The Beltway Pundits Pout
Wouldn’t it be extraordinary if the media elite put their cards on the table and admitted now whom they’ll be advocating in the 2000 presidential election? It’s really no secret. The New York Times, in its news columns and editorials, is for Al Gore (and Hillary Clinton for Senate); The Wall Street Journal favors Steve Forbes; the New York Post will endorse George W. Bush (and Rudy Giuliani); The Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and Boston Globe are Gore dailies, but I’ll bet in the end the Los Angeles Times prefers Bush. The tv network anchors, of course, are all Gore shills. Among the political journals, The Weekly
Standard will grudgingly approve Bush; The National Review is a Forbes booster; and The New Republic, well, if you don’t know the answer to that, you might as well stop reading right now. Time and Newsweek can be counted upon to push a continuation of the Clinton-Gore administration.
So it wasn’t surprising that in a June 2 editorial The Wall Street Journal called for a series of debates before the primary season begins. It’s their hope that Forbes will outflank Bush, who, heretofore, hasn’t exhibited a sparkling extemporaneous speaking ability. Jonathan Alter, in his June 21 Newsweek column “Between the Lines,” spent half his space rehashing the James Hormel appointment as ambassador to Luxembourg and trying to nail down Bush on the issue of homosexuality. The subhed to his piece betrays Newsweek‘s bias: “To win, Bush must bend the GOP to his will, not the other way around.
Guess what? Unless Bush has a nervous breakdown or is eaten by a bear in Iowa during the next eight months, he’ll be the GOP presidential nominee. Despite idiotic comparisons to past front-runners (the Boston Globe‘s lazy David Nyhan is a chief offender, continually comparing the Bush campaign to Teddy Kennedy‘s tepid challenge to Jimmy Carter in 1980), in truth,
Bush’s commanding lead at this point in the campaign is unprecedented in modern American politics. As for critics like Alter, who cling to the ’96 axiom that the far right controls the Republican nominating process, they haven’t been paying attention. Bush has amassed not only an enormous amount of money—freezing out every other candidate save Forbes, and making preemptive television buys in the mega-media states like New York and California that will closely follow the New Hampshire primary—but also an astounding array of endorsements from every wing of the Republican Party.
Everyone from moderates like Giuliani, Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci and Maine Sen. Susan Collins, to hard-line conservatives like Georgia Sen. Paul Coverdell, SC Sen. Strom Thurmond and the Democrats’ current bogeyman Rep. Tom DeLay are aboard Bush’s ”Great Expectations” express. Ralph Reed, once the de facto chief of the Christian Coalition, is advising Bush.
Alter says that Bush will have to follow Bill Clinton’s example of ’92, when the President attacked Sister Souljah, effectively shutting up Jesse Jackson. There are two differences here: First, Clinton went after the Sister after he had the nomination wrapped up; second, Bush has already corralled every faction of his party. There’s simply no need for him to figuratively deck Bob Barr or Pat Robertson.
Richard Cohen, whacking off in the June 1 Washington Post, surpassed even his standard for knee-jerk Beltway punditry. Making the preposterous claim that Bush hasn’t taken any positions on the issues that will shape the presidential campaign, Cohen writes: “This sign of political-intellectual activity in Austin [Bush's rapid response to the Cox Report on Chinese espionage] is like getting a radio signal from outer space: Is there intelligent life out there? So far, the signs from Texas have not been encouraging. Where other candidates issue position papers, Bush essentially issues non-position ones… He stands
for nothing other than winning—and that, especially in the ideologically fractious primaries, can be a prescription for losing.”
What a load of garbage.
Hotshot Washington-Boston columnists like Cohen are not only pro-Gore, they’re pissed that Bush hasn’t granted them private audiences, that he hasn’t come groveling to their news cubicles with exclusive interviews. They don’t think it’s kosher that unlike John McCain, Bush hasn’t made the round of Sunday and cable talk shows. It’s just further evidence that the Washington press corps behaves like a bunch of high-schoolers, who insist they dictate the playing field; if the candidates don’t approach them (like most dutifully do) then they don’t exist. They issue “non-positions.”
In fact, Bush’s list of beliefs is quite clear: pro-immigration; pro-capital punishment; lower taxes; a strong military, with a foreign policy that has “a touch of iron”; limited government; against hate crime legislation; for morality in the White House; a tough but fair overhaul of education; pro-life, with the realization that that’s not the number-one issue in the country (unlike other past and present GOP candidates); an overhaul of Social Security to include significant privatization; and reaching out to minority voters that his party has traditionally written off as part of the Democratic base.
Unlike Al Gore, Bush speaks fluent Spanish and polls well among Hispanic and black voters; in fact, in current polls—as relatively insignificant as they are at this juncture—Bush is leading Gore in both California and New York. (A recent San Francisco Examiner poll showed a 49-44 percent lead for Bush over Gore.) If that trend holds up, the election’s over, given Bush’s lock on the Sun Belt and, with the likely selection of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge as his running mate, he’ll compete successfully in the Rust Belt.
