MUGGER’s Western Diary Happen to Like New York
So the start of the family’s Western trip was a little weird. That’s why California, specifically Los Angeles, was invented, if you ask me. The difficulty began mid-way through a Continental flight to LAX, when Mrs. M and I were trying to take a nap, but the kids were too antsy to cooperate. The parents in front of us, with a two-year-old, had no such problems; as the bruiser husband poured down glasses of brandy, chased by beers, his wife drinking vodka, their child was a Christmas-like angel, cooing at the stewardesses and minding his manners. Not so MUGGER III, who was pissed that he couldn’t sit next to mom during this portion of the excursion. He got so mad at me at one point, he yelled, “I hate you, Dad, and green isn’t my favorite color anymore!” In his four-year-old devilish mind, he knew that would get my attention, since we share the same preference. The next day he felt contrite and said, “But Daddy, I was only kidding when I said that.”
The traffic wasn’t bad: In no time, we cruised by the Santa Monica Pier, up the Pacific Coast Highway, past all the landmarks I’d remembered from previous visits. The only catch this holiday season was that Barbara had moved from her familiar Winding Way abode, about 20 miles north, and as we turned right at Neptune’s Net, a seafood dive popular with bikers who tank up on Budweiser before continuing on to Santa Barbara, the driver got worried. It was getting dark, and because of the tension, we could only half-appreciate the sunset over the Pacific Ocean. Up and up we drove into the hills, with no guardrails, dirt patches at times, until finally Mrs. M intuited where her mother’s new sprawling estate was. When we arrived, I handed the fellow a $50 (or in Manhattan slang, a Tribeca food stamp) and he said, “Thanks sir, and please pray for me. I don’t know how I’ll get down the mountain.” I agreed, but Barbara, an old cowhand, was having none of it. Buck up, she told him, don’t be such a pussy, and gave him directions. Later, she claimed he was a Muslim, not used to such terrain, but I told her no way–after all, taking cabs in Manhattan every day I know my Mideastern brothers–this guy was definitely one petrified South American.
I always loved the original Rancho Sol Del Pacifico, with its shingle house, lemon and lime trees, horse stables and a clear view of the Pacific, but Barbara and her husband Al’s new digs are something else. Junior went through the grand entrance, took a look around and said, sounding like a Bowery Boy from the 1930s, “Pretty snazzy. Hey, this is all right!” The house is some 10,000 square feet, with wing after wing after wing, every nook and cranny packed with memorabilia from her kids’ childhoods, first-place ribbons from the horse shows, about 50 antique guitars, statues and glass figurines, knickknacks collected at swap meets and, best of all, for our two boys, a movie theater downstairs. If I’ve seen The Brave Little Toaster once now, I’ve seen it 100 times. They never tired of it, as long as the cartoon was accompanied by Cap’n Crunch and Goosebumps fruit roll-ups.
There’s a swimming pool outside (but in California that’s as common as an elevator in New York), a hot tub, tennis courts, basketball setup, go-carts and a melange of macaws and other annoying parrots that squawk constantly. And of course a posse of dogs and cats roaming throughout the spacious grounds. Among the thousands of curios, my favorite is a wooden plaque in one of the johns depicting six dogs, of all breeds, taking a piss against a fence. When we settled in, Barbara had a turkey dinner prepared, with a toy carousel playing Christmas hymns, and Junior perked up when “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” spun around. He also took a shine to an 1876 piano, and surprised the dickens out of me by playing some fairly decent music. When I was six, if I was ever near a piano, I just pounded on the keys: Junior has a delicate touch and it was a pleasure to watch. MUGGER III played with the dogs and immediately said he wanted one for our own apartment: He’s a cute and sweet little nipper but Mrs. M and I put the kibosh on that in a split second. Then they both lobbied for a cat. Nix once more.
Going to the supermarket for provisions is an outing on the order of riding from Tribeca to Inwood. It’s the day’s diversion. We shopped at Hughes supermarket, dodging celebrities from the nearby Malibu colonies, loaded up on avocados, watermelon, hot dogs, soda and tomatoes; the kids picked up odious bags of cotton candy that must’ve been manufactured when the local baseball team was still called the Los Angeles Angels, and a few action figures, as if they needed them. I took a stroll over to the outside newsstand and bought $50 worth of periodicals. The Los Angeles Times really sucks: Not only is it unwieldy, but the editorial page is a joke, the front section has almost no news and the arts coverage is far inferior to that of New Times Los Angeles. I finished the Sunday paper in about five minutes.
This newsstand is pretty cool; the kids who operate it smoke cigarettes, crank the Cure on their boombox, yet are just as pleasant as everyone else in L.A., which does tend to get on your nerves. There’s a prejudice for West Coast publications. For example, I couldn’t get a copy of the newest Weekly Standard, and the dusty issues of The Nation dated back to when Stalin still ruled the USSR. But they had Coppola’s Zoetrope front and center, and of course the supermarket tabs. The headline on the Enquirer told of Hillary Clinton slamming Bill in the face on impeachment day–so hard that the President told his Secret Service agents to “keep that bitch away from me” and had to wear makeup for several days. I believe the story for a couple of reasons. One, often the tabs break stories that appear in the mainstream press several weeks or a month later, and then claim them as their own; more importantly, one of the Enquirer’s lawyers is David Kendall, the barrister who screwed up Clinton’s case so badly. (Though not as recklessly as attention-hog Robert Bennett, who should’ve settled the Paula Jones lawsuit in a backroom deal and refrained from appearing on the Sunday talk shows.)
