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Memories of the Reagan and Bush Administrations

“A scraping sound,” H. M. Enzensberger describes as the beginning of the end in his famous poem. The iceberg tore a jagged opening across the Titanic‘s hull, like the trail of a can opener. Not a very long or gaping breach, but just enough to ship tons of water into the engine room. As everybody knows, the biggest casualties were among the steerage passengers, huddled below decks with their bales of belongings, their infant chil­dren, and their identity papers.

Prevailing codes of civility required that women and chil­dren be placed in the lifeboats before the adult men. There are never enough lifeboats to go around; John Jacob Astor went down with the ship, along with several other bridge-playing gentlemen on A Deck. Like Enzensberger, and you, I have eidetic images of this event, jumbled with memories of Barbara Stan­wyck and Clifton Webb in A Night To Remember. There was that one cowardly million­aire in drag whose pant cuffs betrayed him in a Collapsible B as it floated away from the blazing lights of the Titanic. This individual was, I feel certain, the prototype of a kind of social criminal that flourished in Ameri­ca under Ronald Reagan, who had himself portrayed many spineless, good-fornothing playboys in films of the 1940s.

We spent a lot of time in the 1980s look­ing at TV and newspaper pictures of these arrestingly unenigmatic men. Rat-faced Elliott Abrams, lying through his teeth about Nicaragua on the 6:30 news. Grinning so­ciopath Oliver North, in full battle drag for the CNN cameras, exposing the Mafia in the White House basement while falling on his sword. Charles Keating, the Alvaric of Lincoln Savings, Dr. Mabuse hair in dire need of a rinse. The faces never stopped. Ivan Boesky. Michael Milken, Frank Lor­enzo. Whenever one of these hapless but stubbornly unrepentant glove puppets was thrown to the wolves, another was sighted in the middle distance, snapping the reins of Dracula’s carriage. The dogs bark, as Truman Capote noted in a different con­text, but the caravan moves on.

Where did they come from? It seemed that they had always been there, in one guise or another, pilot fish attached near the gills of much heavier marine life, si­phoning blood through strata of flesh and fat. Their social betters, born to rule, had swum through Phillips Andover and Yale, sometimes Choate and Princeton, though the Glove-Puppet-in-Chief, a petit bour­geois and adult child of an alcoholic, at­tended a farm college. (His Eve Harrington made Skull and Bones.) In a quieter if not more gracious time, the smaller fish would have been dashing parasites in the middle reaches of municipal banks and govern­ment agencies, brooding for years before skipping to Antigua with a bimbo and the monthly payroll. Or fourth-string advisers in Third World consulates, quietly going to seed while waiting for an Evelyn Waugh to become their Boswell.

The ’80s “empowered” such people, puff­er fish from the Heritage Foundation and the Brookings Institution who inflated every 24 hours on Nightline, icky crustaceans like Rush Limbaugh, Dinesh D’Souza, Al­lan Bloom, and Mary Matalin, weird left­over mollusks like Evans and Novak, Pod­horetz and Deeter, Henry Kissinger, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Cap Weinberger. For the millions of outsiders whose noses were pressed to the aquarium glass, the most colorful and scary fish were the bot­tom-feeders. These creatures of the cold depths ranged all across the floor of the cultural cesspool, iridescent, luminescent, compellingly stupid. Their visibility in the tank sufficed to divert attention from the increasingly cannibalistic escapades of the larger fish. Randall Terry, Phyllis Schlafly, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jesse Helms, William Dannemeyer, Richard Viguerie, Henry Kravis, Peggy Noonan, Al D’Amato: just a few of the lower phyla swirling among the grasses and weeds, aquatic ruminants emitting neurotoxins while nourish­ing themselves on fish droppings.

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I remember that in 1981 we were wor­ried about a war.

We were children of the ’50s who had cowered under desks during air raid drills, and some of us had had, through most of our lives, recurring nightmares about the hydrogen bomb. Then came Nixon and dé­tente, and Ford, who really seemed harm­less, and “the little Carter,” a man who grew peanuts for a living and clearly had no interest in blowing up the planet. At the tail end of 1979, though, all hell broke loose. The Shah was flown out of Iran, and some pious American imperative to add insult to injury caused us to bring him here. The American embassy in Tehran was seized. China resumed border skirmishes with Vietnam, which had invaded Cambodia to stop the Khmer Rouge, and the Soviet Union, being an ally of Vietnam and hav­ing already invaded Afghanistan, seemed poised to invade China. Nineteen eighty turned out to be a very nervous year, and at the end of it Ronald Reagan became president.

Ronald Reagan became president, and as he was sworn in the hostages were set free, and you did not need a congressional inves­tigation to figure out that some type of mickey mouse had occurred, some deal brokered by the dark forces that had steered Reagan through his years of selling out the Screen Actors Guild to HUAC, his stump speeches for GE, his Death Valley days, his gubernatorial terms in California. They were, it went without saying, the campfire guys from Bohemian Grove.

In the depths of the fait accompli, many of us lost all interest in politics. Some were turning into cocaine, others into heroin. Perhaps you, reading this, will say that you personally were trampling through the vin­tage where the grapes of wrath are stored, and if so, good for you, but I wasn’t.

I was interested in Mrs. Harris, who had shot the diet doctor. I was interested in Mark David Chapman, who had shot John Lennon. I was not especially interested in John W. Hinckley Jr., who shot Ronald Reagan that March, partly because he missed, and the assassination attempt somehow made Reagan more plausible, a hologram taking on ectoplasm.

At her trial, Mrs. Harris would say that under the spell of Dr. Herman Tarnower she had felt like a character in “Somerset Maugham’s Magnificent Obsession.” When it was pointed out to her that Maugham was not the author of Magnificent Obsession, Mrs. Harris claimed that it had just seemed too painful to say Of Human Bond­age. Mark David Chapman had a much-­thumbed copy of The Catcher in the Rye in his pocket as he waited in front of the Dakota for John and Yoko; like Holden Caulfield’s, his innocence had been violat­ed by “phonies,” though Holden Caulfield never shot one. Mehmet Ali Agca, who shot the pope that year, looked really, really cute in photographs. Another poor shot, though. One of the lessons of the 1960s was that only relatively useful people encounter competent assassins.