According to the latest Time/CNN poll, Bush holds a 55-42 percent national lead over Gore; for the GOP nomination, he swamps the competition, taking 54 percent to Elizabeth Dole‘s 14 percent. In a Boston Herald/WCVB-TV poll of New Hampshire voters, Bush draws 45 percent to 11 percent each for Dole and McCain.
And Bush finally said that he would’ve voted to impeach President Clinton had he been in the Senate this winter, because “The man lied.” It took him long enough: I’m a supporter of Bush, but wasn’t comforted by his avoidance of this crucial issue last year, when he simply said he was “embarrassed by the scandal” and questioned the filthy atmosphere in Washington.
In his first campaign appearance outside Texas, Bush told a wildly enthusiastic crowd in Cedar Rapids, IA: “I do not run polls to tell me what to think. I make decisions based on a conservative philosophy that is ingrained in my heart: Trust local people to make the right decision for schools, cities and counties. Understand that capitalism is the backbone of our free-enterprise system… Understand the importance of family and the need for personal responsibility.”
Taking a shot at bitter rivals like Lamar Alexander, Dan Quayle and Pat Buchanan, Bush defended his oft-mocked slogan of “compassionate conservatism.” He said: “Is compassion beneath us? Is mercy below us? Should our party be led by someone who boasts of a hard heart?” That might sound corny, but after seven years of Clinton, even Mr. Rogers would be a tonic in the White House. Alexander, whose campaign is nearly bust, is Bush’s harshest critic, saying in Des Moines on June 8, “We don’t have any idea if [Bush] is ready to be president. He’s a popular one-term governor and the woods are full of popular one-term governors… Most voters in Iowa couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. His whole objective in this campaign is to
make sure the race never gets to the people.”
Poor Lamar. He’s been campaigning for president since 1993 and hasn’t made a bit of headway. It’s no wonder that he’s even resorting to untruths like saying that Bush is a “one-term governor,” when in fact the Texan was overwhelmingly reelected in his state just last fall. Quayle, mired in single digits in the polls, said, according to the June 9 Des Moines Register, that “I’ll be darned if we’re going to have a nomination that’s inherited. That’s not the way Republicans act. They want somebody to go in there and fight for it.” I take no pleasure in pointing out another Quayle faux pas—the media has unfairly ruined his career by biased reporting—but his statement isn’t true. And it’s often unfortunate, as in ’96, when Bob Dole indeed “inherited” the nomination because it was “his turn,” and subsequently ran the worst presidential campaign in memory, worse even than Michael Dukakis‘ of 1988.
Meanwhile, Forbes’ most compelling declaration of the week, as his badly produced Social Security television ads blanketed the country, was to attack the newly designed $20 bill. He told the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce that when he becomes president, “We will have money that looks real again,” not “like Monopoly money.” And Buchanan, whose time as a candidate has come and gone, especially with the departure of his invaluable sister Bay as chief strategist, not to mention the legal troubles of his older brother Hank, is clutching at rhetorical straws. Also in Iowa last week, he said, “We challenged King George as we called him in ’92 and we think we’re going to go up against the Prince of Wales in 2000, and we think we’ll do just fine.”
The New Yorker‘s “Political Scene” blowhard Joe Klein—a blight on editor David Remnick‘s evolving editorial philosophy that so far seems like a combination of William Shawn‘s stodgy sobriety and Tina Brown‘s freneticism—had absolutely nothing new to say in his campaign report for the June 14 issue. Klein made the trenchant observation that none of the also-ran candidates “are having much luck raising money,” and that only Bush, Gore, Bill Bradley and McCain can be considered, “as of now,” as possible successors to Clinton.
He’s wrong about McCain: the Arizona senator, whom I wouldn’t be surprised to see drop out of the race before New Hampshire, is just a whirlwind of contradictory ideas. Give him his due on Kosovo, speaking out forcefully while Clinton was playing golf, but how do you square his conservative credentials with goofy ideas like taking on the tobacco companies and thus effectively raising taxes—a regressive form of taxation at that—and his cosponsorship of campaign finance reform with liberal Sen. Russ Feingold? I have a theory: Because of McCain’s captivity in Vietnam, he has a reckless streak, popping off about anything that’s on his mind, that’s more commonly seen in men and women who are in their 80s and don’t give a hoot whom they piss off. Aside from his vicious joke about Chelsea Clinton last year, McCain, according to Boston Herald columnist Joe Sciacca, was at it again recently in that city: ”The nice thing about getting Alzheimer’s is you get to hide your own Easter eggs.”
Nominating McCain would be a nightmare for the GOP: In the middle of a heated televised debate with Al Gore, he’s apt to ask the Vice President to step outside and duke it out. Like a real man.