Warren St. John did a fine job profiling David Talbot and his White House organ Salon in the January Wired–who knew that Talbot’s brother was Gilbert on Leave it to Beaver or that the editor once joined a swingers commune and a lesbian collective?–letting the windbag hang himself. Talbot’s a bad guy. He had the nerve a few months ago to pitch Salon tote bags for contributions as if the online mag were a nonprofit enterprise; as St. John writes, Talbot’s smacking his lips, prematurely I think, over an IPO on the magazine. St. John closes his lengthy piece with a friendly dispute Talbot and his wife have about where their second home will be when the Wall Street cash pours in: He wants to live by the ocean, she wants to be up in Napa. I’m sure Salon readers, and underpaid contributors, sympathize with the Talbot’s lifestyle dilemma.
On Monday afternoon we had company: my old college friend JB (who designed NYPress) and New Times executive editor Mike Lacey and his wife Kathleen, along with their sons Rourke and Colin. They marveled at Barbara’s spread, took a gander at Boney Ridge and the Pacific and on that day there was a clear view of Santa Catalina, apparently a big-deal island to the nuts who live in this part of the country. (The next morning was foggy; and with the clouds just overhead it seemed like we were in heaven. On the other hand, most nights you can actually see stars, which in Manhattan is a once-a-year occurrence.) While the kids alternately played on the tennis court, explored the hot tub and orchards and eventually wound up downstairs watching movies and the 100 or so fish in the pond, the grownups sat out in the sun, drinking wine and soft drinks, eating cheese and nuts and talking politics, education and restaurants.
Mike and Kathleen have a second home on the Pacific that’s in the process of renovation; personally, with the natural disasters that hit Malibu every third year, I think their choice was suspect, but they’re Westerners, based in Phoenix, and have a different mindset. Rourke, who’s nine, looked like a New Yorker with his baggy pants and Green Bay Packers wool cap pulled over his face, but his sweet disposition quickly belied his homeboy get-up.
The children played well together, and for me it was a real sight: I’ve known Lacey since ’79, when we drank until dawn, got up a few hours later for convention seminars, sounded off at the moronic publishers we were in attendance with and then had liquid lunches to get back to ground zero. It’s a different life now, one that suits me fine. Not as wild as those days, which I wouldn’t trade for the world, but a lot more healthy and serious. Instead of downing $50 shots of scotch, which Lacey conned me into buying for him at a conference in the late 80s in Denver, he spoke of the perfect sushi at Matsuhisa in L.A., where dots of red pepper oil made the dish a work of art. Mrs. M and Kathleen got along famously, the weather was perfect and a more congenial afternoon I can’t remember.
The Curse of Neptune’s Net
I mentioned earlier the landmark Neptune’s Net, the biker bar right on PCH, before the turnoff to Barbara’s estate. The last day I was in Malibu, before heading off to the GOP “Weekend” conference in Phoenix, was tranquil until the afternoon. The boys woke me up just before 5, fetched bowls of cereal and retreated downstairs for another viewing of a Chipmunks film. Since I couldn’t figure out the coffee maker–made a huge mess trying to make a pot, and then burned my finger on the grill in an attempt to boil water for tea–I settled for a microwaved English Breakfast cup and made some calls to New York. Mrs. M arose around 7, we gabbed with her mother and some friends that dropped by and then MUGGER III presented me with his Curious George keyring to take with me for good luck. Junior gave me a book of Rugrats stickers just to double up on the safety factor.
Later, Barbara, some of the dogs and Junior went to feed the horses, while Mrs. M, MUGGER III and I ventured out into the real world for some lunch. That meant McDonald’s for my son; a cheeseburger with no ketchup, pickles or onions, cookies, milk and a Bug’s Life toy. Then we went across the street to La Salsa, aka The Big Mexican (named for the giant hombre with red peppers in his hand whom you can see almost a mile away), and had delicious steak burritos with two kinds of salsa, black beans and guacamole. La Salsa may be a chain, but its grub puts any Mex restaurant in New York to shame.
By the time we got back it was almost time for my cab to meet me at Neptune’s Net for the long drive to LAX. Junior, who’d finally adapted to the California lifestyle–he wasn’t even afraid of the dogs anymore–was dying to go to the beach with his boogie board, so we parked at Neptune’s and went across the highway for a quick tumble in the water. Trouble was, this wasn’t a beach proper and so there was no way to get down to the ocean but to stumble over rocks, bits of glass from beer bottles and rough sand. We slid down part of the way, and once MUGGER III hit the salt water he wailed with tears from a giant scratch on his leg. We scooped him up, made it up the hill and I went inside Neptune’s for Cokes and lemonade.
What a trip. Bikers still in a fog from the late 60s, gulping down 50-ounce draughts of Miller, everybody smoking, a few brave people eating nasty-looking fried clams and not a smile in sight. This wasn’t the land of Have A Nice Day. After sneaking a Merit in the back, taking a piss in the lean-to, I saw my cabby and told him I’d be ready in 10 minutes. I brought the drinks to the car and found Mrs. M had stepped on a bumblebee, the first time she’d ever been stung in her life. It hurt like hell and the entire MUGGER family was cursing Neptune’s Net. My wife’s a sturdy soul, so she was stoic while Junior told us a story about how the potato chip was invented. Mrs. M wasn’t consoled when I told her that I’d been stung hundreds of times growing up on Long Island, where the yellow jackets liked to feast on rotten apples in the fall, but the kids were fascinated. I kissed them all five times and headed off for the cab.
