must deal with the drudgeries of being president.
Bush is no dilettante — he knows Virgil’s minor works in the original Latin and French (for the lesser-educated), and he plays classical piano. His audience appears to be mostly Europeans who are in awe of his knowledge and oratory.
In real life, Bush didn’t take up painting until after his presidency. But here, Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique Camps (a real person!) bribes him with a watercolor:
"It had been too long since I'd heard one of W.'s anecdotes, so I simply got on a plane," Camps said. "I showed up at his doorstep with a watercolor by Ignat Bednarik, whom I know he adores, just to make sure he'd let me in."
Bush eventually demurs from more discussion of Virgil with this ridiculous closer:
"I have already taken up far too much of your valuable time with my classical nattering," Bush said. "I dearly wish I could give you back this hour during which you so graciously indulged my dilettantism, but, as Plautus said, 'Factum est illud, fieri infectum non potest.' Done is done, it cannot be made undone."
Roasting teachers and students
Still with me? Thank you!
Anyways, there’s lots else to talk about. The Onion gave us two stories about schools. “Teacher Of The Year Awards 'A Fashion Nightmare” is even better when you remember that most 2001 fashion was bad. And I love the idea of covering a state teacher-awards ceremony like it was the Oscars.
"I haven't seen this much plaid since I was in Edinburgh," said comedian and E! commentator Joan Rivers, standing outside the auditorium. "Forget the fashion police–this event needs a fashion SWAT team."
Some of the other fashions on display:
“red polka-dotted dress and brown Hush Puppies”
“drab, shapeless pantsuits”
“headache-inducing floral-print frocks”
a tweed sports jacket “about as colorful as Barbara Bush and almost as wrinkled"
a gray dress that “made her look like a battleship–one on the verge of sinking"
“oversized beige sweater”
I love the care put into the Joan Rivers digs:
"In that white ruffled collar, Mrs. Karcher was a dead ringer for George Washington," Rivers said. "I cannot tell a lie: That's the worst outfit I've ever seen. Ack!"
Added Rivers: "Apparently, not all teachers have class."
There’s also “Role Of Tree Ineptly Played By Second-Grader,” in which a newspaper critic rips 7-year-old Kimberly Bauer’s “ham-fisted delivery and clunky sense of timing.”
Bill Clinton spent much of 2001 returning gifts or donations he’d received. The Onion lightly touches on this with “Report: Clinton Accepted Rebate While In Office Depot.”
And The Onion asked people what they thought about China detaining 24 U.S. Navy personnel after a midair collision. The Americans were released the day this issue published, so it was already out of date. My main laugh was with this silly joke from a different U.S.-China proxy war:
"Damn Truman! We should cross the Yalu River and invade the Chinese mainland! We must halt the spread of Communism at all costs!"
Richard Grolier • Consultant
Finally, with the Navy crashing things all over the place in early 2001, The Onion took a very dark perspective with “Navy Admiral Considers Death Of Son Within Acceptable Loss Range.”
This admiral offers stoic, fatherly advice like “I realize that in this life, you are never going to have a 100 percent target-strike rate” with his children. And like any good commander, he looks after the survivors:
"Luckily, only one of the Dodge Daytona's crew members, the pilot, was a member of the McManus family," McManus said. "Had there been multiple family members on board, the loss would have been more difficult to sustain. But as such, only one of six, or 17 percent of total McManus family members, were lost."
He suggests that his wife is young enough that the McManuses could “rebuild our ranks.”
Area People doing Area Things
Here are a few favorites from this issue.
“Nation Awaits Word On Today's Slam Dunks” is a throwback to when “SportsCenter” was the place to get video highlights, not the internet. Also, this was so long ago that Dan Patrick still worked at ESPN.
“Fifth Level Of Video Game Reached During Phone Call To Mom”: This 22-year-old is playing Sega Dreamcast, which was discontinued 2 weeks before this issue published. I’ve been writing this column for 15 months, and this might be the first video-game story not to mention PlayStation 2.
“Hero Citizen Can Name All 50 States”: This is a longer story than I expected, mostly portraying the recitation of America’s states as if it were some grueling test of genius and manhood. And Carl Sutton was rewarded for it!
Despite the competition, Sutton received more good news Monday, when he learned that he has won a MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant." He said he plans to use the $500,000 prize to study and memorize all the state mottos, nicknames, and birds.
Were the infographics good?
The one-liners in “Most Popular Easter-Sermon Topics” are decent. If you grew up Catholic, especially, you’ll appreciate “See You At Christmas!”
I had to look up the comedian Emo Philips, and I don’t know what to think about that.
“Rosie The Magazine” is dated, but it correctly captures Rosie O’Donnell’s career ambitions and vanity in 2001 as she took over McCall’s magazine to compete with Oprah and Martha. It’s also true that she cultivated an image of loud-but-mostly-neutral, Tom Cruise-loving and occasionally choosing to debate gun control with noted experts like Tom Selleck.
