(Hey, Are Bombs Being Dropped Every Day in Yugoslavia?)
More stringent laws on who can purchase guns in America? Fine by me, but don’t kid yourself that the largely symbolic legislation passed by the Senate last week will halt the rash of copycat teen shootings in high schools. And neither will the hypocritical cries of politicians for Hollywood to police itself on the kind of entertainment it produces and markets. It was nauseating to watch Vice President Al Gore proclaim that a new era has dawned in the United States when he cast the tiebreaking vote in the Senate for limited gun control last week. He got a bump in the polls, and the pundits claimed his campaign had a “good week,” but according to his spokesman, Chris Lehane, “What was on our mind was not politics. It was the kids.” Presidential candidates are so sleazy: Why don’t they leave “the kids” out of their self-serving rhetoric?
And New York’s Nita Lowey, the sad-sack congresswoman waiting for Hillary to decide on a Senate bid, wasn’t much better, claiming that the Republican-controlled House must concur with the Senate immediately, not in June, when Speaker Denny Hastert has scheduled the vote. “The American people are demanding action,” she said last Friday. “There’s an urgency in this country.” I’d say there’s more of an “urgency” to procure Star Wars tickets, but then I’m not a politician looking for a cheap soundbite.
Gore’s sanctimony was almost as bad as Bill Clinton attempting, mostly in vain, to gather Hollywood moguls for a discussion about their moral responsibility for movie and television programming. He then hopped off to fundraisers with the very same people to raise money for Democratic campaigns. In a May 20 speech in Littleton, Clinton delivered empty words to parents and students: “We know somehow that what happened to you has pierced the soul of America, and it gives you a chance to be heard in a way no one else can be heard, by the President and by ordinary people in every community in this country. You can help us build a better future for all our children.” Maybe that was what the grieving relatives of the victims wanted to hear, but what the hell does it mean?
The current mantra of “gun control” won’t stop the random acts of violence by disturbed individuals, whether they’re teenagers or adults. And actually, as The Wall Street Journal pointed out in a May 24 editorial, violent crime has fallen dramatically nationwide in the last decade.
The Columbine tragedy has captured the national mood by pure chance: Had it happened three years ago there’s no telling if the same frenzy would’ve ensued. Remember the McDonald’s shootout? The Waco killings by overzealous government agents? Horrible bus accidents caused by drunk drivers? Even the recent Arkansas, Tennessee and Oregon school violence didn’t enthrall the media like the carnage in Colorado. The Oklahoma bombing and World Trade Center nightmare were like pimples compared to the recent events; Charlie Manson‘s night of terror in California 30 years ago might as well have been a love-in. And Congressman Bob Wexler, do you remember Richard Speck?
The teen in Conyers, GA, last week, who wounded six people at Heritage High School, was a lovesick kid who obviously needed help; instead of coping with being dumped by a girlfriend in the usual way—moping, smoking too much dope, listening to The Doors‘ “The End” for hours at a clip—he resorted to a rifle. Pre-Columbine, I’ll bet that the admittedly deranged T.J. Solomon would not have reacted in the same way.
The mainstream media has gone nuts, particularly the cable stations. Starting with the nonstop coverage of the O.J. Simpson travesty, the networks have devoted far too much time to crime; they say it’s responsible news-gathering, but of course it’s all skewed toward gaining higher ratings. The excessive attention to the death of Princess Di and the horrible murder of JonBenet Ramsey was appalling. In the case of the latter, more than two years after the little girl’s death, newspapers and shows like Geraldo are still concentrating on the unsolved case. Just last week came the headline that her brother Burke, not yet a teenager, was the suspected killer; two days later there was another bulletin that police authorities have dismissed his possible involvement.
Currently, everyone in the media’s an expert on teen angst and the evil National Rifle Association. Especially the moronic Rosie O’Donnell, who continually embarrasses herself on her popular daytime talk show when she speaks about anything but eyelifts and her supposed crush on Tom Cruise. When actor Tom Selleck, who supports the NRA, appeared on O’Donnell’s show last Wednesday to plug his latest movie, he was immediately provoked by the host, who apparently isn’t exactly an American history scholar. Aside from her blatant hypocrisy—O’Donnell appears on commercials for Kmart, a leading gun seller—she’s also dim, explaining the Second Amendment to Selleck and her audience: “I think [the amendment] is in the Constitution so we can have muskets when the British people come over in 1800—I don’t think it’s in the Constitution to have assault weapons in the year 2000… This is the problem—people with opposing views, there is no compromise. You feel attacked, I feel attacked.”
A livid Selleck barked back: “I haven’t attacked you, I disagreed with you. I haven’t mentioned assault weapons once. I didn’t come on your show to have a debate. I came on your show to plug a movie—that’s what I’m doing here… I think you’re being stupid.” The next day, on the equally vapid Live with Regis & Kathie Lee, Selleck said of O’Donnell’s ambush: “I think it was an example of the moral vanity and intolerance that is all too often fueling the political debate in this country.” O’Donnell half-apologized to Selleck, but then continued on a rant: “I do not apologize for my feelings on this issue because the NRA is the strongest lobby in Washington.” There’s no denying the NRA’s clout—with Democrats as well as Republicans—but plenty of lobbying groups shape the way campaign cash is distributed: the legal profession, for example, tobacco companies, unions and, of course, the entertainment industry.
Howard Stern couldn’t resist getting his fix of ink over the controversy, but as usual, despite his shtick, he made a lot of sense. On his radio show Thursday, Stern, who spoke live from 30 Rockefeller Center, where O’Donnell tapes her show, said: “Rosie O’Donnell is a hypocrite. Why is Rosie O’Donnell selling guns through Kmart? Why is she confronting Tom Selleck when she’s a gun saleswoman? She puts on a big dummy like Tom Selleck—who’s comparable to talking to a retarded person—and argued with him when he wasn’t prepared. I’m prepared. Put me on!”
According to Friday’s New York Post, Stern continued: “I don’t think guns are the problem. We’ve got a bunch of screwball parents, and we have a society where people don’t take responsibility for their own actions… Rosie O’Donnell will not speak to me because she’s afraid to talk about any real issues with someone who can communicate.”
