Mark Russell, a master of political satire who stood at a star-spangled piano and kept the cognoscenti in stitches for six decades with musical parodies and professorial tomfoolery that tweaked politicians and captured the silly side of Washington, died on Thursday at his home there. He was 90.
The cause was prostate cancer, his wife, Alison Russell, said.
With his deadpan solemnity, stars-and-stripes stage sets and fusty bow ties, Mr. Russell looked more like a senator than a comic. But as the capital merry-go-round spun its peccadilloes, scandals and ballyhooed promises, his jaunty baritone restored order with bipartisan japes and irreverent songs to deflate the preening ego and the Big Idea.
Presidents from Eisenhower to Trump caught the flak. He sang “Bail to the Chief” for Richard M. Nixon, urged George H.W. Bush to retire “to a home for the chronically preppy,” likened Jimmy Carter’s plan to streamline government to “putting racing stripes on an arthritic camel,” and recalled first seeing Ronald Reagan “in the picture-frame department at Woolworth’s, between Gale Storm and Walter Pidgeon.”
Did he have any writers? “Oh, yes — 100 in the Senate and 435 in the House of Representatives.” The true meaning of the Cold War? “In communism, man exploits man. But with capitalism, it’s the other way around.” Gun control? “I will defend my Second Amendment right to use my musket to defend my Third Amendment right to never, ever allow a British soldier to live in my house.”
For 20 years, from 1961 to 1981, he was the resident onstage wit at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, and for 30 years, from 1975 to 2004, he hosted comedy specials on PBS. He also appeared on CNN and NBC, and on a national circuit of colleges, conventions and other venues, often 100 times a year.
Long before Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert exposed the illusions of virtue in Washington, there was Mark Ruslander from Buffalo, a college dropout and Marine Corps veteran who landed in the capital in 1956, changed his surname to Russell and began playing piano in striptease joints and bars.
He later inserted political wisecracks into his patter at the Carroll Arms cocktail lounge, near the Capitol. It was a hangout for Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and his sidekicks, and the conventioneers and tourists flocked to see the Capitol insiders as much as the entertainment.