Turns out the driver was from the Bronx, was a regular at Yankee Stadium, but had been in Southern California since ’71 and never even considered returning back East. We started talking politics, but it went downhill fast: He was with Clinton, claiming a blowjob wasn’t really sex and what the fuck, Monica will become a millionaire just for getting down on her knees 20 or more times. Then it was on to unions, the rich raping the country, the crime rate in L.A., where’s FDR when we need him, and just when he launched into a pro-Dick Gephardt shtick, I changed the topic. This wasn’t improving my mood. Actually, he was a jovial fellow, showing me the sights of Malibu, the mansions on the hills, and eventually got around to telling me about the novel he’s been writing for 24 years. I groaned to myself, but it turned out this was pure Neptune’s Net bad juju.
Back in the early 70s, when he was in school studying business, holding down a job, putting in 18-hour days, his wife was pregnant with twins. One morning, she knew she was in premature labor but did nothing about it; didn’t call her husband or a doctor, but instead went to Disneyland and took a whirl on the rides, all the while bleeding profusely–one twisted and guilty chick. Someone finally noticed, she was rushed to the hospital and, this being the dark ages for preemies, the two boys were hooked up to incubators for a day and then died. She blamed her husband, my taxi driver.
They both went into deep depression, separated and then four months later she calls him up and says let’s give this marriage a second chance. They’re making love and just as he’s about to have an orgasm she screams, “I only wanted your seed! Now get out!” Turns out she was pregnant already by another fellow, but since they weren’t divorced the cabby had to pay child support for the daughter who was eventually born but wasn’t his. He went into a seven-year tailspin, drank heavily, gained 100 pounds, lived on carry-out food and was plagued by panic attacks. She continued to hate him, blamed him for the premature twins and further tried to ruin his life. He couldn’t leave his house, went broke, ate like Rosie O’Donnell and kept a razor by his side. He thought of killing his wife but didn’t want to pick up soap in prison for the rough boys. Finally, he met a woman in Santa Barbara who helped him snap out of it, got an agent to turn this story into a tv movie and that’s when we arrived at LAX. God knows what the sequel would be, but I wasn’t ready for it. If Edgar Allan Poe were alive today, he’d have an outside barstool at Neptune’s Net, sipping at a glass of rotgut red wine, writing on a laptop and listening to my mother-in-law’s damn macaw far in the distance.
A Starbucks Conspiracy
Major airports in this country suck: Flights are delayed more often than not because of all the air traffic, the terminals are in constant states of renovation and as a result they resemble bus stations at their very grimiest. My flight to Phoenix last Tuesday night was held up for two hours, some jazz about fog in the Bay Area, but who really knows, so I became quite intimate with my stretch of temporary real estate. There was a Starbucks, a shitty newsstand and a bar that was jumping; that’s one thing about airports that’s pretty cool: No matter what time it is, at least after 9 a.m., anything goes and no one raises an eyebrow if you’re getting sloshed two hours before noon. In fact, the bartenders are happy for the company. This night I was drinking coffee and $2.50 bottles of spring water while watching the dregs of humanity passing before me. A group of Deadheads held a seance on the ground, in the middle of a thoroughfare; a Russian immigrant family played cards and asked questions about my laptop; three young girls, obviously underage, were falling off their barstools from too many grasshoppers.
It all reminded me of an awful Greyhound trip I took as a kid from Los Angeles to Houston. At the station I bought a bottle of tequila, a dozen limes for a quarter, a ream of magazines–this was ’76 and Mother Jones was pretty sharp back then–and then got on the bus. I was located in the back, in the smoking section, next to an American Indian with a scar that ran from his temple to cheek. Not a good seating assignment. He was a nasty motherfucker and once his sixpack ran dry, he spied my tequila and demanded some. “No way, pardner,” I replied, “that’s a present for my buddy in Houston.” He took out a switchblade and all of a sudden we were making toasts, with fresh-squeezed lime, to the Navajos and the little Arizona town where he grew up.
Meanwhile, back in the john, a hooker was taking on three guys at a time and finally, falling-down drunk, propositioned the driver. This fellow smartly radioed ahead and she was tossed off the bus, with her ramshackle suitcase, on the side of the road. As for the Injun, after about eight shots of tequila he passed out; I was too wired and stared ahead in silence, chainsmoking and praying for survival. This evil dude got off in Phoenix, we said our farewells and I got the fuck back on the bus and had an uneventful, if long, trip to Houston. We’d make pit stops and I’d smoke a joint but I was still in a time warp when my friend picked me up. In a rare socialist mode, I thought every newly elected president, as Jimmy Carter was at the time, should be required to ride a Greyhound around the country and see how miserable mass transit is in the U.S.
Anyway, back to LAX and I’m sitting next to this elderly couple by a bank machine; he’s reading some trashy novel, she’s doing needlepoint and I’m stuck perusing Anthony Lewis’ latest tirade against Henry Hyde and Gail Collins’ presidential endorsement of Bill Bradley in The New York Times. Meanwhile, Marty Peretz’s lapdog for Al Gore in The New Republic, Dana Milbank, has a hitjob on Bradley in New York. What a night.