In Saturday’s Post, letter writer Bob Hunt, of Old Bridge, NJ, put O’Donnell in her place. “While I am not a member of the NRA, and support certain reasonable restrictions on guns that the NRA opposes, I found Ms. O’Donnell’s ad hominem attack to be short on civility and logic… If Alec Baldwin had been the guest, would Ms. O’Donnell have fired a number of broadsides at him for encouraging people…to kill Rep. Henry Hyde?”
And it’s not just the media: consider the following examples of bizarre behavior in schools since Columbine:
• According to the May 14 Denver Post, eight sixth-grade girls, suspected of casting spells on classmates, “were pulled from class…and lectured for nearly two hours by a vice principal on the evils of witchcraft.”
• At McDowell Elementary School in Hudson, OH, a nine-year-old boy was suspended for two days because of a fortune cookie message—”You will die with honor”—he concocted for a school project, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported on May 13. The boy’s mother, Jean Bauman, was dumbfounded over the punishment and said: “I am very frustrated… They [the school officials] see something verbal or written as much more serious than a kid who goes out and slugs another kid.”
• In Howell, NJ, a 23-year-old Spanish teacher was fired for fabricating a bomb threat—which caused a two-hour evacuation of Howell High School—according to the May 13 Asbury Park Press. The woman, Dana M. Kukielka, told police she was “frightened for the safety of herself and the rest of the school as result of what happened in Littleton.”
• At Northeast High School in Philadelphia, the coeditor of the high school paper, Josh Cornfield, wrote an editorial—appearing nine days after Columbine—that said: “Maybe the school should open a section for smokers or maybe you should all be shot. That’s right: Shot! It may be radical but you’re going to die anyway. It may not be an instant death, but it will be a slow painful death… We could make it easier and shoot you all.” As reported by the Philadelphia Daily News, the principal of the school met with Cornfield and then “took disciplinary action against school staff who monitored the paper.”
• Massad Ayoob, director of the Lethal Force Institute in Concord, NH, wrote an op-ed piece in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal that advocated arming teachers. He wrote: “This is not as drastic a measure as it may seem. No school has its own fire-fighting battalion on the grounds, but all adult employees of the school know how to operate fire extinguishers and supervise an orderly fire drill. A school nurse is generally on hand, but virtually all teachers and school administrators have learned basic first aid and CPR. It is but a small step from here to train school personnel in the use of firearms, and to arm at least some of them.”
Please, someone tell me America hasn’t gone nuts.
• The Virginian-Pilot ran a story on May 24 about a high school junior, Chris Bullock, who faces expulsion from Tallwood High School in Virginia Beach because of an essay he wrote in March for a “Standards of Learning” test. According to reporters Alice Warchol and Matthew Bowers, “Bullock wrote about a fictional student giving a speech… In the last paragraph of the essay, the student reveals that he has a nuclear bomb strapped to his chest.” Bullock was arrested and charged with threatening to bomb a school, but was immediately released. Bullock’s lawyer, Moody Stallings Jr., challenging the possible expulsion, told the newspaper, “I think it is utter nonsense and hysteria to charge someone for answering an essay question using their imagination… This [was written] pre-Columbine. This would have never been brought to anyone’s attention except for Columbine. How far back are we going to go?”
• Finally, in Fairfield, OH, a seven-year-old girl was expelled for the remainder of the semester for bringing a toy cap gun with her on a bus going to school. Her mother told The Cincinnati Enquirer on May 20: “She’s only 7. To her, it was only a toy. She didn’t wave it. She didn’t point it. She didn’t make any threats.” A cap gun! Who didn’t play with toy guns when they were kids? The school gave the parents the option of sending their daughter to a psychologist, at their expense, in lieu of suspension, and then forwarding the report to the school.
I don’t agree with the thrust of Jann Wenner‘s editorial in the June 10 issue of his Rolling Stone, in which he calls for a virtual abolition of guns in the United States—a naive solution that’s in vogue among the far-too-vast punditocracy—but he made some intelligent, if self-serving (he, after all, has a young readership to protect), comments along the way. Wenner writes: “Will a modern McCarthyism take root in our high schools? Will any kid who is a bit too odd or angry now be viewed with suspicion? Are we going ‘profile’ children who dress in black, behave like outsiders, appear to be interested in violent movies or songs or officially disapproved video games? Shall we make the geeks even more isolated and humiliated?”
Dorothy Rabinowitz, writing in the May 17 Wall Street Journal, had the most levelheaded take on the media orgy after Columbine. Comparing Colorado killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris to Leopold and Loeb, the affluent boys who murdered Bobby Franks back in the 1920s, Rabinowitz recalls the arguments made by Clarence Darrow, lawyer for Leopold and Loeb. She writes that that murder was the “product of unhinged minds, [by] men without capacity for feeling—without which pathology they could not have been driven to such deeds by all the baneful influences in the world. An essential point all right—worth remembering when the next summit on Littleton convenes.”
As for the media and opportunistic politicians? Rabinowitz has utter contempt: “In Colorado, where hordes of the media were encamped, journalists kept up by watching television like everyone else. There were of course other matters keeping them busy, among them the effort to stay abreast of all the latest rumors about imminent arrests, a third shooter and the like… On television, by day and by night, the summit continues, with town meetings and similar special programming devoted to debate on all the factors named as contributors to this and earlier school massacres—lax gun laws, violent films, videogames, execrable music, alienation, the Internet, large schools, lack of supervision, lack of religious teaching and more.”
My Boys Ain’t Afraid of Irving
Yes, I understand a return to Irving the Wolf was promised many, many weeks ago. But first, three other familiar topics: Korean delis, cab rides and the Downtown Little League. Last Tuesday night, on the way home, I stopped at my local bodega, picked up a roll of Kodak film and a pack of smokes. The inflated total came to $10.21 and I gave the cashier a $20. She was distracted by a disgruntled customer questioning the ripeness of the bananas, and then said, “You still owe me 21 cents.” I told her, politely, that I’d just forked over a Jackson. “No you didn’t,” she replied with a rudeness that wasn’t quite appropriate, “it was a 10.” We went back and forth for five minutes—I knew I was correct since I’d had only a $20 bill in my pocket—and then the manager intervened and said he’d play back the transaction on videotape. Five minutes later I’m vindicated and the woman offered a hurried apology—”Oh, sorry”—after she’d basically accused me of being a thief. I was pissed, especially since most of the people at this deli are courteous, but did marvel at the ingenuity of using the surveillance to settle the arbitration.