In recent weeks Bush has hogged the covers of numerous magazines, such as Texas Monthly, The Weekly Standard, The American Spectator, Time and Newsweek, demonstrating that the media is forced to play by the candidate’s timetable, not the other way around. In a largely favorable Standard piece, headlined “The Anointed One,” Fred Barnes concludes: “[Bush has] all but leapfrogged the primaries and begun the general-election campaign… [strategist Karl, Bush's James Carville] Rove offers two historic tests for determining who the candidate will be. Both suggest Bush has the nomination in hand. First, the candidate of the Republican establishment—governors, senators, House members, state legislators, party leaders—wins the nomination. And Bush is the establishment candidate. Second, a candidate who consistently leads his GOP rivals by 10 points or more the year before the primaries wins. That again is Bush. So all that’s left for Bush is to fashion a case for compassionate conservatism. It had better be a compelling one.” [italics mine.]
Barnes is a Bush partisan; I think he simply doesn’t want to jinx the Governor’s inevitable nomination.
As for Bush’s wild youth, Democrats are clutching at straws. While one journalist with ties to Gore’s dirty tricksters told me that the Democrats will “have a buffet” dissecting the Governor’s alleged misdeeds, that doesn’t square with anything I’ve heard. One person in Austin told me: “Bush was an amateur drinker; I should know, I was a professional.” And in the lengthy June Texas Monthly profile of Bush, his old friend Doug Hannah told reporter Skip Hollandsworth: “He wasn’t that wild. We were such cheapskates back then that if someone’s parents were willing to pay for our liquor, we would go over there, have dinner and drinks, and play Jeopardy until it was time for someone to drive us home.”
Sure, that’s a buddy defending his friend against media dirt-diggers looking for damaging info, but as of yet, I haven’t heard anyone accuse Bush of rape, perjury or marital infidelity.
Stop! In The Name Of Sanity!
The stench from Hillary Clinton‘s embryonic New York Senate campaign has permeated every corner of the city, from haute restaurants in the E. 60s to the East Village alleys where slackers and lifer junkies piss out their last hour of beer or cheap wine. I was stuck in traffic for more than an hour last Friday morning taking Junior to camp uptown; writhing with irritation on 6th Ave., I simply assumed that Hillary was clogging the streets with her entourage, perhaps making an appearance on RosieO’Donnell‘s silly television show. It turned out that pop star Ricky Martin was at Rockefeller Center, but that didn’t lighten my mood: We’re in for too much Hillary in the coming months, much of it at taxpayers’ expense, and there’s not a damn thing New Yorkers can do about it.
On Saturday afternoon, Junior and I took in the Mets-Red Sox game at Shea (superb tickets courtesy of NYPress managing editor Lisa Kearns) and though Alejandro had to park the car practically in Brooklyn because of the huge crowd, necessitating a two-mile walk to our seats, the two of us had a swell time, despite the Bosox losing 4-2 and Junior striking out this time in the foul ball department.
Anyway, at one point in the third inning, while my son was concentrating on Nomar Garciaparra‘s at-bat, I struck up a conversation with the lady sitting next to us. One thing led to another and I asked her about Hillary and whether she’d vote for her. “Are you kidding? What’s she done for people in this state? I’m for Rudy.” She then lowered her voice and continued: “And good riddance to that shit of a husband of hers.” The woman was from Great Neck, an area where Hillary has to poll well to offset Giuliani‘s lock on upstate.
When I got home an e-mail awaited from my friend Peggy Noonan, who was out on the road on a Midwest business trip. She was in the environs of Saginaw, MI, and spoke to a bunch of people about politics. “Guess what the fresh-faced farmers’ wives wanted to know about first?” she wrote. “Hillary. A woman from a sugar beet farm said, ‘I got your Wall Street Journal
piece on Hill and blast-faxed it to all my friends!’” Noonan, on June 8, wrote the definitive examination of Hillary’s solipsistic motivations.
In part, she said: “The entire campaign will be animated by the central insight she has derived in the years since 1991: Voters can be fooled, and mesmerized by repetition. A word here on the strange way they learned. Twenty years ago Ronald Reagan used words and events to communicate truths: America is good; democracy is the best form of government; the government should be our servant and not our master; the Cold War can be won.
“Hillary’s generation of liberal political operatives watched, learned and added a variation: They would use words and images not to reveal but to obscure, not to clarify but to confuse. They would mislead their way to power. They felt they were justified: They didn’t think anything Mr. Reagan said was true, and yet the people supported him. Ergo they were manipulated. Ergo we will manipulate too.”