Several days later, returning to New York, I loitered in Phoenix’s splendid airport for an hour before my flight, buying toy scorpions and cactus candy for the kids, See’s chocolates for Mrs. M and taking advantage of a rare smoking area at a bar. I read the Sunday Times, drank coffee and laughed when an old geezer asked the bartender, at 7:30 a.m., if he could have a beer. “Why sure,” the mellow worker responded, “I sure can’t make a living selling pretzels and coffee all day.” The trip home was a breeze, but once I arrived at Newark the snafus began. The luggage conveyor belt didn’t work, so hundreds of grumpy people were swearing and killing time, waiting for their bags. A woman on the p.a. system said the delay was because of “weather conditions,” but no one was buying that hokum. After all, it was clear outside, if cold, so there were other problems gumming up the works. Newark’s a joke; a single snowflake will close the airport down, and even a heavy rainstorm will delay flights up to four hours. Not that Kennedy or La Guardia is much better.
MUGGER & the Martians
Sorry to dump on Maureen Dowd again, but she invites the criticism. I’m thinking specifically of her ludicrous Times column on Dec. 27. She begins: “When it comes to New Year’s Eve, I am firmly in the camp of pink champagne and black cha-cha heels.” I’ll bet. I’m sure she watched some old Michael Douglas movie and ate Devil Dogs and Doritos while curled up on the coach in comfy jammies and slippers. Dowd continues:
“I can’t fathom the phenomenon of trekking off to resorts to attend a lot of earnest panels and hang out with all the same people we are sick of seeing on MSNBC.” She was referring to Clinton’s Renaissance Weekend in Hilton Head and the conservative counterpart The Weekend, which I attended at the Biltmore in Phoenix. Dowd is bipartisan in her digs, but is nastier to the GOP: “But now Republicans call it ‘The Weekend,’ the event formerly known as ‘Dark Ages,’ to disguise the uncomfortable fact that Republicans have, in fact, brought about the Dark Ages.”
Now, I ask you, is such absurd hyperbole a way to bring in the new year? If these are the Dark Ages, I can’t wait until civilization kicks in. After all, why do you think Clinton still gets high approval ratings? It’s because people are working, their pockets are stuffed with money, the only war (for Americans) is played out like a PlayStation game and Mark McGwire hit 70 round-trippers.
I’d been in Phoenix for less than a day but already I was content: My suite was large, a heated pool was right outside the terrace, the room service was quick and I had the best red burro of my life at a Mexican dive called Rito’s in Garfield, a rough and tumble Hispanic crack neighborhood, with my Phoenician friend Jim Larkin, at lunch. Hardball was on in the background while I wrote, my e-mail box was overflowing since MUGGER’s online version at Jewish World Review (jewishworldreview.com) was linked on The Drudge Report and Salon took a week off. Aside from seeing the fruity Michael Kinsley on Crossfire, and missing my wife and boys, it was pretty damn relaxing.
Last Wednesday’s news of the day was that John McCain is ready to run for president. Like all longshots, the idiots in the adoring Boomer Beltway media say it might not take as much money for such an attractive candidate (translated: He was a POW so they could protest against the war, smoke pot and get laid a lot) because his message is so compelling. Come again? He’s for campaign finance reform but raises cash from PACs for his own races. He’s in favor of a huge tax in the form of a tobacco bill. That might play with The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, but not with GOP primary voters.
I was distressed to read a New York Post editorial on Jan. 1 extolling McCain’s candidacy. While the paper disagrees with the “maverick” Senator on some issues they feel he’s a man of integrity. John Podhoretz should talk to people in Arizona. The Post’s editorial said: “McCain is a legitimate American hero who inspires wholehearted respect and admiration from friend and foe alike… A presidential candidate who can serve as a genuine role model for America’s youth.” As a Korean War veteran in Arizona once famously said about McCain: “He wasn’t a hero; he just got caught.”
McCain might be immune from Sidney Blumenthal since Clinton feels guilty around the Senator, but the guy’s personal baggage is plenty. Girls, girls, girls and a lot of questionable land dealings too. And he tells mean jokes about teenagers who used to live in the White House. McCain’s a scumbag who has nothing else to do. I don’t minimize his horrific POW torture in Vietnam, but his bad luck there doesn’t make him a hero. And as a role model for America’s youth, the Post will find out in months to come that McCain, an adulterer who was mixed up in the Charles Keating scam, isn’t all that clean. As he told the Times’ Katharine Seelye, who covered The Weekend in the same biased, snotty manner she did the Dole campaign in ’96, “I’ve had a colorful past.” He might compete, perhaps outlast Lamar Alexander, Dan Quayle and John Ashcroft, but no one is stopping the George W. Bush express in 2000. I don’t know why McCain doesn’t just admit he’s seeking the secretary of defense post in a Bush administration. Now, with his temper, that might be dangerous, but George W. will have to cut some deals on the way to the nomination.
Then again, I was speaking with a friend at a cocktail party at the Biltmore who spun another McCain theory. It goes like this: McCain builds up momentum slowly, hopes Bush stumbles in the summer, is the beneficiary of media boredom with Bush and Steve Forbes around Labor Day and then rides a Colin Powell-like wave in the fall to become Bush’s main challenger. He makes foreign policy the key issue, maybe skips Iowa, scores an upset in New Hampshire and then coasts to California. But as another journalist told me, “If I do my job right, McCain has a half-life of six months.” Cheers to that. Jeez, in the Arizona Republic on Thursday the news of McCain’s exploratory committee barely made the front page. There was nothing on the op-ed page, save the four-day-old Dowd column I mentioned above and a George Will essay that was also growing a beard.