Last Wednesday, I’d promised Junior that I’d pick him up at school and we’d head down to Brooks Brothers to purchase the seersucker and khaki suits he’d been bugging me about. The boy’s a dapper little tyke and knew exactly what he wanted, plus all the accessories. That part of the afternoon went fine: Sure, he squirmed a bit when the tailor fitted the pants, but it’s pretty tough for a six-year-old to stay still for five minutes. Transaction completed, we walk out onto Madison Ave., at 44th St., at 4 o’clock, the worst possible time to find a lit cab, given the shift changes, the midtown location and rush hour. To make matters worse, it was pouring and neither of us had an umbrella.
In these situations it’s dog-eat-dog, with New Yorkers abandoning all manners and snatching cabs any way they can, even if it means racing ahead of people who’ve clearly staked out a corner. No complaints, really; in dire straits, that’s acceptable. Finally, we moved over to 5th Ave. and spotted an empty taxi; we ran to it, and a businessman tried to muscle in front of us. Junior looked him squarely in the face and said, “Beat it, buddy, we were here first.” We got inside and he sported a grin the size of Rhode Island and told me, “Man, Dad, we nabbed this one by the skin of our teeth!” Three buttons popped off my Harvie & Hudson shirt (that one’s for you, Mr. Thomas!) when I heard that smart aleck remark.
On Saturday morning, while MUGGER III and Mrs. M painted at home, Junior and I went off to the ballfield where his team was playing the Mt. Sinai Bears. Our team, the NYPress Giants, was missing three or four players, but played exceptionally well and Junior slammed his best hit of the season, a solid grounder that zoomed past the third baseman and shortstop. The game was a bit more competitive than usual for t-ball, because of an incident in about the third inning. Scott Franchi was leading off for the Giants and powered a shot that was heading to the outfield, when a Bears coach just picked it up like he was one of the players. Talk about cheating! Robbing a kid of a sure triple is some kind of sin for which punishment is deserved: perhaps spending two weeks in the audience of a Rosie O’Donnell show. From that point on, our coaches let the Giant boys and girls take extra bases and run up the score.
Not everybody on the Bears was a bad egg, however; when our pitcher, Ella Smithie, stopped a ball with her mouth and was a little dazed, their manager came over to see how the champ was. That’s the way t-ball is supposed to be played; not stopping line-drive hits by kids under 10.
But back to Irving. I wrote several months ago about the anthropomorphic wolf who was the subject of bedtime stories when I took care of my nephew and niece on a European tour back in ’75. Abbie and Cal were transfixed, laughing hysterically as I told them about this crazy beast who always helped me out of jams. The tales grew more fantastic as the strong lagers went down my gullet, and I had as much fun as they did.
In Bermuda last summer, I revived Irving for MUGGER III and he, too, was spellbound. Junior was onto me, but didn’t spill the beans to his little brother that Dad was a big old fake. In fact, we’d huddle in the morning and he’d offer suggestions for various plotlines. I told him that there had to be a germ of truth in the story: It had to involve some place that I’d visited when I was in my 20s or after I’d met his mother. And then, I counseled Junior, let the imagination go wild. Trouble is, about a week ago I ran out of fresh material, since after the Bermuda vacation, MUGGER III wouldn’t go to sleep without an Irving cameo.
I was on a roll for nights on end before the cupboard was bare. There was the time that Irving was banned from the Bristol Hotel in Paris for staining the dining room’s carpet because of his incontinence after a huge meal (a gigantic hit with my poop-conscious four-year-old); Irving tracking me down after I’d got lost in the hills of Cannes; the time when Abbie and I were at a port in Italy and ran into trouble with knife-wielding teenagers and Irving decked every single one of them; and the odd appearance of our favorite wolf taking over for the matador at a bullfight in Madrid, where my brother Doug and I had first-row seats and Irving presented us with an ear apiece from the beast he gored.
What else? Irving, of course, was present at the birth of both Junior and MUGGER III, telling the doctors to knock off the chatter and give Mrs. M more painkillers; he cradled MUGGER III at our rental in Bridgehampton one afternoon and got him to stop bawling; Irving eating steaks and sausages with Mrs. M and me in Buenos Aires; saving us from a faulty tram in Santiago by walking nearly a mile on the highwire and repairing the facility’s motor; lunching with the extended Smith family in Capri, after playing engineer on the funicular up the hill from the water; and the time he met us all in the Black Forest and gorged on the “farmhouse snack,” which consisted of head cheese and other gristly and jellied pig parts that even I couldn’t stomach. There was an incident in Switzerland where Irving and a clockmaker got into a ruckus; lots of wine-guzzling on the Rhine and the communist cabby in Manila who tried to rob me until you-know-who showed up. And of course there was the time when Irving was speeding in a van in North Baltimore, got stopped by a cop and promptly chomped off his foot. That particular story was MUGGER III’s favorite.
I suppose by now my son has caught on, for he’s invented his “own” Irving, and in the morning tells me his own fables. They also include his imaginary friends Snacker, Giant and Dolphin. They almost always are a version of the previous night’s Irving the Wolf session, but it’s a joy to hear him twist the tale just a bit to conform to his own peculiar worldview. We’ve agreed on a moratorium on Irving stories for the time being; MUGGER III told me, magnanimously, that reruns would resume when we return to Bermuda this August. I’m just hoping he doesn’t question me when the yarns deviate from the original plot. This sharp cookie is often quicker than dear old Dad.