Martial law was declared in Poland. The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. My friend Cookie Mueller, always in the van­guard, began watching MTV as soon as it came on the air.

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Surrealism sifted down from the top, a sense of unreality spreading out into unex­pectedly pliable parts of what had seemed solid, immutable. The new government, the new president, exhibited an implacable nut­tiness, the kind of drollery that can’t be argued with. It would be like arguing with Lucy Ricardo. The Department of Agricul­ture announced that ketchup could be con­sidered a nutritious vegetable in school lunches. The president wanted to cut more social services and pour billions into the military, to put an end to the New Deal, Fair Deal, Great Society type of programs. Hasta la vista the compassion thing, the affirmative action thing. He fired the air traffic controllers. He dissolved the board of the Legal Services Corporation on New Year’s Eve to keep block grants from going out to advocacy groups. He cited welfare princesses in Cadillacs. He recommended tax-exempt status for schools that practiced racial discrimination.

It became evident that the new president could not talk. Or rather he could, being an actor, talk if he were reading lines, but his spontaneous verbiage never coalesced into sentences or paragraphs or even into intelli­gible non sequiturs. I suppose if you had asked him about Barbie he would have con­fused Barbie the war criminal with Barbie the fashion doll. He could not, after all, remember whether he had helped liberate the death camps in Poland, or had merely narrated a documentary about them, The soft, chewy, evasive language that had been such a remarkably damning feature of the Nixon crew’s Watergate testimony had re­turned to the penthouse level of govern­ment with a vengeance. Everything was hindsight, everyone misspoke himself, the most unequivocal statements needed to be clarified the next day, turned inside out, rendered meaningless.

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If you traveled a lot in those days, you were certain to notice this problem, this phenomenon of displaced persons, economic refugees, political refugees, people in flight, people from troubled Third World countries sweeping the streets of Germany and France, sweeping the streets and clean­ing the sewers, and it was clear that the local people, the ones who had rallied around Hitler and Marshal Petain, no champions of the melting pot, were becom­ing restive. A certain Nietzschean ressenti­ment could be detected in the daily papers of Frankfurt, Munich, Vienna, Berlin, Par­is, Lyons.

There was Strauss in Bavaria, Le Pen in Marseilles, the National Front skinheads in Manchester and Liverpool and London. Something was taking its course, probably the incurable in human nature.

U.S. unemployment hit 10.8 per cent, though it was a boom year for the stock market. The war on drugs was announced, emphasis on interdiction and mandatory sentencing. And there was this new illness going around, something whispered about in gay bars, some people called it gay can­cer and some people called it GRID, you had to look hard in the papers for it, be­cause in 1982 gay people were decidedly not news, and the deaths of gay people, whether by homicide or disease, were welcomed, not at all quietly, by the people the new government coaxed out of the wood­work: Jesus freaks, white-collar criminals who would become Jesus freaks in country­club prisons, military brass who wore Jesus on their lapels with their kooky decora­tions, abonion-clinic bombers with Jesus at their side, civil-rights opponents with a spe­cial relationship to Jesus, John Wayne.

I was spending a lot of time in Berlin. You did not hear much about the epidemic in Berlin. The disease was something peo­ple picked up in America. It was widely believed that only a certain type of person got it, a person who had too much sex, or the wrong kind of sex, or took too many drugs, or the wrong kind of drugs, and people would tell you this, sometimes, just before or just after having sex with you, or doing drugs, etc., etc.

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In 1983, a lot of people who were mak­ing a lot of money decided that if they jumped up and down every day in a health club, they would never get cancer, heart disease, or old.

In 1983, several people I knew were car­ried off by AIDS-related pneumonia.

In 1983, traveling behind the dreaded Iron Curtain, I discovered Ronald Reagan’s true constituency: Central European intellectuals and professional types who were, for the most part, immersed in politics as an all-male, heterosexual club, an arena for jousting between randy cocksmen, some armed with state power, others clad in the drag of superior moral truth and historical victimhood. They despised feminism, and indeed any systemic critique of the status quo except the concepts of anticommunism or anticapitalism. In Budapest and Prague and East Berlin, only the Jews seemed aware that the CP had kept the lid on pogroms, ethnic warfare, border clashes, etc.

It was the would-be Kundera types, the Brodsky and Milosz wannabes who had been unlucky enough to stay behind, the ones who weren’t getting that foxy tight pussy in Paris and London and New York, the chauvinists who wrote elegant and pow­erful books about repression and who yet maintained a stubbornly repressive attitude toward women, homosexuals, and quite of­ten people of other races and nationalities, who adored Ronald Reagan and his rhetorical willingness to go nuclear. The Soviet Union, they said, would only back down in the face of massive military confrontation, endless threats, endless displays of Ameri­can force around the world.

At home, polling data revealed that throughout his presidency Reagan was not an especially popular chief of state, and that the political views of most people had shifted, if anything, further left. This didn’t translate at the ballot box because more and more people stayed away from ballot boxes, perceiving no practical advantage in endorsing one or another spokesperson for the superrich and the defense industry.

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That year, Reagan announced his Star Wars vision. It had, it was said, come to him in a dream, screened through some vague memory of an army propaganda film he’d acted in during World War II: an ultrapowerful death ray, mounted on an ultrafuturistic multibillion-dollar orbiting space station full of special sensors and laser mirrors and stuff like that, could, with one press of a magic emergency button, zap intercontinental ballistic missiles in mid-­flight and turn them into butterflies. No one believed this, really, but it was an en­chanting fantasy, and Congress passed most of the money for it.

CDs hit the market for the first time.