(The magazine was dead less than two years later.)
Finally, the 2001 website says Easter card illustrations were included, but I believe that’s a rerun of the Easter cards I shared last year.
What columnists ran?
More importantly, we have “I've Got A New Soup That Will Knock Campbell's On Its Ass,” which is one of the best types of Onion stories: The column in which the author angrily/defiantly promotes a commercial product.
Other examples include maybe the most famous Onion prediction, “Fuck Everything, We're Doing Five Blades.” and “Generic Candy Corn Will Give You AIDS.” And even in 2021, this genre lives on with “Kellogg’s Condemns Georgia Voting Laws In Call To Overthrow Government With Absolute Cerealocracy.”
Trudy Schiff is adamant that her soups are more innovative, interesting and better-tasting than Campbell’s. Chicken soup, clam chowder — you name it, she’s crushing it. And she’s not going to sell her idea:
I'd much rather watch those bitches slowly squirm as they watch their soup cans collecting dust on supermarket shelves across the nation while everybody stampedes to get their mitts on a can of Trudy's Crab & Corn Chowder. No amount of money could give me that much pleasure.
Hear those footsteps, Campbell's? Yeah? You can? That's me coming after you.
Most “Hey, it’s 2001!” reference
I think the Sega Dreamcast reference wins, especially because even Sega had given up on it.
What was the best horoscope?
I think Cancer was 20 years early to the GameStop trading frenzy.
Cancer | June 21 to July 22
Your insistence that mere psychology is behind the recent stock-market swings will go largely unheeded by the other panhandlers.
What holds up best?
I love the Bush story because it’s The Onion attempting to create an alternate universe for the president — not one with no rules, but one with a different set of rules. The Onion can be brilliant when it’s reacting to real life, but I love when it’s inventing reality.
I also liked the 2001 front-page headline “Psychiatrist Cures Patient,” which is no longer online.
What holds up worst?
Probably “Bruce Vilanch Sodomized By Homosexual,” both for the vocabulary and for the mental strain of having to remember who the hell Vilanch is and why I should care.
What would be done differently today?
No Bruce Vilanch, that’s for sure.
The Onion in 2021 is attempting to rebuild Biden with articles like “Biden Touted As Modern-Day FDR After Getting Hand Job From Cousin In Upstate New York.” I appreciate the effort, and we’ll see how that goes.
What real-life people were mentioned?
George W. Bush. Josep Pique Camps. Ignat Bednarik. Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro). Gnaeus Pompeius The Great (Pompey). Marcus Licinius Crassus. Asinius Pollio. Plautus. Joan Rivers. Melissa Rivers. Steven Cojocaru. Mr. Blackwell. Bruce Vilanch. Whoopi Goldberg. Monica Lewinsky. Bill Clinton. Harry Truman. Emo Philips. Dan Patrick. Rosie O’Donnell. Tom Cruise. Nathan Lane. Oprah Winfrey. Martha Stewart. George Foreman. Muhammad Ali.
“Bush Regales Dinner Guests With Impromptu Oratory On Virgil's Minor Works” refers to many important Roman Republic-era figures.
The teachers story also includes commentary from fashion personalities Cojocaru and Blackwell.
Foreman and Ali are in the front-page headline “New Grill To Revive Foreman-Ali Rivalry,” which I’m surprised didn’t really happen.
What was happening in the real world?
Here’s the real-life news from April 2-8, 2001, omitting the few days of production before The Onion’s print date. News is from InfoPlease and the front pages of The New York Times (subscription required). Movie and music charts are linked:
U.S., Chinese planes collide, with China detaining 24 U.S. survivors and demanding an apology. Study of 2000 Florida vote suggests Bush victory even with recount. U.S. population increased by 32.7 million in the 1990s. Unrest in Cincinnati after white police officer shoots unarmed Black man. NYC police diversify, but not with promotions. Senate passes bills for tax cuts, campaign-finance reform. MIT announces 10-year effort to provide free online courses. Hubble photo backs Einstein’s negative gravity theory. Hideo Nomo throws no-hitter for Red Sox. Doctors often charge more to the uninsured. March jobs losses are most in a decade. California utility seeks bankruptcy protection. Shortage of nurses feared. Darwin-design battle continues.
Top movie (weekend of April 6-8): “Spy Kids”
Top TV show (April 2-8): “Survivor”
Billboard top single (April 7): “Butterfly,” Crazy Town
Billboard top album (April 7): “Hotshot,” Shaggy
The Bush story might have been accidentally flipped with “Accountants Pack Times Square For Fiscal New Year,” which is about the April 15 tax deadline. The accountant story has, since 2002, been listed a week early — April 11 — even though it almost assuredly during appear online until April 18, 2001. So we’ll talk about that one next week.