Brill’s in The Wrong Profession
Steve Brill has unquestionably missed his calling: Instead of deluding himself that he could publish a media magazine that would attain the circulation numbers of Vanity Fair, he should’ve gone into public relations. Move over Howie Rubenstein, you’ve got nothing on Brill. The prickly (some ex-employees would simply say “prick”) proprietor of Brill’s Content hasn’t made a dent in the magazine industry with his snore of a monthly, but man, Brill definitely knows how to promote himself. Against all odds, he recently procured some $10 million from George Soros to keep the dull journal afloat for another year or so. Talk about good money after bad. In addition, Brill owned the gossip and media columns last week when a story about his magazine by Jennet Conant was spiked by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter. Brill claims he had nothing to do with it, but canny p.r. flacks let gullible reporters do most of the talking.
Conant, who resigned her position at Vanity Fair, calling the killing of her article a “sad day” for the magazine, now has her agent peddling the piece to a number of interested periodicals, including NYPress. (Odds are that New York will pick up the piece, which was described to me by someone who’s read it as “not a homer, but a solid double.” Failing that, my bet is that the New York Observer editor Peter Kaplan will piss off contributors who aren’t paid well at his newspaper and open Arthur Carter‘s wallet to spread Conant’s 6000 words throughout the weekly.)
As for Brill’s Content itself, the self-righteous monthly lumbers along, putting most readers to sleep, save those who look for the contradictions in Brill’s strict journalistic code of ethics that he applies so stringently to the media the magazine covers, but doesn’t concern itself with. Brill’s current editor, Eric Effron, who sullies his boss every time he commits words to print, was worse than usual in his “Letter From the Editor” in the June issue. “A small yelp of joy could be heard around the offices of this magazine when New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd in April was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. It’s not that we’re friends of hers or even that we were rooting for her. It’s just that we had already decided to make senior writer Gay Jervey’s probing profile of Dowd our cover story, and Dowd’s Pulitzer win only serves to place in sharp relief many of the questions about Dowd’s work that Jervey addresses.”
Oh, Jesus, but that was hard to swallow. I’m sure the Brill’s staff was rooting for Dowd; it would no doubt increase sales by a hundred copies or so. As for the article itself, it wasn’t much: a love letter to Dowd written in the fawning style of a college intern who’s desperately trying to curry favor with a New York Times player. Jervey‘s piece, headlined “In Search of Maureen Dowd,” is the longest take I’ve read about the columnist, but she doesn’t reveal much new. It’s the same stuff: Dowd is “mysterious,” shy and private; single; fiercely loyal to her Irish-Catholic family; a “must-read” at the White House; one of the few pundits who refuses to supplement her newspaper salary by appearing on talk shows; is an “equal-opportunity skewer”; plays dumb with her sources to get them to open up; and doesn’t understand why people think she’s “mean.”
Here’s Jervey’s idolatry: “[Friends] acknowledge that her desire for insularity does not inoculate her from the inquisitive. But for her sake they wish those of us who would pierce the veil of her privacy would go away.
“Well, we can’t.”
One familiar anecdote Jervey tosses in was even worse than her quoting some idiot describing reading Dowd’s column as a “guilty pleasure” or the subhed in the piece that read “On to the Gray Lady.” Dominick Dunne, the Vanity Fair writer who recently made a laughingstock of himself with his naive coverage of Bill Clinton‘s impeachment trial in that magazine, tells Jervey that Dowd, in 1993, was “hostile” to him at a cocktail party because she was about to review his new book A Season in Purgatory. Dunne said he was “very, very hurt.” Poor dear. Then this winter, as the trial was going on, the two met up at a book party and Dowd apologized for her behavior back then. Dunne, apparently an easy mark, “was knocked out, stunned. I think it takes a lot of stuff to apologize like that. So I said ‘Maureen, over, out, done!'” The author then says that the very next day it was raining and a cab pulled over and the passengers invited him in: and gosh darn it, it was Maureen, The Wall Street Journal‘s Al Hunt and the Times‘ Jill Abramson. Yikes, thank God I don’t live in DC, where the insularity of journalism is even worse than Manhattan, if you can imagine that.
I’ve bashed Dowd in the past, as well as praised her, but there’s no doubt that her Times column is well-read. Too bad it’s so slight and schizophrenic: She can’t decide whether she admires or reviles the Clintons, Ken Starr or former President George Bush. She imbues her “Liberties” pieces with too much pop culture; it’s rare that a movie or sitcom isn’t woven in to make some kind of trivial point.
In a throwaway column last Sunday, about how everyone in DC is mad at everyone else, Dowd writes: “The Clintons and Gores, whose ’92 campaign was like a yuppie double date on a cross-country bus, are not so cozy now. That New Age communitarian spirit has been replaced with old-fashioned crankiness.
“Hillary is mad at Bill. Duh.
“…Bill is also mad at Al because there is one word Al never utters on the campaign trail: Bill. (Bill is not mad at himself, or course. He never is.)
“…Tipper is mad at Bill for continuing to make messes just as Al is trying to shake off Bill’s dirt.
“Hillary is mad at Tipper for abruptly distancing herself, saying she’d be a very different kind of First Lady.”
Okay, there are a few laughs there. Problem is, and it’s not Dowd’s fault, is that the Times‘ op-ed page is so barren, with the exception of William Safire, that her whimsy is that much more exaggerated. If Dowd, on the same day, was balanced by a hard-nosed columnist like Michael Kelly (who has no talent at humor), with rotating one-off appearances from writers like John Judis, David Tell, Mickey Kaus, Peggy Noonan or John Seabrook, that would be a kick-ass editorial section, unrivaled by any in the country. Unfortunately, publisher Arthur Sulzberger has no vision. His refusal to fire Bob Herbert and Anthony Lewis is proof enough of that.
Face It: You’ll Never Be as Rich As Si
Whenever business writers are hard up for a story they turn to The New Yorker, not for a reading of “Talk of the Town,” but rather to report, sadly, that the magazine is still losing money. It probably is—in last week’s Crain’s New York Business, Valerie Block said that ad pages were down eight percent from last year, while revenues have sunk 17 percent—but all that’s beside the point. When will these journalists get it through their middle-class heads that Conde Nast‘s Si Newhouse doesn’t care! A $10 million loss to him is like dropping a quarter on the sidewalk. The New Yorker, despite its editorial turbulence in recent years, remains one of journalism’s prize franchises: It’s a Picasso in Newhouse’s stable of magazines and he’s well aware of it. Really, it’s not as if he can be proud of owning Details.