The Cabbage Patch doll, with its cute computer-generated face, dominated the Christmas toy market. Two hundred and forty-one marines were blown to pieces in Lebanon by a kamikaze truck driver. Gre­nada, with its ominous stranglehold on the world’s nutmeg supply, was suddenly recog­nized as a threat to America’s national se­curity. An invasion was launched, resulting in the bombing of a mental hospital and the capture of four or five Cuban engineers who were rolling an airfield for the Minis­try of Tourism Eventually, 8612 medals for valor would be awarded for the Grena­da microwar. Fewer than 7000 people had participated.

The playwright slept with me for a while and then he stopped sleeping with me, which was fine, except that I missed him, not all the time, but regularly at three 1n the morning, when I had often kissed him in my sleep, or in his sleep, or wrapped my legs around his waist, or rubbed his back. or his feet, and quite often he spoke 10 me in his sleep, he called me Swee1ie. But of course, looking back on i1, he may not have been talking to me at all.

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There were wild men roaming the back hills of Idaho and Colorado, men with large, cultlike families, children with straight greasy hair who’d been yanked out of public schools to learn marksmanship at home, where a ten years’ supply of canned food was kept next to the AK-47s in the bomb shelter. They believed in skin color as the organizing principle of their particu­lar mammal clan. They believed that Ron­ald Reagan might himself be a socialist, a tool of the Trilateral Commission. or a dupe of the Kremlin. Every so often, these people shot a policeman, or clubbed an Asian to death, causing the media spotlight to settle, briefly, not on their alarming numbers, but on the special features of their delusional system. These included the concept of survival as a full-time obsession, tax revolt as a revolutionary tool, and old­-time patriarchy as the will of God. Which turned out to be not unlike the opinions aired on Crossfire, or printed in Commentary and The New Republic, except for the inside-the-beltway caveat that, of course, it was wrong to attack people, wrong to kill people one disagreed with, unless the vital economic interests of the country were at stake.

It must have been that winter that I fell, deeply and insensibly, in love with a junkie. I have always had a weak place for junkies, for semi-helpless people with Christ fixa­tions, people who believe, usually for good reasons, that they are doomed. Beautiful losers, debutantes gone awry. He could’ve done the cover of GQ without much effort, but he wanted, I think, someone with ex­travagant will to scoop him up and save him, and this is where, perhaps, Mark Da­vid Chapman’s favorite novel and I have something in common. I tried, and after he sold the entire contents of my apartment on the street, I gave up.

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At any given moment, you had an investi­gation or a set of hearings or a probe going on, often several at the same time, in the House or Senate or Justice Department or FBI, and along with these investigations, hearings, and probes, you got leaks, fol­lowed by denials, and eventually by confir­mations, followed by subpoenas and indict­ments. A chestnut from the Nixon period­ — “how much did he know, and when did he know it?” — became the favorite, irrelevant question of the White House press corps.

Language as a medium for describing re­ality underwent deconstruction. “I don’t re­call,” “I can’t remember,” “I have no recollection of that,” were considered acceptable euphemisms for “I’m not going to tell you.” If an embarrassing or litigable fact leaked, one could credibly claim to have been “out of the loop,” even if one happened to have been in the same room where the loop was.

The president was said to be a grandfa­therly type, naturally charming, genial, who never became ruffied by anything. And it was said, later, by people like Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, that these ingrati­ating qualities, added to the fact that the press was always accused of excessive liber­alism and therefore felt obliged to be more than fair, accounted for the media allowing him a free ride, never clocking his mistakes, never finding him accountable.

The principle of unaccountability was an important nuance. It signaled that the Cap­tain really was just a Spokesperson, a com­fortingly wrinkled ventriloquist’s doll. The unaccountability thing became the Wash­ington drug of choice. When the White House chief of staff’s proximity to Iran-­contra fell under scrutiny, he asked, with a note of pique, “Does a bank president know whether a bank teller is fiddling around with the books?”

It was the year of Miami Vice and Bho­pal. Daniel Ortega won a free and fair elec­tion in Managua, an election heavily monitored by representatives of the previous U.S. government. The Reagan people im­mediately declared it null and void, and for years this election was treated by New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer and in most U.S. newspapers as if it had never occurred.

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Even though I did a fair amount of cultur­al reporting in 1985, it’s hard to remember in any detail what was going on. Words like simulacra, Other with a capital O, appropri­ation, and infotainment were in high vogue. The art world had already seeped past its usual coterie boundaries when national magazines discovered the East Village Art Scene, causing a flood of suburban trust­-fund bohemians and boutiques to inundate the neighborhood, displacing thousands of working-class stiffs. Now painters and sculptors and their newly decorated country homes were turning up in People, in Archi­tectural Digest, and on Page Six, their par­ties and benefits and plans for world domi­nation reported in gossip columns.

Real estate values were pushing through the roof. The Dow Jones average finished the year at 1546, an all-time high. Buying and owning were the art world things to do. Ditto the Wall Street thing to do. Buying, owning, getting married.

“We Are the World” went platinum.

General Dynamics was indicted for con­spiracy to defraud the army. Years later, General Dynamics would opt to lay off thousands of employees rather than retool for civilian industry. Capital Cities Com­munications seized ABC. General Electric seized RCA, which controlled NBC. Laur­ence A. Tisch, owner of Lorillard tobacco, seized CBS.

A volcanic eruption in Colombia killed 23,000. An 8.1 earthquake in Mexico City killed 7000. Mob boss Paul Castellano was shot outside Sparks Steak House on East 46th Street. A hole in the ozone layer was reported by British scientists.

The president had cancer, or, as the Rea­ganese du jour had it, a little, noncancerous thing inside the president had some cancer in it. Namely his colon. A few months be­fore the little thing inside the president had cancer, the president visited an SS ceme­tery in Bitburg, Germany. He declared that the soldiers of the SS were, in their way, victims, just like the Jews in Auschwitz. Because they were all, you know, kind of inside a little thing called World War II.