Maybe I’m getting old, but David Broder doesn’t seem nearly the wishy-washy pundit he did just a year ago. Actually, it’s just because he’s so anti-Clinton that I’ve come around to actually finishing his columns in The Washington Post. Like the one on Dec. 30, which was his annual, and corny, message to readers about all the times he screwed up in the past 12 months. I bet Broder even goes to church. Most of his mail came from people who said he was too hard on Clinton. Broder, to his credit, was earnest but steadfast in holding his ground, writing: “I have said–to the intense irritation of many of you–that resignation would be a true act of contrition by a president who admits he has ‘misled’ his colleagues in government and the American people. It would be a voluntary act, prompted only by his conscience and his respect for his oath of office. And it would permit a man who shares Clinton’s entire agenda, but is unimpaired by his character deficits, to assume the presidency–as the voters have ordained.”
A profile in media courage. While dimwits like Clarence Page and Lars-Erik Nelson, not to mention about 90 newspapers, have recanted their calls for resignation, Broder stands tall. He may have excessive reverence for the institution of the presidency and all that baloney, but I respect him enormously for bucking the trend among his sorry colleagues.
Before the Gloom Set In
I stopped in briefly at the opening shindig for The Weekend and, shy guy that I am, didn’t meet many people. One disconcerting note at registration
was that the nametags had everyone’s first name in large type (so West Coast) and their surname practically in agate. I did inject myself into a conversation with two archconservatives eviscerating Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren from California for her imbecilic hypocrisy during the House Judiciary Committee proceedings. David Horowitz, one of the event’s organizers (and an occasional contributor to this paper), opened the proceedings and gave a short speech, clutching a bottle of water like Bob Dole did with his pen on the campaign stump. Arizona’s Rep. John Shadegg then gave a homey talk, recalling Barry Goldwater, mentioning that Dan Quayle lives near the Biltmore and encouraging conventioneers to shop, shop, shop in the nearby stores. Good for his district. He wasn’t too impressive–it was mostly a chamber-of-commerce kind of greeting–but he did make the important point that the Democrats’ talk of a coup during the impeachment proceedings was a bunch of hogwash.
Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, was brief in his remarks but typically witty. “What kind of year was it?” he asked the crowd. “Well, the stock market is up and Bill Clinton was impeached.” That line got the biggest roar of the night, including some whoops from a few fellows who were guzzling rum & Cokes. I spoke to Kristol a few minutes later and commiserated that Trent Lott was backing down again, just as it appeared he was growing a backbone, by talking compromise in the Senate trial. If all these goo-goos like Jimmy Carter and Jerry Ford can stay out of the fray, let the holidays recede and the GOP senators just stay quiet and stay off television, then every day a compromise for censure isn’t reached, the worse it is for Bill Clinton. If the trial lasts two weeks, he’s off with a slap on the butt. If it goes longer, witnesses are called, and it keeps going until March, say hello to President Al Gore. Again, I just don’t understand why Democrats, who don’t like Clinton, aren’t dragging him out of the Oval Office in favor of an incumbent who’ll have a head start on the 2000 presidential election. I’m not behind the scenes at the White House, thank God, but maybe that’s the strategy: If a censure isn’t immediately forthcoming, on Jan. 23, when Gore becomes eligible to finish Clinton’s term and run for two on his own, this plan goes into effect. With a full pardon for both Clintons, of course.
Now, if Matt Drudge is correct, and he usually is, about the Star’s upcoming report on Clinton’s purported love child, born to an underage black Arkansas prostitute 13 years ago, the political landscape will shift once again. Allegedly, the Star has photos showing the teenager to be the spitting image of Clinton, and he wants to meet his deadbeat dad. No wonder Clinton’s the first black president. The DNA testing is being done, the boy and his family are sequestered and aides at the White House are dirtying their drawers. Shucks, I’m sure Chelsea always wanted a little brother. And just imagine what Hillary will do after this bombshell breaks. If I were the President, I’d wear an iron jockstrap to bed.
Drudge Is the Hero
On Thursday morning I hosted a panel at 8 a.m. (unlike alternative newspaper conventions, the room was packed at this early hour) that was ostensibly about letters to the editor. Laura Ingraham, cohost of the event, introduced the seminar and brought down the house with a brief joke: “It’s 10 a.m. in Hilton Head right now, and in between spiritual meetings and rounds of golf, President Clinton has promised there will be no bombings today. Pharmaceutical plants in the Third World are safe.”
I did feel somewhat out of my element in this crowd; most of the attendees were older and rabid religious-right loonies, but several elderly ladies asked for my autograph on their copies of NYPress, so there were compensations. I wondered: Once these diehards got past MUGGER and Chris Caldwell’s column and ventured into Amy Sohn-Jon Ames territory, to say nothing of the adult ads, would their opinion of NYPress take a turn for the worse?
The Wall Street Journal’s John Fund, Bill Kristol, the Chicago Tribune’s Jim Warren and Phillips Publishing’s (parent of Regnery Books) Tom Phillips were my co-panelists and they all exceeded the five-minute limit on remarks, which kind of pissed me off because I had plenty of jokes, too. Phillips said, “What was bad for the country this year was terrific for Eagle Publishing. We had seven bestsellers. In fact, we’re now shrink-wrapping a Bill Clinton sixpack to sell.” And Warren, as is his trademark for his ubiquitous tv appearances, made a wry joke before going into a semiliberal spiel: “I’ll try to make this mercifully short after those thinly veiled commercials for Regnery Books and The Weekly Standard. I find letters to the editors boring; I don’t read them or the editorials, so I’ll go on to another topic.” As usual, he was pretty funny, although he did get a little flinty when I reminded him that he once claimed he would never appear on tv on the talking head shows. “I never said that,” he protested. “Sorry,” I laughed, “I was mixing you up with Eric Alterman.” Warren didn’t think that was funny either, but we shook hands anyway.