Block writes, “Some observers say that the only way to get the title into the black is to cut the frequency in half, turning the weekly into a biweekly. The move would save on production costs.” That’s as stupid an idea I’ve heard for a magazine since Brill’s Content was launched. The New Yorker has a loyal readership—it’s the only magazine that I subscribe to for three years at a clip—and moving it to biweekly would simply irritate people, as well as making it less timely. It’s bad enough that so many “double” issues are being produced.
David Remnick, TinaBrown‘s successor as The NewYorker‘s editor, much to my surprise, is producing a magazine as vibrant as any in circulation. I don’t care for the weekly’s politics, and the cartoons still suck, but there isn’t a week I don’t thumb through its pages, if only to get pissed off. For example, in its May 10 issue there was a long piece by Alex Ross on Bob Dylan that was quite remarkable, not only for the photo of Dylan that shaved at least 10 years off his age, but for the fact that it was written by someone who hadn’t been born when the icon’s first record was released. Granted, I had trouble with Ross’ obligatory nod to Greil Marcus as “the most formidable of rock critics,” and his obsession with Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks (a fine recording, but definitely silver-age), but his perspective was fresh and enthusiastic.
Whereas so many jaded critics and fans have written Dylan off for almost a generation now, Ross embarked on a cross-country tour of the singer’s concerts and emerged with unique observations. At the conclusion of his piece, Ross writes: “Dylan may be many things, but he is not a star: he can’t control his image in the public eye. At the same time, he doesn’t look, act, or sound like any great man that history records. He presents himself as a travelling musical salesman, like B.B. King or Ralph Stanley or Willie Nelson. He is generally unavailable to the media, but he is in no way a recluse, and reclusiveness is traditionally the zone in which American geniuses reside.”
As a boomer who’s followed Dylan since ’62—true, I was only seven then, but with four older brothers in the house, I couldn’t avoid being hooked—I had many quibbles with Ross’ take on him, but I think it was a gutsy article, and certainly more original than any other recent piece I’ve read about the pop legend.
On the other hand, Jane Mayer‘s article about House Whip Tom DeLay in last week’s New Yorker was so one-sided that it could’ve been dictated by Bill Clinton‘s brain-dead press secretary Joe Lockhart. Starting with a headline—”The Exterminator”—that’s by now a cliche, Mayer writes a portrait of DeLay that’s unfair, and utterly infused with the conventional wisdom about the man whom every DC insider journalist calls, with glee, “The Hammer.” For example, Mayer writes that GOP Rep. Peter King “believes that DeLay never accepted the public’s verdict that Clinton’s lies and misdeeds did not merit removal from office.” While polling did show that Americans were opposed to Clinton’s impeachment, it wasn’t their decision: It was up to Congress to ponder the felonious President’s fate. DeLay did lobby hard to convince his colleagues to impeach the President; that was his prerogative. There are many aspects about DeLay I’m not comfortable with—his association with the Christian right, for starters—but his relentless work on impeachment was heroic.
Likewise, Mayer digs into DeLay’s past and finds, according to people in Texas, that he “smoked, drank, and raised hell.” In addition, he’s had his share, like many politicians, of less-than-ethical campaign contributions. So what? The implication is that DeLay is a crook who was grossly hypocritical in his attacks on Clinton. That’s absurd: First, Clinton is the president of the United States, and must be held to a higher standard; second, put Clinton’s rap sheet next to DeLay’s and you’ll find the latter is a relative paragon of virtue.
Mayer is objectionable, but at least she’s a rigorous reporter, unlike The New Yorker‘s other political columnist, Joe Klein, who appears to have been put out to pasture by Remnick.
(Stop the presses! As I write on Monday I’m assaulted by a Klein “Comment” in The New Yorker‘s May 31 issue. True to form, he has nothing much on his mind; so why not waste some space on Hillary Clinton‘s possible Senate race! That hasn’t been in the news lately. Here’s one of Klein’s trenchant observations, which falls into the “no shit” category: “There is also a fair amount of Clinton fatigue abroad in the land… At this point, the self-involved Clintons seem like teenagers finally going off to college. Do we really want them to stay around for six more years?” Well, no, Joe, we don’t: I wish you and other lazy columnists had done some research on Clinton back in ’91 before you anointed him the Democratic nominee for the following year’s election.)
Also in the May 24 issue was an awful media piece by Hendrik Hertzberg. Just the beginning of his first sentence makes a reader cringe: “A couple of years ago, after Mike Royko went to the big newsroom in the sky…” Does Hertzberg have a no-edit clause in his contract? In describing the late Chicago newspaperman’s work, Hertzberg travels out of his own comfortable backyard, giving readers a primer on “soul-of-the-city” columnists; you know, those guys in the tabloids you read as a “guilty pleasure.” So nods are given to Jimmy Breslin, Herb Caen, Pete Hamill—”the New York tabloid prince”—and the Daily News‘ Michael Daly, although his pedigree is somewhat tarnished by his Yale degree. Hertzberg reveals his ignorance, or carelessness, in this sentence about Mike Barnicle: “Mike Barnicle, defenestrated from the Boston Globe for making things up, freelances from a Middlesex County suburb, an internal exile.” Apparently Hertzberg’s tabloid reading doesn’t extend to the Daily News, where Barnicle writes every Sunday.
Just one more Hertzberg cliche before I vomit: “The S.O.C. never writes the sort of Olympian essay known in the trade as a thumbsucker. If he wants to suck on something, he fishes a Camel out of a crumpled pack.”
Planting Fiction In the Press
I‘m not Kurt Andersen‘s agent, so I don’t get paid to read every single review of his new novel Turn of the Century. However, since I thought TOC was a remarkable achievement—aside from a quibble that Andersen’s foil Timothy Featherstone was too wild ‘n’ crazy—and is certainly the late-90s equivalent of Tom Wolfe‘s The Bonfire of the Vanities, I was appalled at just how dishonestly Slate hosed both the book and the author. Appearing as a weeklong discussion in “The Book Club,” Vanity Fair‘s Marjorie Williams and Microsoft‘s Nathan Myhrvold, while acknowledging some witty writing, largely dismiss the novel as elitist and without a plot. Translated: It’s way too Manhattan- and Los Angeles-centric, and its characters are snide white people with too much money, who are bereft of morals.