Rock Hudson died of AIDS, and it was felt that his death would bring the epidemic into focus for people who had so far ignored it. Rock Hudson had been, after all, a friend of the Reagans, beloved by millions, and, in private life, by all accounts, a sweet guy. But the focus settled a bit to the side of the larger issue: on Rock Hudson’s secret gay life, Rock Hudson’s ex-lover’s lawsuit, the actual size of Rock Hudson’s estate, and on whether or not Rock Hudson should have kissed Linda Evans on Dynasty. The lesson of Rock Hudson’s death became boilerplate for every celebrity AIDS death, i.e., “even a movie star can get AIDS,” as though it were widely assumed that fame immunized a person against physical misfortune.

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The next year, we retaliated for the bomb­ing of a disco in Germany by bombing Tripoli. In the absence of hard evidence that Libyans were actually involved in the German disco bombing, the State Depart­ment assured us, as did the president him­self, that the ruler of Libya was a “mad dog,” similar to Hitler, and therefore crazy enough to lash out at a vastly superior mili­tary foe.

The Senate approved $100 million in aid to the contras, an army of mercenaries left over from Somoza days in Nicaragua, most of them drug dealers with ties to what was traditionally referred to in Pentagon circles as the “disposal problem,” i.e., the old Bay of Pigs veterans who, with backup from jailbird flotsam from the Mariel boat lift, now ran the coke business in Miami. Ever since they may or may not have helped assassinate JFK, the anti-Castro Cubans had been on one or another federal payrol — of the CIA, FBI, NSC — biding their time, with scapulars of the Virgin Mary and Batista clasped to their chests along with the gold chains and the coke spoons.

Baby Doc fled Haiti with most of the national treasury. Years later, the Bush people would open a concentration camp for Haitian refugees at Guantánamo, re­minding many Americans who’d forgotten that throughout 30 years of economic blockade, the U.S. has maintained a mili­tary base on Cuba itself.

Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos fled the Philippines with billions. The space shuttle exploded. The Chernobyl reactor exploded. A lake in Cameroon exploded, killing 1700.

William Rehnquist became chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. An­thony Scalia was confirmed as associate justice.

Mergers in the airline industry. More mergers in communications.

The Iran-contra arms-for-hostages deal was reported in a Beirut newspaper.

Swedish prime minister Olof Palme was shot on the street in Stockholm.

Unemployment fell to 6.6 per cent.

In The World Almanac’s Sixth Annual Heroes of Young America poll, Eddie Mur­phy was chosen as Young America’s “Top Hero,” followed by Ronald Reagan, Bill Cosby, Prince, Sylvester Stallone, Clint Eastwood, Debbie Allen, Michael Jordan, Madonna, Mary Lou Retton, Bruce Spring­steen, Eddie Van Halen, and Harrison Ford.

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What do you call these things, I asked the psychiatrist, where you don’t sleep with the person, but become so involved with him that the two of you behave like people in the throes of passion? You have fights, you make scenes, you spend hours gazing like cows into each other’s eyes, and even the people you are sleeping with become secondary figures in the drama, extras you go home to, members of the chorus.

Well, the psychiatrist said, I’d call it barking up the wrong tree, frankly.

Everyone was under indictment. The principle of unaccountability was part of the mandate of surrealism. Unless you were caught, preferably on videotape, with your hand in the cookie jar, what you knew and when you knew it, or what you did and how you did it, were matters of pure conjecture I and speculation. Unless someone had actu­ally seen you hurl your wife out the win­dow, or shoot her up with an overdose of insulin, the beau monde would flock to your defense, throw cocktail parties and banquets in your honor, write profiles of you in Vanity Fair.

Nobody was responsible for anything bad. And if you had, in fact, been caught doing something terrible, your entertain­ment value shot up.

Wearing a green velvet Carolina Herrera dress, Nancy Reagan presided as guest of honor at a fund-raising dinner at the Met: pasta with lobster and roast veal with calva­dos sauce. In Managua, Times journalist Stephen Kinzer valiantly continued report­ing the horrors of Sandinista land reform and free day-care centers.

There was a stock market crash in 1987. The Dow ended the year at 1938, down from 2640 on October 5. Ivan Boesky pleaded guilty to insider trading.

In 1988, Panama’s General Noriega was indicted for drug dealing by a Florida grand jury.

The largest leveraged buyout in history occurred in 1988, when RJR Nabisco, which employed 12,000 people in its tobac­co division alone. was acquired by Kohl­berg, Kravis, Roberts & Co., an investment firm with 15 dealmakers. Thanks to Willie Horton and Read My Lips, the baton of shininess passed from Ronald Reagan to George Bush.

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We had, according to the papers, partially overcome “the Vietnam syndrome,” which meant, as far as I could tell, partially forget­ting the experience of losing a war. Reagan had sounded this theme and backed it up by bombing various backwaters where actu­al battle and troop loss were unlikely, though Lebanon was a miscalculation. Ever since Vietnam, Americans had displayed the petulance and pettiness of sore losers, stoking the issue of MIAs, which involved some satanic fantasy of GIs pressed into slave labor long after the war was finished. It did not matter to anyone that the Vietnamese had over a million dead to mourn, or that their landscape was still toxic from American chemicals. In Vietnam. it is com­mon for two men or two women to hold hands while walking in the street. Here it’s an incitement to murder, and we have an active lobby on our local school boards determined 10 keep it that way.

I suppose I fixated on him because of the rotten times we were living in, with more rotten times expected ahead, and we ended up clinging to each other like two wet rags stiffened by a sudden drop in temperature. He wouldn’t make love because he was scared, and I convinced myself, you see, that having him around would be enough, and then, in a tentative frightened way, he began to open up, began getting physical, and I thought, Well, there, he loves you after all. Months passed. He became more and more open, more available, more talk­ative, more passionate, more insistent about the convolutions of his psyche, the turmoil our relationship was stirring in his soul. I thought he was coming to love me, and actually he was having a nervous breakdown.

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George Bush was not loved by the peo­ple who simply lived in the country, the faceless thousands strung out on revolving credit and bad mortgages, the people who lost their jobs when their plants packed up for Mexico, the folks who found themselves without enough insurance when the inevita­ble neoplasm rolled around. He was not loved by people with HIV infection and AIDS or the people who cared about them. He was unloved by people of color.