On the same day, in the New York Post, Jack Newfield wrote an entertaining column in which he admitted that, as a columnist, he relished a Rudy-Hillary slugfest. Most reporters aren’t so honest. However, as a New Yorker, he continued, he’d rather see neither of the publicity hounds in the race, preferring a matchup of Rick Lazio or Peter King on the GOP side, pitted against either Andrew Cuomo or Carl McCall. Not in the cards, Jack, and you know it. In the column, he’s an equal-opportunity (to use Upper West Side lingo) basher, reciting Hillary’s long list of unexplained White House and Arkansas legal mysteries, and pillorying Giuliani for his mean spiritedness. Right on both counts, I’d say, but I don’t understand the following sentence: ”Rudy is essentially a one-trick pony. He cut crime and improved the quality of life. He never found a second trick.” Pardon me, Mr. Newfield, but making New York a safer and more hospitable place to live and work is not a small accomplishment; I don’t know that he needs to do much more.
About Hillary, he says she “sounds more like Boss Tweed than Eleanor Roosevelt…a grandiose, overly entitled materialist—almost a yuppie Ma Barker. What a race, Ma Barker vs. Eliot Ness.”
If Newfield weren’t such a committed Democrat, he’d close his column with an endorsement of Giuliani. Despite his abhorrence of GOP right-wingers, the veteran political observer knows that Giuliani is a political moderate, who’s pro-choice, pro-gay rights, and even endorsed Mario Cuomo in ’94. But Newfield’s past won’t allow such heresy. When November of 2000 rolls around, I predict he’ll reluctantly support Hillary, despite all the coherent objections he raised in this excellent column.
The Times‘ Maureen Dowd, her Pulitzer celebration now just a memory, forged back into battle against Ken Starr in her June 13 “Liberties” column. Flush with the news that Starr won’t indict either Clinton, Maureen whines that Starr is an uptight fussbudget who doesn’t know when to quit: Although the Independent Counsel won’t prosecute he plans to issue an all-inclusive report on the Clintons’ scandalous behavior. Maureen’s pissed. She says that Starr is “darkly scheming to destroy a Clinton on our dime,” omitting the fact that Hillary’s forays into New York have largely been paid for by American taxpayers. She writes: “Now he plots to release his final report on the Clintons at a time when it could scald Hillary’s nascent Senate campaign… It’s likely to stir up the Gatsbyesque [I'd argue Li'l Abner-esque] flotsam and jetsam floating in the wake of her Senate dream. He will want to dredge up all the damaging Hillary garbage…”
Yeah, so what? She’s almost as dishonorable as her husband; I say it’s fair game. Dowd can’t write a column without referring to a Hollywood film—this time Austin Powers—and says that Starr is out “to destroy our puerile but lovable hero, the shagadelic playboy with the pelt on his chest, Bill Clinton. Oh, behave, baby!” Not only is Dowd’s puzzling defense of the Clintons very, very strange, but what exactly is lovable about either Clinton?
Meanwhile, Mr. Hillary was all puffed up with his Kosovo “victory” last week, and was positively delusional in an appearance on Jim Leher‘s The News Hour Friday night. As reported by the Times‘ Katharine Q. Seelye on Saturday, Clinton reacted to GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel‘s statement that he’s lost the American people’s trust by saying that Republicans had spent seven years “attacking me personally because they knew the American people agreed with my ideas and the direction in which I was taking the country, and on one occasion, much to my eternal regret, I gave them a little ammunition.”
Amazing. This man spins himself. Lying to the country for eight months is “a little ammunition” to Clinton; refusing to acknowledge that voters repudiated his first two years in office by choosing a Republican Congress in ’94—and affirmed that control in two subsequent elections—is plain dishonest; and as far as personal attacks, even many diehard Democrats acknowledge that Clinton will be remembered as the most morally corrupt president of this century.
I’ll give this much to Clinton: He’s absolutely right to protest the GOP’s stupid resistance to his recess-appointment of James Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg. Who cares if Hormel is openly gay? When are Republicans going to realize that’s an intolerant, and politically moot, view?
But back to the First Lady: As she’s probably the first to remind the President, it’s her show now. Leave it to someone from Massachusetts, in this case Jack Williams, a tv anchor writing in the June 11 Boston Herald, to completely confuse the nation’s current political mindset. He writes, in cheering Hillary on: “And the Republican Party will help by self-destructing. The GOP is controlled by a small but powerful faction that will force otherwise able candidates to toe the line on gun control and abortion, thus alienating the majority of voters.” Even the Beltway print pundits have admitted that the GOP is desperate for a White House win and is ignoring the “small but powerful faction” that Williams cites. No wonder he’s on local tv.
But even more dumb than Jack Williams is Bob Beckel, the Democratic consultant who was Walter Mondale‘s chief strategist in his stunning campaign against Ronald Reagan in 1984. Appearing on the June 4 edition of Crossfire, in a discussion about the New York Senate race, Beckel must’ve been either drunk or on wacky weed to come out with the following inaccurate statements.