Before the q&a session, I reminded the audience that Larry Flynt was in league with the White House, that Maxine Waters should go live in a country where there are real coups and stay there, and that Trent Lott, given a shove by the eloquent Lindsey Graham, might still do the right thing and make sure the impeachment trial in the Senate lasts more than two weeks. Preaching to the converted, of course, but it’s not like I could get away with this commentary on the Upper West Side.
Matt Drudge was the keynote speaker at lunch on Thursday and of course was a complete hit, with applause lines (real ones) coming more frequently than at Clinton’s State of the Union address last year. He’s the man of the moment, especially in this crowd, and is justifiably milking it for all it’s worth. As the assembled ate awful-looking food–iceberg salads, iced tea and pasta–Drudge fed them a healthier diet of one-liners. He said, “I see the new Gallup poll, the year-ender, about Bill Clinton being the most admired man in America. Up from last year–18 percent, as a matter of fact, three times more popular than the Pope. Hillary is third–that’s some sandwich.” Drudge chuckled and waited for the audience’s laughter to die down. He spoke of his tangles with Sidney Blumenthal, made hilarious cracks about the hypocritical Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post–”He says the Internet is all about gossip: Then why is he always trolling AOL to find some of his own?”
As an anti-Clinton soldier, Drudge spoke of the irony of operating out of his one-bedroom Hollywood apartment. “I close my blinds so that the neighbors can’t see I’m watching C-SPAN,” he joked. He played to the audience by lampooning his celebrity neighbors: “Yeah, I love the limousine liberals who drive up to a mansion, go through gate after gate and tell the driver to keep the car warm while they go inside for an environmental fundraiser.”
Drudge was a little flummoxed by a questioner who asked about accountability in the media–how could he know what he put on the Web was accurate? Drudge dodged that and asked, “Why don’t you ask CNN the same question?” Asked if he had a counterpart on the left, Drudge said no, “But there is an organization: It’s called The Washington Post.” He promised an earthshaking scoop in the next few days, which turned out to be the love child, but wouldn’t give many hints. Henry Hyde was the originally scheduled keynote speaker: “But while Hyde, with whom I’m glad to be walking on the same Earth,” Drudge said, “is working in Washington on the Senate trial, Bill Clinton is playing golf. Gives you an idea of who cares about the law in this country.”
After a late afternoon lunch with Jim and Molly Larkin at Los Dos Molinos, a consistent Phoenix New Times “Best Of” winner for burros and cheese crisps, I returned to the Biltmore for some reading and a snooze. The Weekend conventioneers were out for various activities: some went on a mountain hike, others went to a shooting range, others, I imagine, repaired to a midday church service or AA meeting. This is a strange bunch,
but I feel comfortable in most settings, whether it’s among Bible-thumpers, bankers, race track bums, barflies or jocks watching a football game on a wide-screen tv. I draw the line at smelly hippies, young or old, whose idea of hygiene is a gargle of herbal tea in the morning, but basically I’m pretty tolerant. So when I set up shop at the Biltmore’s bar on New Year’s Eve, drinking espresso and club soda while poring through The Nation, it didn’t bother me one iota that silly folks drinking blue cocktails and wearing rented tuxes surrounded me, or that the hotel’s decorations, mixed up with Christmas lights and balloons waiting to fall at midnight, weren’t exactly my idea of smart taste. My friend Michael Formica, an impeccable designer in the Village, would retch at the scene, but that’s his line of biz, not mine.
Later, around 10:30, I stopped in at the New Year’s Eve party at the Squaw Peak Terrace and had a chuckle watching these hardcore conservatives, some dressed in costume, including Drudge-like fedoras, dancing to “YMCA” and–you had to be there–a version of “The Macarena.” Personally, I think it would’ve been pretty cool if Soul Coughing landed this gig–the junketeers wouldn’t have known the difference and the irony factor would be all the more sweet–but I was underdressed in a torn leather jacket and hightop Converses, so I split after about 15 minutes. After all, I still hadn’t eaten dinner.
However, giving the Jan. 11 Nation a close read, which seemed a benevolent act of protest at The Weekend, I was struck by how long I could actually stay with the magazine. First, there was Arthur Miller, the literary equivalent of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., weighing in on the impeachment “crisis.” Miller wrote Death of a Salesman and The Crucible and was married to Marilyn Monroe, so his life hasn’t been a waste, but this gent ought to rest on his laurels and not get mixed up in politics and look like a silly old fool reliving his glory days of the 50s. Miller once wrote with distinction; now he’s reduced to parroting the lines of forgettable journalists like The Boston Globe’s Thomas Oliphant and David Nyhan, complaining that “Our Bloodless Coup” is all about sex. You’d think that Miller, who was well acquainted with real McCarthyism, would know better. Instead, he writes: “After all, can there be not one among the half-thousand members of both houses who has never lied about sex? Can we expect a confession from that one fellow, or lady perhaps, before he or she votes to destroy Bill Clinton forever? Don’t hold your breath.”
Why Clinton commands Arthur Miller’s fealty is beyond me. I assume he’s in the throes of old age and prone to silliness: It’s a shame he doesn’t have the dignity of Joe DiMaggio and just keep silent.