The press enjoyed, especially at the end, telling us that Barbara Bush was, in fact, widely admired, but I despised her chicken­wattle face and that gleeful malice in her eyes — this phony grandmother who proba­bly carried on in private like Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate, cya­nide pellets hidden in the pearls — and a lot of people fell the same way.

George Bush was not loved, because he’d had the silver spoon thing going from Day One, and that Yale Skull & Bones thing, and everything he did, to cop a phrase from Robert Wilson, was just Instant Hitler. The deals with China, the April Glaspie cables, Clarence Thomas, Iran-contra, and that ghastly massacre in Iraq. The land of hope and glory thing didn’t work on him, not really, not for long. He’d climbed on the ticket in 1980 by renouncing abortion rights and endorsing what he’d previously called voodoo economics, and rode the coattails straight into a brick wall.

Everybody knew he had no principles except Me First. He epitomized hypocrisy. He had that whale Marlin Fitzwater blubbering in the briefing room, and that other horror Margaret Tutwiler, two dead ugly people who blinked so often you knew they were pulling one over, and it won’t surprise me, you know, if they’re all under indict­ment tomorrow morning, Tutwiler, Fitz­water, Mephistopheles Baker, the whole greasy crew with their High Episcopal pre­tentions, their sycophants from Fordham, that Kristol nightmare whom they brought in to teach Quayle the alphabet, the Council on Competitiveness, and all the other no-neck monsters who went that extra mile to make ordinary people’s lives a living hell.

George Bush was not loved by the people who own the country. He was jumped-up, not in a brash oil millionaire sort of way, or a Kennedy Mafia bootleg sort of way, but in a thin, simpering, obsequious way. He whined. He was obviously vindictive and mean-spirited. He believed, you see, in no­blesse oblige in New England, but he kept a hotel room in Texas as a phony sunbelt pedigree, and that showed you he was neither fish nor fowl. He was the American Andropov, with too many ugly things on his resumé. He had to go. David Rockefel­ler endorsed Clinton.

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As I write this, Channel 17 features, at certain hours, several seriously disturbed individuals posed in front of an Israeli flag, vowing vengeance for Rabbi Kahane. They refer to Arabs as “Jew-hating cockroaches on two legs.”

There is, still, years after the 1967 war, a widely held view of Israel as a victimized and embattled state, surrounded by hostile Arabs, when, in reality, the state of Israel is a heavily armed welfare client of the U.S., actively engaged in what would be called, in a different setting, ethnic cleansing. The Israelis deport and jail people arbitrarily, engage in torture, bulldoze houses belong­ing to Palestinians.

I’ve always believed that the state of Isra­el should have been established in Lower Bavaria, to keep things secular. The state of Israel was established like this: you are sit­ting in the living room of the house your family has lived in for several generations. Strangers smash down the front door and, using their gun butts, force everyone up to the attic, declaring that they owned your house a thousand years ago, it says so in some sacred book, and anyway, some other people threw them out of the place they were living in, etc., etc. Now they want the attic, too, since you have relatives living next door that you can move in with.

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We could do the Berlin Wall, or the mi­raculous Fall of Communism. The refugee populations pouring over the old borders, the Balkanization of the Balkans, the break­up of the Soviet Union into myriad nucle­ar-ready zones, the Exxon Valdez spill, the Time-Warner merger, Tiananmen Square, HUD, the $ 166 billion price tag on the S&Ls, Mitsubishi’s acquisition of Rockefel­ler Center, Sony’s buy-up of CBS and Co­lumbia Pictures. We could do the invasion of Panama, the execution of Ceauscescu. We could do the budget deficit. We could do the trade deficit.

Or the Quayle thing, which everyone said was impeachment insurance for George Bush, but it said something else to the country at large, and what it said was, We’ve had Charlie McCarthy for eight years as Number One, and now Number Two is going to be Howdy Doody.

A theory. It was something about taking things on faith for a little while, and some­thing, in the end, about exhaustion. Since the beginning of the Cold War, American governments had misidentified the Soviet Union as the enemy of the country, when the actual adversaries of American business and its partners in the Pentagon were Japan and Western Europe.

The false enemy was forever depicted as technologically inept, incapable of manu­facturing a working light bulb, yet dangerous, because of its state-of-the-art nuclear arsenal. The real enemies were persuaded to underwrite our budget deficit, with the false understanding that their markers would never be called in.

These fables worked long enough to dump a lion’s share of 40 years of public money into research and development for General Dynamics, McDonnell Douglas, Northrop, Boeing, General Electric, and other defense contractors, who were the true welfare queens of the era. As capital was diverted into increasingly pointless products like the 8-1 bomber and Star Wars, with no reinvest­ment in civilian enterprise and infrastruc­ture, our competitors were able to outstrip us in most areas of practical benefit and con­oern to the general population.

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A theory. It was something about the por­cine lack of inhibition that the newly rich displayed while celebrating their ascendan­cy: the $1000-a-plate fundraisers, the con­stant parading of patriotic symbols, the ero­ticization of contempt. It was about the pasta with lobster and roast veal with calva­dos sauce juxtaposed with three million homeless rooting around in garbage cans for bits of food. It was George Bush com­plaining to Florida hurricane victims that his own little shack in Kennebunkport had sustained a bit of damage, too, so he knew how they felt. It was George Bush telling Katie Courie on Today that he’d testified 450 times, under oath, about Iran-contra, when he in fact had testified exactly once. It was too many dubious foreign affairs, too many tin-pot dictators transformed into mad dogs and Hitlers whenever the presi­dent’s approval rating hit a slump, too many telegenic bombings of sleepy desert capitals. It was George Bush trying to win an election with a war everyone had forgot­ten, since hardly any of our own people were killed, and the Hitler du jour, re­mained in the saddle.

The Big Lie works great when you’ve just built the autobahn and invented the Volks­wagen. It doesn’t work at all when the auto­bahn’s falling apart and no one can afford a Volkswagen.