“The only time [Giuliani] ever leaves Queens is when he goes to Albany and asks for money. And guess what money he asks for? Money for New York City that comes out of the hides of upstaters… I know New York well; if there’s one thing upstaters hate worse than carpetbaggers it is New York City politicians.” Beckel knows New York so well that he thinks Gracie Mansion is in Queens; he knows New York so well that he’s under the impression Giuliani spends a lot of time with his rival George Pataki in Albany. And he’s such a savvy New Yorker that he thinks upstaters hate New York City politicians; perhaps Ed Koch or David Dinkins, but not the Republican Giuliani, especially when he’s pitted against Hillary Clinton.
“…Rudy Giuliani’s idea of crime is plungers in bathrooms… Rudy Giuliani had the great Giuliani SWAT team; you know, those guys who shot 71 [uh, 41, Mr. New Yorker] times at an unarmed man… Rudy Giuliani cleaned up New York in a very simple way: He either had his police drive them out or shoot them out. You know what he did with the homeless? Do you know where they are? They drive them into Northern Central Park every night, and then during the day, they come back down… No, if you have a warm and fuzzy feeling about Rudy Giuliani, you have a warm feeling in your heart for serial killers. This guy is about as unpleasant a human being as I can imagine. That’s why they love him in the Queens. That’s why they won’t like him in Poughkeepsie.”
I can’t stand Giuliani, I loathe the man, but wouldn’t it be splendid for his campaign if a nitwit like Beckel, who indulges in Al Franken routines, was Harold Ickes‘ chief lieutenant for the Hillary campaign? Queens voters will adore Beckel.
It took an anti-New Yorker to put the race in perspective: Writing in the June 6 Baltimore Sun, James Lileks said, “Aside from the nuts, though, millions of liberal New Yorkers are more inclined to vote GOP than before. A conservative is no longer a liberal who’s been mugged; now a conservative is a liberal who hasn’t been mugged in a while, and realizes he has a conservative to thank.”
I get nauseous on the numerous occasions that Mayor Giuliani wears Yankees garb as if he’s a 12-year-old, but Hillary’s appearance at the White House last week with the World Champion Bronx Bombers, in which she kissed George Steinbrenner (“a great friend of the President and me”), a Republican, and donned a Yanks cap, was over the top. (George Will, on last Sunday’s This Week, said Hillary’s sudden Yankees boosterism is “an embroidered lie.”) The most pleasing aspect of this farce was that Al Sharpton was also invited, leading to the question of just how Hillary will finesse the fraudulent preacher when he issues an inevitable endorsement of her candidacy. Will she kiss him too? That’ll go over big in the suburbs and upstate.
Frank Ahrens wrote in The Washington Post about Hillary’s Thursday appearance on the Today show, in which she played coy with host Katie Couric about her New York plans. “‘Are you a big Knicks fan?’ Couric asked. ‘I’m becoming a big Knicks fan,’ the first lady responded, laughing. ‘More and more every day, huh?’ Couric parried. And then a sleepy-eyed nation collectively hurled.”
Taki Growls And Prowls
It was about an hour into a book party for David Halberstam at Patroon last Tuesday night, a swank event hosted by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, when Taki shooed me away from the luxurious side room where I was chatting with Mrs. M. “Go mingle, Russ,” Taki dismissed me with a wave of his hand. “I’d rather spend some time with your lovely wife.” Frankly, although I discount about 50 percent of Taki’s rakish adventures that he tells in rat-a-tat-tat conversation, there’s no denying he has an eye for the ladies. Why, just minutes before, a young woman entered the room and sat by herself to smoke a cigarette. “Are you by yourself?” Taki yelled over to her. When she nodded yes, he replied, laughing heartily, “That’s a pity. You’re much too beautiful to be alone.”
So I dutifully followed Mr. Top Drawer’s instructions and waded into the crowd, took a few snapshots and gratefully watched Eric Alterman exit with sidekick George Stephanopoulos, after he’d satiated himself with Tom Brokaw face time. I spoke briefly with Halberstam—he edited the terrific The Best American Sports Writing of the Century, the publication of which was the reason for the soiree—and told him I was a fan of The Best and the Brightest, an unoriginal observation to the veteran author. But he was polite and simply nodded, saying, “Well, I’m not sure Mr. McNamara would agree with you.”