Yet, incredibly, on Wednesday, Slate bannered the exchange as “Bonfire of the Nerds: Nathan Myhrvold on Kurt Andersen’s Microsoft Novel.” Yes, Slate‘s parent company figures prominently in the book, but by no stretch of the imagination is it a “Microsoft Novel.”
Also not revealed—pay attention, Steve Brill!—is that Williams is the wife of Timothy Noah, who regularly writes for Slate and recently panned the book himself in the May 10 issue of Fortune.
Then there’s the dishonesty factor: In Slate‘s “Summary Judgment,” capsule reviews of books, films, etc., on Tuesday, Eliza Truitt says that many critics “carp about [the book's] weaknesses.” She takes out of context a single line from Po Bronson‘s favorable review in the May 16 New York Times: “The limitation of a Zeitgeist novel is that an accurate portrait of today can quickly feel dated and lose all its kick by the time it’s out in paperback.” Yet immediately following that sentence Bronson writes: “Andersen has managed to hoodwink this trade-off. He’s got a book chock-full of references to today that stick out like neon Post-It tags…yet he’s infused it with so much inventive imagination that it transcends all that. This book’s vision of next year will last a good five to seven years.”
Why was Andersen completely fucked by Slate? I don’t know editor Michael Kinsley, but I suspect the twisted darling of the Beltway (he may live in Seattle, but he’s as much a slave of the ghastly Washington, DC, culture as Al Hunt), has it in for Andersen. After all, it wasn’t that many years ago that Kinsley was offered the editorship of New York and ruminated back and forth before declining. Andersen took the post instead. Kinsley apparently regretted that decision, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he harbors some weird grudge against the cofounder of Spy. But who can account for Kinsley’s abhorrent behavior? It was just last summer that he made a jackass out of himself after similarly stroking his chin over whether to replace Tina Brown as The New Yorker‘s editor. When the offer was withdrawn, he immediately e-mailed the world about what an asshole Si Newhouse was.
Williams begins her critique on May 17 by writing that reading TOC is “so much like being locked in the longest cocktail party of your life; a little one-on-one conversation appeals to me as balm just now.” She pays lip service to Andersen’s intelligence, but claims the book is ultimately “decadent” and “creepy.” Williams writes: “Clearly, [Andersen] has decanted into Turn of the Century every telling detail that ever caught his eye… On almost every other page…Andersen stops dead and clears his throat before delivering The Clever Thing I Always Thought About Headwaiters, or The Three Types of Men You Find in West-L.A. Restaurants. These pronouncements are almost always withering and funny, but not the kind of thing you want to read, back-to-back, for a 600-page stretch. It’s like eating nothing but guacamole for dinner; before long, you think you never want to read a puckish aperçu again.”
I suppose this would be the anticipated reaction to TOC from an earnest Washington journalist who’d have us believe she’d rather read books about arcane environmental theories. Still, it’s fairly ironic that Williams, who writes hatchet jobs for Vanity Fair from her smug neoliberal nest in DC, is slagging Andersen for writing a novel with smart and prosperous protagonists that will be read by smart and prosperous people (unlike the majority of literary novels, which I suppose are read by steelworkers). “Decadent”? What does that mean? No need to spell it out: not enough poor people and straight-ahead left-wing, wimpy politics and cultural concerns. It goes without saying that Beltway journalists like Williams and her husband Noah aren’t obsessed with the “status” that she ridicules Andersen’s characters for.
Kinsley has no shame, but his hitjob on Andersen was disgraceful; I can’t believe there are still people in the media who believe that the man has one scintilla of integrity.
Michael Wolff, in his May 31 New York “Media” column, uses Andersen’s book—which I think he liked, sort of—as a vehicle for trashing all the smug “old media” poobahs who don’t understand that a new information age is well under way. And they’ve missed the boat. He describes a forum he attended at “one of the schools where we aristocrats send our children,” which included as panelists JannWenner, Steve Brill (“in dapper-don Mafia attire”), Vogue‘s Anna Wintour and Cathie Black, president of Hearst Magazines. He took a vicious shot at Jonathan Alter (not that I minded), the moderator: “Alter, who in his Newsweek column and television appearances has assumed the grandeur (and become a self-parody) of the public moralist—the last of a long line of would-be Walter Lippmans…”
Wolff’s point was that these present-day titans are hopelessly self-satisfied, and can’t begin to comprehend that the media world as they know it, and revel in, is over. And so they’re over. He writes: “After a while, I started to think of that tin-ear sound of television and news magazines when they tried to get with the sixties. Joe Friday explaining marijuana to his partner, Bill Gannon, on Dragnet circa 1968. A suddenly groovy Frank Sinatra. The Mod Squad. Wenner, for instance, botching the explanation, tried to explain the difference between at T1 line and a cable modem to Brill, who kept insisting he knew the difference.”
It’s true that Wolff fashions himself as Mr. Internet, and so carries his own prejudices, but after reading the slime on Slate about Andersen’s Turn of the Century, the New York column was a refreshing tonic.
Al From Baltimore Reports
May 14: I heard John McCain on the radio and read him in the Journal. He’s the only one with a coherent position on Kosovo. He’s been presidential. He’s the only Republican in a position to attack Clinton after the deal is cut, or if things get even worse there. And by extension, to go after the Democrats on China, too. Even with all the front-page coverage, this is the most underreported scandal I can remember. The involvement of the head of Chinese military intelligence in Democratic fundraising in this context is the story of the decade. All this Chinese outrage on the bombing of the embassy is just fog to divert attention from their spy efforts.
McCain is going to own Republican defense and foreign policy. I’m sure he’s still nowhere in the polls, but what if he wins an early primary? Is it really sewn up at this point, barring a big mistake? Peggy Noonan‘s take on George W. yesterday reflected my own. Jeb‘s success in Florida is great for George W., because it gives him cover on the right. Still, Democratic vulnerability is going to be defense and Bush isn’t laying the groundwork for his assault. Bush might not need it, but who knows where the knuckleheads who vote in this country will be in a year?