But it worked for 12 years, and the people it worked for aren’t the types to fade quietly into outer darkness. They’ll be around, some waiting to do a few months in a resort slam­mer, others blowing bubbles in their think tanks, ruminating on family values, the evil lifestyle of homosexuals, the glories of war, the absolute sanctity of money, and the mot­to of Republicans the world over. Admit Nothing, Blame Everybody, Be Bitter. ■

Research Assistance by David Lewis 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Equality FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Health NYC ARCHIVES PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

1980-1989: A Decade of Death

An ’80s Memoir

1981

Not very tall, less thin than he looked, with the kind of stage face that’s all geometry, wild surrogate hair sometimes twisted into implausible cones resembling the spires of that Gaudi cathedral in Barcelo­na, flashy outfits knocked together from shards of purple Mylar, sequins, torn-up opera costumes: he’d appear in Mickey’s or the Mudd Club with an entourage of demented-looking freaks, install himself as a visual challenge exactly where the light was strongest. Hours later, the black lipstick and scab-colored eyeshadow creamed away, the wigs and costumes tucked in a closet, he entered the bar like a wisp, in ordinary denims and a plain khaki T-shirt, settling in the corner of one of those benches running under the windows, as if trying to merge with the burlap curtains.

His voice was a curiosity of nature, like Siamese twins. Years after he died, some­one asked if I’d ever heard of him.

It began, someone said, with a hissing sound, like Enzensberger’s famous ice­berg-thumbnail scraping across the Ti­tanic’s hull: garish rumors, talk of impos­sibly grotesque pathology, and, as always in the face of the unknown, jokes, re­counted with a modicum of nervousness, as if the efficacy of jokes in keeping things at tong’s length could not be as­sumed in this case, but only wished for, with fervor.

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1982

SUPPOSEDLY, SHE had access to realms he couldn’t reach with his own imagina­tion. We knew her only vaguely. Delicate bones, high hair, a definite way with a cigarette, muted presence that could am­plify without warning. Fey. Not shy, ex­actly. At times, cooler-than-thou. Her friends were in the music business.

The only thing he could do with her was make a movie about the pose. The look. The easiest available obsessions, transposed from a suburban Catholic girlhood. It turned out something like the George Romero vampire film set in Pitts­burgh. You felt that everyone involved with it was choking underwater, even the musicians on the soundtrack.

The film was prophetic of the later idea that having Catholic saints rattling around in your brain could figure inter­estingly in your biography. Much of it revolved around fantasies of her martyrdom.

Then she died, spectacularly and by accident, the same day the film opened. He showed up at the premiere in a hazy conflation of art and life. The event had an ugly opportunistic taint that clung to him afterwards. Even people who understood that this was, in fact, his life, did not entirely appreciate the lack of conventional sentiment.

It was said to be some phenomenon of the nether fringe, a molecular revolt bub­bling up from damp “Third World” envi­ronments, an exhaustion of the flesh by postmodern forms of mortification. The first descriptions of wounds, lesions re­fusing to heal, pedestrian ailments mush­rooming into lethal afflictions, resembled the shocking litany of saints’ impale­ments, dismemberments, self-infection with leprosy.

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1983

HE MAINTAINED A novelty jewelry com­pany out of a Tribeca loft while raising money for another movie, to be based on sadomasochist comic books published in Paris in the ’30s. I, who disliked him, was rehearsing Salomé with an actress he wanted to play “Claudine” in his movie. For reasons that remain mysterious, he contacted me and asked me to write the script.

We met twice. Once in the loft full of tacky punk mail-order paraphernalia, the second time in an apartment where she had lived, a block from my house. At the second meeting I realized that he was… well, haunted, what other word is there? Her dresses lined the open closets, her makeup was spread out before a giant round mirror on the vanity, compacts open awaiting her fingertips. The place was heavy with her scent, her aura; her presence was so emphatic that he seemed powerless and confused in the midst of it, as if he were clumsily obeying her residu­al wishes.

He had an affair, around that time, with a man in a theater group we were friendly with. It’s only worth mentioning because he and they were emphatically the “sensitive macho” types beloved by Eurotrash and Japanese fanzines devoted to “Downtown” and “Le East-Village” — anyway, then came the bowling craze.

Everyone went every night to a bowling alley on University Place to throw bowl­ing balls while wrecked on coke. About him, there was… a lot of talk. Then no talk. In the spring, a lot of talk again. Finally he just came out and told every­body, “I’ve got it.” It was still far from clear what “it” was. Four weeks later he died of pneumonia. 

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1984

I DID HIM IN THE toilet of an afterhours, then took him home. I’d desired him for months but this happened unexpectedly, in a blurry fever. I knew practically noth­ing about him. He’d been the lover of a friend of mine. He had drifted onto the scene. You’d sometimes find him sitting at your table with six other people, if you went for breakfast after the bar closed. He left town, much later he came back. I wanted him again “like anything,” as I told him in my irritating faux naïve manner of the period, but he asked me to write him a poem instead. He dropped from sight, sparking the usual true ru­mors. If you had heard that someone had been carried away by a spaceship, it would not have been different. I tried writing a poem for him, but nothing I came up with was any good.

Money fever. Jokes about Haitians. Cold city. A paradise for empty people, slickness without end, and here and there, suddenly, an unexpected person disappears following a brief, wasting illness. 

1985

HIS FORMER LOVER had the looks of a WASP in the marines, teeth so perfect they seemed false. A gossip of genius, he knew stories about all the old queens of New York literature, and had had his prong spit-shined by most of them at one time or another, too. We often nagged him to write his memoirs: what a pity if all that precious dish got lost! He had money troubles right up until the end, the end being accompanied by dementia, drastic weight loss, etc., etc.