There were a bunch of writers and publishing celebs there whom I briefly spoke to: Gay Talese, Peter Maas, Ken Auletta and Andrew Wylie. But I spent most of my time with Carter, David Hirshey and Richard Johnson. The Post‘s “Page Six” chief, drinking a cosmopolitan, speculated with me on the rumors that Mort Zuckerman might sell or shut down the Daily News this fall (Johnson, betraying his Hamptons state of mind, insisted on pronouncing that awful man’s last name as Zook-er-man). As I’ve written before, it’d be no skin off my nose if the News folds; the tab’s a bore and its closing would only fatten the far superior Post. Johnson was more diplomatic, claiming that he craved the competition, even if he agreed the paper sucked. Some say that Conrad Black, the publishing mogul who counts London‘s Daily Telegraph and the weekly Spectator
in his stable, might take the News off Mort’s hands. I doubt it: Who needs all those union stick-’em-ups? A far more interesting rumor circulated around the room, the gist of which says that Black is in negotiation to buy The New York Observer from Arthur Carter and morph the weekly into a conservative daily. A mighty tall order, if you ask me, but you can’t argue with Black’s track record. Still, I have my doubts: After sinking some $50 million into his weekly over the past 12 years, I don’t see the upside for Carter, aside from never again having to explain to his peers why he publishes Joe Conason and Anne Roiphe.
Hirshey spent years at Esquire before moving over to Rupert Murdoch‘s HarperCollins as an executive editor—a career uptick that must’ve been a godsend after editing that monthly’s dubious “Dubious Achievement Awards” for 12 years, “a record that is as unassailable as Cal Ripken‘s,” Hirshey said. Dave Eggers, the brilliant Manhattan writer who’s working with Hirshey on two books currently, bailed on that chore after just one issue. Hirshey’s a fine gent, and told me about a few upcoming blockbuster projects he’s working on, but asked that I not divulge the contents. As compensation, the next day he faxed this anecdote about an Esquire piece in the Halberstam book, Richard Ben Cramer‘s celebrated ’86 piece “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?”
“Cramer spent three months stalking Williams and brought back 15,000 words that ‘couldn’t be cut.’ However, given the exigencies of magazines, even back then, we only had room for 13,500. When the managing editor, a slight but combative woman who just cleared five feet in height, informed Cramer that he needed to trim 1,500 words from his piece, he turned the color of a ripe apple and vaulted over me in an attempt to separate her head from her body. I was able to bearhug him away and usher him out of the office but he was not done with us.
“That night I had to attend some black-tie deal with the magazine’s editor Lee Eisenberg, a fact I must have casually mentioned to Cramer earlier in the week. So at 10 p.m. Cramer returned to the Esquire offices at 2 Park Ave. and went to work. His first stop was the copy department where he charmed the culottes off the head copy editor and told her that David and Lee had given him permission to restore the trimmed 1,500 words and that she could call us at home if she liked. She did and, of course, got no answer. Cramer, being a Pulitzer Prize winner and all, had enough journalistic cred to convince her he would take full responsibility for any changes. Next, with the new 15,000 word galleys in hand, he went to the art department and told them they would have to drop a photo of Williams in the opening layout and shrink the type on the jump. When they balked, he told them we had given him permission and they were welcome to check with us. Now came his biggest challenge. In order for us not to see his handiwork the next morning, he would have to convince the production department that the piece would have to ship that night because ‘the printing plant isn’t used to handling pieces of this length and needed the extra day.’
“Incredibly, they bought it but not before trying to reach us for confirmation. At 2 a.m., his mission accomplished, Cramer went home to sleep the sleep of the triumphant. Seven hours later, I arrived at the office and noticed three bouquets of roses
at the receptionists’ desk. They were addressed to the copy, art, and production departments and all three carried the same note: ‘Thanks for your grace under pressure, Richard Cramer.’
“I got no flowers.”
Taki and Mrs. M were having an uproarious laugh when I returned to their corner and I insisted that he repeat the story. It seems that back in ’86, Taki, the late Jeffrey Bernard (who wrote the classic “Low Life” column next to Taki’s “High Life” in The Spectator for many years) and Francis Bacon were having several drinks at the then-trendy Langan’s Brasserie in Mayfair. Taki posed the question: “If you could make love to anyone in the world, who would it be?” Not missing a beat, Bacon replied: “Qaddafi.” The comment was overheard by some mortified eavesdroppers at the table next to theirs and they berated Bacon, calling him a disreputable communist, among other things. According to Taki, a scene erupted and they had to continue their bender elsewhere, perhaps at Bernard’s beloved Coach and Horses in Soho. (The story reminded me of when Mrs. M and I went to London together for the first time and unsuccessfully stalked Bernard daily, reporting to Coach and Horses in the early afternoon, drinking a few pints and reading the dailies. Alas, we never did meet the heroic writer, although we saw Peter O’Toole play him in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell.)
Taki then warned us not to send Junior and MUGGER III to British boarding schools (as if we’d even consider letting go of our precious pranksters at their age), indulged in some John Podhoretz-bashing, cracked up at his own jokes again, just like his American soul mate Pat Buchanan, and told us how he once trumped an uptown journalist who was gassing on one night about his 18th-century ancestors. Taki was appalled at the pretentiousness of the windbag and shut up the louse by saying that yes, ancestors are quite fascinating: “My father used to tell me that we had quite a wild bunch back in 300 BC.” Taki speaks at such a clip and in such detail that, like I mentioned last week, if you drift away you’ll miss important segments of the story; sort of like how Kurt Andersen‘s Turn of the Century requires intense concentration.