I’m registering some mild dissent on the Kurt Andersen interview. There was way too much banter and sparring in the first half. It didn’t get good until the middle. And frankly, he did come off as a bit of a snoot. It was sort of a love-fest, but no reason is ever given why anyone would want to buy his book. Compare the Dorothy Rabinowitz interview with Kurt’s. Good for you, bad for Kurt, I guess. I think he knows he didn’t get what he was hoping for, besides owning your front cover. Rereading your 1988 Spy attack, it was just as well-written as the MUGGERs of today. It was brilliant, including your half-parodying of their style. I don’t think even I appreciated it as much then.
I’m embarrassed to admit I’m having trouble finding a recent picture of Sam. Dina says she will find me one and Sam is totally excited about having his picture in the paper. I’m going to do my best to write more but I’ve got a fuckload of cleaning/emptying out the house this weekend. I’m probably not going to be allowed to go to work.
I can’t get away from how inept/stupid the Republicans have been lately. For their vote against gun screens at gun shows, they should be shot for both political and substantive reasons. They can own the reasonable middle ground on that issue. The National Review piece you forwarded to me hit it right on the head. They’re lost.
May 17: Sorry I didn’t get a chance to write, but I was lifting way too many boxes for someone my age. Didn’t go in to work Saturday. Missed my Sunday morning run. Cleaned and hauled about eight hours each day, and it’s not like I didn’t have help. We filled a 15-yard dumpster with stuff, to the brim. All of our old playpens, swing-o-matics, high chairs, humidifiers and toys that didn’t make the cut for Goodwill. Plus pink-eye medicine, boo-boo bunnies and 20 bottles of mostly used cough syrup. I love not having young children. I did find a note from Annie to the tooth fairy when she was about seven. It was a plea for a bigger payoff. At the bottom of the note it said “over.” On the back it said “HI DAD!” Unquestionably the highlight of my cleanup weekend.
I personally hauled about 40 30-gallon bags of stuff to Goodwill, plus 25 bags of junk to the curb for the garbagemen to pick up, stuff we missed when the dumpster was at our house. I even vacuumed the attic, which was especially fun, given the mess that was there from the last squirrel invasion.
Besides the physical labor, the part I found most aggravating was that the cleaning people who we’ve been paying to clean our house don’t know how to clean! I’m no Martha Stewart, or even Heloise, but when I see grease, I apply soap and water, scrub, and it comes off. Shelves and baseboards have not been dusted for years.
So, I haven’t watched any news and have barely read the papers. I did notice that the Bosox had a piece of first place and the Orioles are playing .333 ball.
Is Clinton still president? I heard on the radio the Kosovo deal may be cut this week, and I saw the headline that perhaps 100,000 have been massacred there. If that’s the case, this becomes Rwanda II, and shows how full of shit these world liberals are with their International Human Rights trials. They’re willing to self-righteously prosecute people after they’ve committed unspeakable crimes, but they’re not willing to take real risks to save the victims beforehand. We knew the massacres were going on in Rwanda, and I’m assuming we know what’s going on in Kosovo, or we wouldn’t be there bombing away. I think I’ll clean my office.
May 18: I’m going to buy Turn of the Century, but I’m highly skeptical. Good MUGGER. Loved the Conason exchange.
May 19: In case you need help responding to Roy Neal Grissom ["The Mail," on page 44 in the tab], here it is. He makes some interesting points about the harsher treatment anti-abortionists like Falwell receive relative to people like the pope, who has the world’s best p.r. and is as anti-abortion, actively, as anyone. Falwell is ridiculed for pointing out the very obvious with the gay Teletubby. The proper response should have been “so what?” Not, “he’s a homophobe looking for queers everywhere.”
Anyway, the rest of Grissom’s rant is simple fundamentalism. Against more than 3000 years of tradition, fundamentalists want to read the Bible as is, without interpretation. The very notion of Revelation is part of that tradition of interpretation and commentary. Moreover the original (i.e., Jewish) understanding of the notion of Revelation embraces the Rabbinic (interpretive commentary) wisdom that follows the Revelation as part of it. God has different rules than we do about time and space. Thus, people like Noah and his children obeyed God’s law, even though they lived countless generations before Moses or Abraham, the first observant pre-Revelation Jew. Similarly, the idea that Orthodox Jews don’t drive their cars on Saturday was passed down from Sinai 3000 years ago, even though our understanding is there were no cars at that time.
There are 613 commandments for Jews in the Bible, and even the most religious Jews perform barely half. Many are related to animal sacrifice, which some crazies do want to bring back. Do they also want to bring back the death penalty for adultery or for not observing the Sabbath? Even though the death penalty is prescribed for many offenses in the Old Testament, the Rabbis in the Talmud considered it an abuse of the statute if more than one or two death sentences were carried out in a hundred years.
I always enjoy selective reading of the Bible. Lefties also abuse it. They like to quote “thou shalt not kill,” even though it actually says thou shalt not murder, and the Bible is full of instances where execution and war are mandated. They then forget about the Bible when it comes to issues where the Bible diverges from their stands, like on homosexuality, masturbation, adultery…and pretty much everything else.
Remind me to write more about the Jenny Jones debate. Where is the media outcry when General Motors or Ford gets whacked in court for a couple hundred mil, even though hundreds of thousands of people have used the vehicles safely? Don’t get me started.
Mrs. M: Great to hear from you. First, regarding my alleged lack of executive function, I had eight guys cleaning and hauling on Saturday. I have had two different cleaning services, employing as many as three people each in my house, every other day (it seems like). I’m not fixing anything. But trying to get a contractor out to your house is a chore in itself. As for this past weekend, the real estate agent is making us empty out 2/3 of all our stuff. We had to do the sorting and packaging. What am I supposed to do, tell my assistant, yes, let’s recycle everything from Kurt Andersen’s oeuvre, but for God’s sake, put the Milton Friedman back on the shelf? After the hauling people left, we still had more and more stuff that had to be put away or trashed. I preferred to get it out of my house rather than trip over it for two days. Plus, you can’t see what else needs to be done when there’s so much clutter. And, I did make three runs to Goodwill myself, which in truth, could have been handled smarter.