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1986

SHE BOUNDS HOME FROM the hospital after days of hovering at his bedside. She calls: Oh, come over, I’ve got to read you something, it just started writing itself in my head! She reads what sounds like a verbatim transcript of what she’s over­heard, her soon-to-be-prizewinning story. “Well,” I tell her, “I wonder how he’ll feel about it.” “Oh, he won’t mind,” she says, “he’s a big user of people himself.” After eons of writer’s block, she’s frighteningly avid these days. It’s becoming obvious that she thinks the epidemic could put her back on the map.

He’d been a sailor in the Australian Merchant Marine for 10 years, in places like Rangoon and Singapore. Then he hooked up with a film company in Africa, met a man he adored, moved to Munich with him. He became the assistant to a famous director, who occasionally tried stealing him from the lover. They both had affairs, but nothing too serious.

He later moved back to Sydney to start a distribution company. He and the lover now commuted between continents. He turned sick in a matter of months. They brought him back to Germany. A certain friend met a doctor who operated a pri­vate clinic. The doctor had a plausible­-sounding, quack theory, that the disease was really something else, and offered treatment on an “experimental” basis.

The experiment was torture. He was not allowed painkillers and the virus had gone into his nerves. He became inconti­nent and bloody from bedsores. When they visited, they could hear his screams from the clinic parking lot. Next the friend suggested to an actress we knew that the doctor, overworked to the point of collapse, needed sex to revive his diag­nostic genius. The insanity of the situa­tion eclipsed everyone’s judgment. The actress found herself banging the doctor every day while listening to her friend’s shrieks in the adjoining room.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715684″ /]

1987

THE LOVER BLAMED himself for every­thing. “All the time he was dying,” he told me, “I was sexually obsessed with someone else, and fucking that person whenever I could, and now he has died also.”

He said there was nothing left to do but kill himself. And we both laughed. I said: Oh, there are treatments now, things are much better than before, they can do a lot. Soon they’ll be able to do more. Do you really think so? he said, and I said, Absolutely, yes. I want you to promise, if anything… develops, you’ll come here and let us take care of you. All right, he said, fine. Then he killed himself.

1988

WAITING FOR miserable acts of faith to fail, we take some sort of proprietary comfort from the fact that he is still alive. There is always something further to do, and because he’s suddenly well-off, al­ways money to investigate new medi­cines, underground treatments, experi­mental programs.

Memorials. A new way to be unhappy in a group. I visit a friend who can no longer speak. A few days later he’s dead. If you ask after people you haven’t seen for a while, be prepared. Sometimes, hor­ribly, it was like this: someone you want­ed to sleep with but didn’t got sick, and along with the horror came this ugly relief that you never fucked. Or: relief that someone who died was only a distant ac­quaintance instead of a close friend. Lat­er, none of that made any difference.

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1989

AFTER HE DIED I started to see people in the street who looked like him. Not just from behind, but sometimes the face, the hair, the style of the jacket even, and one night on 23rd Street so close to where he lived the association was automatic, I fol­lowed the person for three blocks thinking I’d catch up or get close enough to call his name and when I did snap out of it I realized it didn’t matter if someone was alive or dead because every street in the city was now full of ghosts that I couldn’t distinguish from living people.

She told me over the phone that she didn’t think she would die.

“As far as I can figure out,” she said, “there’s only one or two things — one thing, really, that could get me, and un­less it does—”

I remembered sitting behind her on a motorbike on the Amalfi Drive, both of us so drunk we could’ve driven straight off the cliffs with the tiniest flick of inat­tention. And we hadn’t, so why should this other thing be so impossibly final? Especially since we had pulled ourselves together, grown up, and had started liv­ing such responsible lives.

What I mean is, it would not surprise me if I saw her through a crowd on a busy street, with a dozen bracelets flashing on her arms, eyes shadowed in green, pink lipstick, her first words a brilliant exege­sis on the nature of cabdrivers — why shouldn’t that happen, in the city of the dead? If I tell it now, this story begins and ends in a glass of wine, in a sense, with every detail present in a single mo­ment. It’s the fate of all of us to persist in the mortal dreams of those whom we haunt. ■

NEXT…

The Celebrity Decade: The Stuff of Fluff
By Cynthia Heimel

Categories
From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

The White Issue: Memoirs of a Xenophobic Boyhood

I recently met a Southern novelist who asked me where I came from. When I told him he said, “Why, that’s as close to Tupelo, Mississippi, as you can get, isn’t it?” I loved him for saying it, since most people I meet in New York think of New Hampshire as “New England” in the generic Yankee sense of saltbox houses and Mayflower pedigrees, part of a homogenous bloc of nominally liberal states overblessed with vacation lakes and ski colonies. Contrary to this sunny leisure vision, New Hampshire has always been the slum of New England.

You would have to go back to the time of Carnegie and Morgan and J.D. Rockefeller to puzzle out the demographic of the textile belt where I grew up. When my mother’s grandparents worked in the Amoskeag and Lawrence mills, the life expectancy of a textile worker was 22 years shorter than that of a textile mill owner; there were thousands of job-related deaths every year and many thousands more job-related injuries, all of them uncompensated; children of 12 were shoved into the factories, where no laws protected them from the myriad biohazards produced by “free enterprise.” These children often died within two or three years of starting work. Thirty-six out of 100 adult workers died before the age of 25.

The towns along the New Hampshire–Massachusetts border were thickly settled by the poorest arrivals from Ellis Island, who filtered northward through the industrial plants of New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania: Greeks, Italians, Germans, Poles, Irish, Lithuanians, Portuguese. Jay Gould, the Vanderbilts, the Morgans, and the Rockefellers lured them from their European ghettos with newspaper propaganda, advertising the U.S. of A. as a gilded land of limitless opportunity — which for Gould, Vanderbilt, Morgan, and Rockefel­ler it was. The people who owned the country (including the sprawling corporation known as the U.S. Government) obtained slave labor from abroad with the poor­ tired-and-huddled-masses con, and this worked out rather more cheaply for them than actual slavery in the South had for the plantation owners, if we think in terms of investment-to-profit ratios. The suckers even paid their own passage.

