Nobody loves the last word more than a newsman -- and now that the 20th century is in its final stretch, the green-shade jockeys are neck and neck in the sum-up-the-century steeplechase. Walter Cronkite, Ben Bradlee and David Brinkley leapt in early with their books, and last year Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Harold Evans made impressive late entries. This month, though, Scott Dikkers and his madcap crew of angry young hacks at the Onion, the satirical weekly paper and Web site based in Madison, Wis., have sent the competition to the glue factory with their definitively victorious wrap-up, "Our Dumb Century." Other reporters may have given the century a solemn salute, but the Onion's staff has given it a resounding Bronx cheer, and early sales show that the public heartily approves of their assessment: The book is already on the Amazon.com and Independent Bestsellers top 10 lists.
It is an unimaginably gloat-worthy luxury for a humorist to invade the virgin territory of American news coverage in the pre-irony era, and Dikkers and his henchmen make no attempt to muffle their glee. In a year-by-year parade of phony front pages, the editors goose-step through the 20th century, snickering at catastrophes, making hay of the news and booting one another in the rear along the way. The new century dawns with progress-drunk headlines blaring "Nation's Skies Filled with Beautiful Black Smoke," while the birth of the bomb 40-odd years later prompts the blithe, whistling denial "Nothing Going on in New Mexico: Top Physicists 'Just Camping.'" By the time the television age has hit full flicker, no topic is off-limits -- from breasts ("President Calls for Calm Following Nipple Sighting on Farrah Fawcett Poster") to shootings ("Hinckley, Foster to Wed: Actress 'Very Impressed' by Lone-Nut Gunman's Attempt on President's Life") to air disasters ("Schoolteacher, Kitten, Three Dozen Orphans to Fly on Challenger Tomorrow").
As the book careers through the decades, no subject, however grave, however innocent, is left unstrafed. World War II offers the occasion for "Hitler Neutralizes Polish Menace" and "Belgium Hides." Later wars in Southeast Asia provide such notable gasps as "Cambodia to Switch to Skull-Based Economy" and "U.S. Troops Pull Out of Vietnamese Peasant Girl." The shockfest winds up with signs that the "swell years" have long since gone and a cynical American populace has come to expect political scandal, nuclear fallout, lubricious mothers and despoiled nature -- even if the president who will lead us all into our next dumb century, Bill Clinton, vows that he "Feels Nation's Pain, Breasts."
"It's actually hard to write satire now," the Onion editors have said, "... because the news is already a parody of itself." On the last front page in "Our Dumb Century," the Onion reports the scoop that will make headlines on January 1, 2000 -- the day all the people who have stashed cash under their beds will take up arms against all the paupers with digital bank accounts: "Christian Right Ascends to Heaven." Heaven, one can only hope, will not be much like home -- or, at least, not much like any home in this dumb century.