But enough about my aggravation. Gas is absolutely the way to go, though you may want to make sure your building doesn’t have restrictions against propane tanks. I have a nice $500 Weber grill, which is great. However, I bought Donna [Al's business partner] as a combination wedding/housewarming gift an all-stainless infrared gas grill that is really jizzed. It is absolutely the way to go. It is the same kind of cooking surface that the best steakhouses use. It cooks at 900 degrees. It’s very fast. It burns so hot, it vaporizes all the grease and dirt, so there’s virtually no cleaning to the grill. It sears meat big time. It’s just as safe as a regular gas grill. And it is fast. It costs about $1700. The bad news/good news is Donna thinks her building has a ban on propane; she might have to give me the grill to “hold.” I can’t remember the brand name. I’ll call Donna and get it and send it later. I don’t know anything about the brand, anyway, it was recommended by the salesguy. The only limitation with the grill is it’s not great for slow cooking. On a gas grill Weber you can slow-cook (10 hours) a rubbed brisket or pork shoulder and have great barbecue. But how often are you going to do that?
The kids are great. Annie leaves for Israel Monday for two weeks with her class. No playing cards allowed. I read MUGGER, so I think I’m up to speed on the boys.
Write for more consults when needed.
May 21: The NYPress website looks nice. Didn’t notice any of the things Rodrigue did. When’s the “construction” going to be over? I assume it’ll be up in a couple days. Will there be more graphics throughout? It’s a shame to not use your lead graphics. I know about the space/loading issues, but otherwise, your pages will look like all the other Web mags.
I love the outrage that comes from the media when they are wronged. The media are so fallible, it’s only when you’re written about, directly (remember how The Washington Post butchered the story about Jeff Stein in ’82?), that you realize how inaccurate and biased the media almost always is. GTG.
May 24: I read the Starr/Steele piece in Slate. It’s interesting, but ultimately just a reminder that Clinton skillfully obstructed justice. (If I were Ben Stein, I’d say it made me sad). But it really is ancient history at this point. Clinton more and more seems like a peripheral figure again, like he was from the ’94 elections until his successful budget showdown with Congress.
I was going to write you about how crazy the media reaction was to the Jenny Jones trial was, but that too seems like ancient history. It was post-Columbine, wasn’t it?
The media commentators were obsessed once again with the potentially chilling effect of the decision. This decision illustrates not the vulnerability of free speech but the regular flow of crazy awards made by juries on a routine basis. Did Jenny’s show set this guy up for humiliation? Absolutely. Did that contribute to the murder? Definitely. Should the fellow humiliated have known that going on a show like Jenny Jones carries that kind of risk? Of course. Should the show have liability for the murder? Absolutely not.
The episode has much more in common with what governments are trying to do with guns and cigarettes. For the record, I hate cigarettes and I hate guns (though I’m glad the police carry them). But the state and federal governments are suing tobacco makers for products that carry a clear warning label, and from which these same governments profit handsomely in the form of billions in annual tax revenues. If they were really so bad, why not legislate them out of business? Because it’s a lot easier to do it in court than in the legislature, and the bottom line is, it’s a way to exact another huge tax increase on the backs of the lower-middle-class and poor while you’re telling them it’s for their own good.
As for guns, I think the Republican performance in the Senate was a disgrace. Aside from giving Gore a nice political coup, Republican antipathy to sensible gun regulation is bad policy and bad politics. I’m as anti-big government as the next guy, but I like the fact, for example, that an inspector is keeping an eye on the processing plant where the chicken I eat is slaughtered. I’m also happy that 12-year-olds can’t buy guns, that people have to go through a criminal background check to buy one, etc. I’m glad people can’t go to Wal-Mart and buy mortars. To fight all gun regulation is as stupid.
Now that cities (including Baltimore) and states are suing, or planning to sue gun manufacturers in Tobacco II, the sequel, the governments themselves are promoting the abuse of our tort system while simultaneously trying to further their policy ends (and get more taxes at the same time). It’s a disgrace.
Whatever happened to individual responsibility, both for kids and the parents? When we as a society say you smoked for 40 years and you’re dying of cancer, but it’s not your fault, what message are we sending? Gun ownership in this country has been huge since its founding. Do the guns now operate on their own? Little by little, our society erodes the principle of individual responsibility.
The question is, are we as a country no longer willing to rely on the judgment of our fellow citizens as individuals to organize our day-to-day life? Every time you take a curve in your car at 50 mph, you’re counting on the other guy in the opposite direction taking that curve as well (which is why, I think, liberals love mass transit). The problem is, we live in an era when nothing bad is supposed to happen, just as long as no one’s freedoms are in the smallest way impinged (thank you ACLU and the gun lobby). We’re supposed to live in a no-risk world where we still get everything we want.
So as for Kosovo, the outcome will be a face-saving settlement for us, and then we’ll sue the bastard.
The following MUGGER column first appeared in the Feb. 16, 1990, issue of NYPress.
Cards of a Shark
On the night John Gotti was acquitted, there was an explosion of fireworks on Mulberry St. so ear-splitting, so terrifying, that five people in MUGGER’s office instantly stood still, looked around, and shot each other glances that said, oh my, this might be the Big One. It was 6:30, a balmy and misty evening, and we took to the wall of windows on the west side of the Puck Building. From our ninth-floor perch we could see flames reflected across Lafayette St., and just minutes later we heard the howling of fire engines racing to the scene. Independence Day on this February 9.
Ninety minutes later, as Gotti was slowly driven away in a black Mercedes, we cruised the streets of Little Italy too, walking past tv film vans, the lingering party by the Ravenite Social Club at 247 Mulberry, and saw residents of all ages gathered in bunches, smiling and joshing, talking about just one thing. We continued down the block and stepped into our favorite L.I. bar, the Mare Chiaro Tavern, a normally subdued establishment that for this occasion had a string of bright lights framing its usual dark green exterior. This insider’s clubhouse, an anachronistic bar that serves bottled beer and martinis without olives, was hosting the biggest crowd we’ve ever seen there and not one person was crying in his drink. We ordered a few Buds and traded small talk with the proprietor, a bear-like man with a stogie parked in the corner of his mouth, looking not a