Another old nag in the Nation stable, no doubt considered “a national treasure” by its readers, is Calvin Trillin. I was never a fan of the self-consciously folksy Trillin, although he sure makes Kansas City barbecue sound tasty, but he’s reached the stage where he’s the Jules Feiffer of humor writers, a literary fixture who just makes you think, “Please retire, now!” Trillin’s contribution to The Nation in this issue is stupid beyond belief: “In every century, it seems,/The Constitution’s put to test/Important questions must be asked/And ours is, ‘Did he touch her breast?’”
Turn the page and Christopher Hitchens offers some relief. He recounts a story about Henry Kissinger at a cocktail party telling a Nation colleague of his that Bill Clinton “does not possess the strength of character to be a war criminal.” Hitchens carves up Nation readers and liberals alike, unmasking their hypocrisy of protesting Clinton’s impeachment while applauding his “demonstration bombing” of Iraq. How wonderful to read in The Nation a columnist calling Liz Holtzman a “woman of obvious low mentality,” who possesses an “untidy mind” and exposing the fraudulent John Conyers of Michigan as “Nixonian.”
The conclusion of his column, called “The Thief of Baghdad,” is a stunner: “So, is it thinkable that American liberals, in defending what they regard as Clinton’s own precious sexual freedom, have eagerly acquiesced in the random killing of civilians in unpopular countries? Well, they are the same morally null individuals who bleated that Judge Starr was a pornographer and who now flourish the bribed disclosures of Larry Flynt. It turns out that Clinton does possess the strength of character to be a war criminal, but preferably when it’s all about himself.”
I freely admit that I’m of the William Safire school on Iraq. Why not occupy Baghdad, knock off Saddam Hussein and get it over with before casualties quadruple in a protracted land war? All this dicking around with random bombing for political purposes is criminal. Like it or not, mine is a consistent position: It’s when liberals like Chuck Schumer, Robert Torricelli and Conyers, who vilified George Bush on Desert Storm, but weeks ago rallied around their morally bankrupt leader, are exposed that a writer like Hitchens is so valuable. Especially in The Nation.
It’s still the holiday season, so even I have a kind word or two for Katha Pollitt. Although she’s firmly in the camp that believes Clinton is being persecuted because of sex and only sex (I guess hush money and selling military technology to the Chinese government for campaign cash aren’t crimes), she did come up with a great line: “As usual, warmongering is proving to be pure political Viagra. Clinton’s ratings, already stratospheric, now rival Christ’s and Santa’s.”
And give my sweet gal Katha brownie points for honesty. Even though she calls Trent Lott a “newly outed white supremacist” because he spoke before a racist group, while excusing Clinton’s denunciation of Sister Souljah to distance himself from Jesse Jackson, a complete contradiction, she’s clear about the current constitutional “crisis.” “I’ve opposed this whole impeachment business for one reason: I don’t want the Christian crazies, antichoicers, gun lovers and racists–let alone Sam and Cokie–to have the satisfaction. I’d rather see them endlessly hoist with their own hypocritical petard by Larry Flynt, hero of the hour, whose million-dollar reward for Republican sexual scandal has already rid the stage of the maritally challenged Livingston.”
One more bit of The Nation before I let you go. And, as they might say at that magazine’s offices, it’s a downer: Yes, Eric Alterman. I’ll be brief. Besides making an egregious error in his column, saying the Republicans have a “lame-duck majority,” when in fact their control was merely reduced by the last election, Alterman whips up his readers by making bogeymen out of Tom DeLay, Bill Kristol and Robert Bork (all American heroes in my book). But Alterman, perhaps with a nudge from James Carville, veers toward hysteria at the end of his piece, writing, “Whatever one thinks of Bill Clinton, his opponents must be thwarted. They are the enemies of democracy and of the Constitution that insures its possibility. We long ago lost the luxury of choosing our allies. This is war.”
War? Against what? It’s not as if a kook like Bob Barr is running for president. Alterman has chosen the side of Bill Clinton, Carville, Sidney Blumenthal, David Kendall, Janet Reno, Terry Lenzner, Larry Flynt, John Conyers, Maxine Waters, Jerrold Nadler and Dick Gephardt. My team? George W. Bush, John Engler, George Pataki, Bob Kerrey, Michael Kelly, Steve Forbes, Alex Cockburn and Robert Bartley. What side are you on?
I woke up early on New Year’s Day, read the Arizona Republic–which took exactly three minutes–and then sprinted to the gift shop to get a copy of The New York Times. For some reason, they deliver very few editions to the Biltmore and I was lucky to purchase the last of two copies they had. Not like that was reading War and Peace either. I drank an entire pot of coffee, but for some reason fell asleep an hour later. I’m sure they gave me decaf by mistake; then again, I was lumbering through the atrocious George magazine, which contained yet another Howard Kurtz article on why the media is held in such low esteem. I swear, Kurtz is like Mark Kostabi: He must have an assembly line of interns churning out the same article, with a few different anecdotes, and then sells them further down the food chain of glossies. Coming next month, count on it, Kurtz on Clinton’s three mulligans at Hilton Head, exclusively in Details. After that, it’s on to POV, Icon (nah, they don’t pay enough), Esquire and, ultimately, Hustler.