Taki and I then turned to business and he warned me that the fine essayist Jim Holt would have a piece in this issue that took a few jabs at Andersen. He was sorry about it, knowing of my friendship with the best-selling author, but I told him John Strausbaugh and I had no interest in censoring well-written copy, even if it got us in dutch with a buddy.
Taki himself wrote warmly of Andersen in the June 5 Spectator: “I returned to earth in the Bagel, at a wonderful dinner given by Melik Kaylan, the world’s second greatest living Turk, after Ahmet Ertegun, that is. Melik is an old buddy and he threw his bash for Kurt Andersen, author of Turn of the Century, the seminal novel of this and the next decade. Mark my words, what Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities did for the Eighties, Andersen’s mega-novel will do for the millennium. I sat next to Walter Isaacson, editor-in-chief of Time magazine, and as nice a person as I’ve come across in a hell of a long time. What struck me about Isaacson and Andersen was their lack of…shall we say the Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie sophomoric arrogance and insecurity (well deserved). Real people those two, and both extremely successful in this business of ours. Funny how the Brit writers have gone Hollywood and the Yanks have not.”
Taki tried to convince us to wander off to Elaine’s for dinner, but we demurred; he vanished in a swirl of laughter, and we spent a few minutes chatting with photographer Patrick McMullan and his friend Margie Beck. Turns out the two of them also hail from Huntington, although, like my Downtown Little League buddy Bob Franchi, they went to my rival high school, Walt Whitman. It’s been years since I’ve seen McMullan, but he’s an amiable fellow who was very kind to this newspaper back when it started in a tiny Spring St. office in 1988. Along with Anita Sarko and Beauregard Houston-Montgomery, Patrick would stop by periodically to chat, wish us luck against the Voice and also contributed some photos for six months or so.
Mrs. M and I then headed over to the bar where Graydon Carter was holding court. He was in rare form, complimenting me on my “natty attire,” and insisting that when we first met in ’87 I was sporting a ponytail. Disgusted, I told him he was dead wrong. When Mrs. M said that she cuts my hair, Carter chortled and simply said, “Well, that’s a chore that must take less time each year.” Ho, ho, ho. I asked if he’d turn around so I could take a party page pic of his dome. We both laughed, I louder than Graydon. On the way home, Mrs. M was feeling her oats, and two martinis, and said to the cabby: “Hey, Igor, what’s your position on smoking? My husband could use a cigarette right now.” I nudged her, and Igor replied: “Are you crazy? In New York City? We’d all get thrown in jail!”
Talk‘s Already Tanking
I’ve had some sport taking shots at Tina Brown‘s upcoming monthly Talk—its debut issue will be on newsstands in August—and her absurd, grandiose statement that the publication will “both reflect and shape the American conversation,” but as her yearlong hibernation comes to a close, it’s time for some serious discussion about the magazine’s prospects. It’s the most puzzling start-up I can remember: For starters, although I subscribe to some 80 periodicals, whose mailing lists are bought by other publications, I have yet to receive a direct-mail solicitation from Talk. No one I know has either. That’s odd, especially since Brown’s goal is a circulation of 500,000, that often-elusive number (just ask Steve Brill or John Kennedy) that will allow Talk to compete with Vanity Fair and GQ, among others, for high-ticket advertisers.
Then there’s publisher Ron Galotti‘s pitch to advertisers: Buy space in Talk and you’ll receive product placement in a Miramax film (Talk is jointly owned by Disney/Miramax and Hearst Corp.). Perhaps this upfront whoring of the product is meant to shock agencies into believing it’s a valuable benefit, but it certainly doesn’t inspire respect among prospective readers. Galotti has also made news by his decision to limit the first four issues to 100 ad pages. The ostensible reason is to avoid a blockbuster September debut, like George a few years back, only to be followed by issues that are so thin they could be used as dental floss. I have no doubt that in the unlikely case that an advertiser wants the 101st page in the first several issues, Galotti’s policy will be quickly amended.
But what of the magazine’s content? As I’ve written before, I think its punitive lead time will be a significant factor in its eventual failure. For example, in the September issue, so I’ve heard, is a political profile of George W. Bush: The interview was conducted in April and the author’s piece given to editors by the end of May. Obviously, when the column appears it’ll be DOA: So much will have changed in the Bush campaign, and the presidential race in general, in the ensuing months that the piece, like so many in Brill’s Content, for example, will be fatally dated.
I’ve heard that the first cover will feature Hillary Clinton; the expectation was that Talk would contain the scoop that she’s running for Daniel Patrick Moynihan‘s New York Senate seat. (The implication that Brown hasn’t gotten over her infatuation with the current First Lady and her dreamy husband just demonstrates how out of touch she’s become. Let’s remember: Brown is the person who hired Joe Klein as political correspondent at The New Yorker.)
