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The Importance Of Not Fiddling While Rome Burns (Or Floods)

It's not unusual for politicians and show business producers to put off planned events in the face of tragedy or national disaster.

The Republican Party delayed opening day festivities at its national convention in Tampa this week because of safety concerns as Tropical Storm Isaac barrels toward the Gulf Coast.

Four years ago, however, Republicans postponed their convention kick-off due to sensitivity about another storm that threatened the Gulf — even though the GOP was convening at a safe distance in Minnesota.

"When one of these big disasters happen, there are things that are going to seem inappropriate if they're right on the tails of them," says Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University.

Republicans might have special sensitivity to hurricanes, Thompson suggests, due to the political price the party paid over the Bush administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

But the GOP is hardly alone in thinking that it can look bad to go forward with a planned celebration when horrible news is unfolding elsewhere.

FEMA's Michael Brown (left) and President George W. Bush, seen in 2003, were widely criticized for their response after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005.
/ Getty Images
Getty Images
FEMA's Michael Brown (left) and President George W. Bush, seen in 2003, were widely criticized for their response after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005.

The Academy Awards have been postponed twice due to political shootings: in 1981, when President Ronald Reagan was shot; and in 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated. (An earlier delay, back in 1938, happened for weather-related reasons similar to the current Republican troubles — major flooding in the Los Angeles area forced the ceremony to be put off for a week.)

Reagan himself altered his State of the Union address in 1986, after the Challenger space shuttle disaster. He gave a short, heartfelt talk from the Oval Office rather than addressing a broad range of issues before Congress, as had been scheduled.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I'd planned to speak to you tonight to report on the State of the Union, but the events of earlier today have led me to change those plans," Reagan said. "Today is a day for mourning and remembering."

Thompson, the Syracuse professor, says certain events are put off for fear of seeming "callow and insensitive." For example, the opening of Gangster Squad, a movie that features a mass theater shooting, has been delayed until January, due to the killings last month at a Colorado movie theater.

Thompson recalls that all manner of sports and entertainment events were postponed or canceled in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "Not doing the Emmy Awards on the heels of Sept. 11 certainly didn't solve any problems, but it was probably appropriate," he says.

Comedians felt uncertain about when it would be appropriate to get back to making people laugh. Late-night talk show hosts such as David Letterman gave impassioned speeches when they returned to the air, easing into the business of talking to celebrities and making jokes.

Comedy Central's The Daily Show broadcast reruns for more than a week, carefully screening them first. "We are going through the old shows to make sure there aren't any references to terrorism or the president," Comedy Central spokesman Tony Fox said at the time.

Eventually, comedians were granted permission to be funny again by New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who appeared on Saturday Night Live on Sept. 29, 2001, flanked by members of the city's police and fire departments. The show, he said, must go on.

"Having our city's institutions up and running sends a message that New York City is open for business," Giuliani said. "Saturday Night Live is one of our great New York City institutions, and that's why it's important for you to do your show tonight."

Lorne Michaels, SNL's producer, asked, "Can we be funny?" Giuliani replied, "Why start now?"

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.