John Kennedy’s “Editor’s Letter,” in which he heaps effusive praise on John McCain for taking on the tobacco industry, was more lame than usual. For example, in hyping Kurtz’s article, Kennedy writes: “The result is a fascinating examination of how the press has mutated into a separate constituency, with its own particular aspirations and agendas increasingly different from yours.” But not yours, Mr. Kennedy. His conclusion is a prime example of why Kennedy, or his ghostwriter, should find another line of work: “Lest you think we’ve become a little too dour, you can turn to James Carville’s presidential platform on our back page and Al Franken’s riotous piece somewhere in the middle. Because all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” I doubt that Kennedy doesn’t fit enough “play” into his schedule, but Al Franken is “riotous”?
Friday morning’s panel, “The Republican Party: What’s Ahead?” chaired by Grover Norquist, was unusually cantankerous and therefore extremely entertaining, although one of the panelists, GOP chairman Jim Nicholson, would probably beg to differ. Nicholson, who’s a shoo-in, don’t ask me why, for another term, was a snooze, professing his optimism for the party, replaying the victories of Republican governors last fall and saying that in just 15 months, when a GOP nominee is selected, the party will at last have a leader. When his soft-pedal approach was booed, he sighed and said, “I’m glad you all came here because it shows you care.”
Arianna Huffington was disgusted and made it plain to the audience, two-thirds of which hailed from California. “I don’t know why we’re having a tribute to Newt Gingrich tomorrow night here. If it wasn’t for him, Bob Dole wouldn’t have been the candidate in ’96. The Republicans have to stop being a Royalist party. The era of big government is over in rhetoric only. Look at all the handouts Bill Clinton is giving away, and no Republican will challenge him because they think they’ll be branded as mean-spirited. We have a long way to go before ‘compassionate conservatism’ becomes a reality.”
I’m not a big Arianna fan, maybe it’s the accent or plain overexposure on tv, but she was loaded for bear this morning and I’ve never been more impressed. She continued: “There are too many pollsters and focus groups in the Republican Party. Take the pledge and hang up on pollsters. We’ll only win on ideas and principles. Take Jesse Ventura. He didn’t have any polls or pollsters. Every tragic decision in the ’98 campaign was because of polls and focus groups. Just stop them!… Bob Livingston should’ve resigned a long time ago and not because he cheated on his wife. He lied to the people by not cutting spending and caving into Clinton’s budget… And who is this Denny Hastert? He’s a good old boy, a pork guy who makes you yearn for the charisma of Dick Gephardt. If you have tears to shed, shed them the first time Hastert is on Meet the Press. Jim [Nicholson] said we’ll have a leader in 15 months. That’s an eternity. We need a leader now. Denny Hastert is not a leader!”
Pat Caddell, who’s been a Democratic consultant to George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Jerry Brown and whoever else would have him, was invited just to stir up trouble, I suspect. Remember, long before James Carville was a famous consultant, Caddell was directing McGovern’s victorious ’72 drive for the Democratic nomination, drinking with Hunter Thompson, and became maybe the first celebrity man behind the scenes. He was sharp as a tack this New Year’s Day, excoriating the GOP for blowing the elections in California. The audience was with him, and glared at the stunned Nicholson as Caddell let loose: “The elections in California were thrown away. You guys had the winning hand and it ended up with Matt Fong’s mother on tv asking people to vote for her son. And this was against the weakest of candidates! I have never seen a party roll over and play dead the way the Republicans did in California. You all talk about James Carville. He’s nothing special, he’s hardly ever won an election!”
Caddell then went on to talk about Chris Cox’s congressional inquiry into the Chinese connection in the ’96 election and how missile technology was probably sold for chump change. “The ’96 campaign was the most corrupt in history. Forget the sex with Clinton. You Republicans don’t know how to pick your fights. Janet Reno is a disaster. Just because you’re weird doesn’t mean you’re independent. She should be impeached.”
Finally, as angry audience members lined up to ask questions and scorch Nicholson, one fellow said: “I’m probably the oldest person here. I voted for FDR over Alf Landon in ’36. Then I got smart and voted for Willkie in 1940.” The moderator, Norquist, broke in and quipped, “That wasn’t an improvement.”
Later, I ducked in and out of John McCain’s keynote speech, which was a bore and just confirmed to me he’s really running for a cabinet post with George W. Bush. A lot of talk about service to your country, how he’s not in it for the glory but to restore basic values, and poof, I needed another cup of coffee. I was out in the lobby, talking to a few journalist friends, and asked them what they thought of Matt Drudge’s tantalizing scoop on his website that he spoke of the day before. “Oh, you mean the love child,” one of them said, as if this were common knowledge. “Yeah, that should break soon in one of the tabloids. Clinton had a child with a black prostitute back in Arkansas, he’s a teenager now, and wants to see his father. How do you think that will play with the American public? A deadbeat dad! Yeah, that might make his popularity ratings go down.”
I came back to New York on Saturday, missing Rudy Giuliani’s breakfast speech, in which he enraged the audience by saying Clinton should be let off with a censure, and the sendoff to Gingrich, but I was just as glad to go home. I’d had a wonderful time at the Larkins’ spacious home on Friday
afternoon, inspecting Jim’s religious shrine in the back woods, looking at the weird flora and fauna and watching their three kids–Kathleen, Jack and Quinn–run around and cause mischief. Jim lit a Havana stogie and we talked for a few hours, with filets on the outdoor grill, champagne in the ice bucket, and it was a relief to be with a non-Weekend group of people. I’m for cutting taxes, putting more cops on the street and getting government the fuck out of my life: Some of the Weekend conventioneers live in a far different world from mine, and three days of it was plenty for me.