The p.r. department at Talk is very tense and rude, and refuses to comment about the first cover celebrity. But if it is Hillary (a backup is apparently Elizabeth Taylor, an equally insipid choice) it’s a stupid move, considering Harvey Weinstein‘s close financial, political and personal connections to the Clintons.
But who knows? The Talk staff has kept its plans shrouded in such secrecy that maybe some synergistic surprise is in store. Perhaps Brown herself will grace the cover, with the headline “I’m Back!” But I doubt it. Last Friday, it was reported in The New York Times that Brown had signed British author Martin Amis “to write a memoir, a novel and a collection of essays for the new Talk Miramax imprint; a screenplay for Miramax Films and articles for Talk magazine.” Amis is a recognizable name, and inspired crybaby New Yorker writer James Atlas to tell the Times that it is “really exciting for a startup venture to have signed up someone who iconographically is where literature is now,” but given Brown’s relationship with Amis, it’s not really so much of a coup. Or, frankly, a reason to anxiously await the first issue. Amis is a predictable defection to her camp. I’m sure his contract is lucrative, which isn’t likely to please the many young writers who’ve been courted with less-than-exorbitant fees.
Tina Brown, a talented and shrewd editor, has lost more than a few steps since her stunning decision to leave The New Yorker last summer: She’s an icon of the 80s who, I suspect, doesn’t have a clue about how to start a grand magazine in this
era of new communications. She can’t simply reinvent her success at Vanity Fair, which she then brought to The New Yorker; it’s a different world and Brown was asleep while the media go-getters were working. She’s made a big deal about how Talk‘s pages will be glossy-deluxe and feature “European-style” photography and fashion spreads, like Paris Match or Stern. So what? That won’t drive customers to the newsstands or inspire people to subscribe; that is, if they’re ever even pitched to subscribe.
Manhattan‘s media observers are mixed on the possibilities of Talk‘s success. Michael Wolff, New York‘s media critic, who wrote a fine piece on May 31 lampooning traditional editors and publishers like Anna Wintour, Jann Wenner and Steve Brill, saying in essence that they haven’t yet realized they’re publishing dinosaurs, isn’t optimistic. He told me: “I think Tina Brown has a better chance of starting a literate successful general interest magazine than probably any other editor working today. Nevertheless, that’s probably an impossible task. Or it’s a $200 million task, which nobody, at this publishing moment in time, is going to have the stomach for. I mean a monthly magazine. A monthly magazine! Why bother?”
Hendrik Hertzberg, who worked with Brown at The New Yorker, was more generous: ”I have no inside dope, just a vague feeling that their basic strategy will be to import the energy and graphic verve of continental European celebrity/quasi-newsmagazine journalism. I expect Talk to make most of the competition, especially Vanity Fair, seem a little fogyish. I predict editorial success. I have no way of forming an opinion on whether that will translate to business viability. The whole infrastructure of traditional magazine publishing—the trees, the printing plants, the mail carriers, the trucks, the pulped returns—does seem increasingly anachronistic, but that’s another story.”
In London‘s Daily Telegraph last Friday, Philip Delves Broughton wrote a damning piece about the odds of Talk‘s success. He begins: “‘You write about us and I guarantee there’ll be no co-operation down the line,’ says Tina Brown’s latest spokesman, a goon seconded to her by her business partner, Miramax films. You would think they were chopping up bodies in the new offices of Talk magazine in downtown Manhattan… For a magazine whose goal, in Brown’s words, is to ‘shape and reflect the American conversation,’ the current line-up [of Talk writers] is no marmalade-dropper.”
Most people I spoke with either didn’t want to comment or requested anonymity, demonstrating that Brown still inspires a degree of fear in the industry.
One observer told me: “I’m afraid I agree with you about Talk‘s extremely slim chances as a commercial venture. I still think it can be good editorially, and has a strong chance of being the best of its current kind (Esquire, GQ, Vanity Fair). But I also think, for the reasons you describe and more, that it will certainly be the last of the big general-interest monthly magazine startups, and its commercial failure will be seen as end-of-the-century epochal and paradigmatic, like Life folding in ’72. Moreover, if [Michael] Eisner is replaced during the next 12-24 months, which I’d say is a 50-50 bet, the chances of his successor being gung-ho on Talk seem slim. And I haven’t gotten a direct-mail package either.”
Finally, another publishing veteran told me: “Prediction: In 18 months Tina Brown and Harvey Weinstein will be in litigation. It’ll end badly. It’ll turn out to be a movie magazine, just dreadful. She’s a better editor than John Kennedy, but not much. [The Talk staff] are very arrogant and disliked out there. And Tina has a habit of using and throwing away people. As for the Euro fashion thing, it’s not like they have the cream of photographers. It just won’t be a necessary magazine.”