My people on my mother’s side came down from Canada a decade after the Civil War, first to Augusta, Maine, where they “lived like gypsies,” according to one great­ aunt, and then to Lowell, Salisbury, Law­rence, and Haverhill in Massachusetts. The newspapers of the day, owned by the Morgan empire, encouraged huge families — with the staggering infant mortality rate and early death in the mills, many births ensured an unflagging work force — and so did the Catholic church; my maternal grandparents knocked out something like a kid a year, and though several of them died, seven made it to adulthood. My mother’s first language was French. It wasn’t until the early ’30s that the children became fluent in English.

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The pretensions of my father’s parents, who thought they were gentry because they were WASPs and had actually farmed in Vermont before moving to Lowell (where, far from working in the mills, they pub­lished an advertising register, something like a hardcover newspaper; they transport­ed this business to Coles Grove, New Hampshire, where they retired on their profits), gave me my first vague notion of class and ethnic distinctions: they might never have said so, but the Edwardses thought my mother’s tight-knit, wage-earn­ing siblings vulgarly clannish, poorly edu­cated, and, unforgivably, given to strong drink of a Saturday night — a typically Ca­nuck, RC set of defects my father had avoided with his first wife, Florence.

Though Florence had attempted, on three occasions, to stab my father to death with a pair of upholstery shears, she was pure An­glo-Saxon on both sides, like them, and had given him two perfect male children before being carted off to the asylum.

In actual fact, my father’s mother was Welsh, his father Scottish — in a distant sense, at least, products of colonialism, like my mother’s family. (That my father’s mother was half Jewish is an abiding article of faith in my mother’s family; I have never been able to verify or disprove this, but Welsh Jews are rare indeed.) It was a ques­tion of the degree of dilution, I suppose, or distance from the “mother country”: the Edwardses considered themselves “En­glish,” in a way that the Robitailles could never be, simply, French.

The ethnic suet of Coles Grove never produced anything like the racism of Tupe­lo, Mississippi, though it was similarly stocked with rednecks. There were no lynchings of Italians by Swedes, no lun­cheon-counter rebuffs to the one Jew and two Lebanese sisters who lived there, no separate water fountains and toilets for French Canadians. There were, less dra­matically, in the absence of African or Asian Americans, all manner of ethnic ste­reotypes, “discrimination” in the sense that a store owner always extended credit to a WASP but seldom to a Portuguese, and, in advance of the current prejudice against gays, phobias about “behavior” ascribed to one or another group. Sometimes these fol­lowed religious lines: the Baptists were tightfisted, the Episcopalians jumped-up, the Congregationalists too loose and concil­iatory in their affections, the Adventists smarmy and deranged at the same time, and so on. As Catholics — my mother’s side; my father and his father were atheists, his mother nominally Baptist — we were, of course, the only people who could enter the Kingdom of Heaven. It was better not to make friends with Protestant children, since they were all going to Hell or Purga­tory for eternity, and we wouldn’t see them again in the afterlife.

Did we perceive ourselves as “white”? Yes and no: the early civil rights movement scarcely penetrated our consciousness, though once it did, with TV coverage of Little Rock, it became part and parcel of the subversion perpetrated by the Red Communists. We were not encouraged in any feelings about Negroes, for or against, but their sudden visibility in the shadow play of televised world events meant that the natural order of things was being disrupted by foreigners. The anticommunist hysteria of the McCarthy era colored every waking and sleeping moment of our lives. In the ’50s, I think, racial violence in the South reinforced our sense of superiority to the white minions of the Confederacy; the North-South polarity was even invoked in the early ’60s to explain the racist Boston politician Louise Day Hicks. She was, my father explained, “shanty Irish from down there,” and therefore more ignorant, in­credible though it might seem, than the Canucks who lived in Pinardville across the railroad tracks.

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A fairly distant branch of my mother’s family (Patnaudes or Dammes, I can’t re­member which) had been involved in labor organizing, was said to be “pinkish” if not downright red, and because they lived over the border “the Massachusetts people,” with their educated airs and progressive ideas, merged with Massachusetts itself into a slick, socialist menace. In fact, we gloated over their racial problems, as if they were getting what they deserved from the Negroes, whom we had been clever enough to keep out of New Hampshire. As the bed­room suburbs of Boston spilled over into Windham and Derry and Salem in the late ’50s, people who had lived in Coles Grove since the ’20s cultivated an intense resent­ment of virtually anyone from Massachu­setts; they were coming to Coles Grove to avoid sales tax, to take advantage of the low property tax, to register their cars for at least 10 dollars less than it cost in Haverhill or Lowell. Never mind that we had moved there from Lowell ourselves a few decades earlier. That was different. True, several of my aunts, uncles, and cousins worked at the GE and Raytheon plants around Lawrence, commuting in the other direction. But the Massachusetts people, who reaped the tax advantage, expected something for nothing. They were taking over the town, voting their own people into Town Hall, burdening the local schools with their snotty brats.

While my WASP grandparents kept their own counsel and seldom expressed a politi­cal thought (they lived, my mother opined, in the previous century), the factory work­ers on my mother’s side — and my father, who at that time was part owner of a lum­ber mill — identified with Joseph McCar­thy, an obvious alcoholic with the logical prowess of a seventh grader. Beneath the masochistic niceness with which their so­cial skills began and ended, they shared his insensible xenophobia, a natural extension of their own mistrust of other families. The miserable, flailing, nihilistic rhetoric of McCarthy comfortingly resembled the drunken midnight ravings of my Uncle Norman, whose throat had been ravaged by several cancer operations; he couldn’t be fitted for false teeth, and railed incomprehensibly through his gums at things he saw on TV. Joseph McCarthy was like a member of the family, a more lovably trashy anticommunist than Herbert Philbrick, supposed communist cell infiltrator for the FBI (and a big snob, whose “I Led Three Lives” variety store was a 10-minute drive from our house).

Uncle Norman had fought the weasely Japs in the Pacific War, on horrible islands where there was no fresh water or food, and assured us time and again that “death meant nothing to them.” This was also true of the Communist Chinese, though not of the Chi­nese living on Formosa for some reason, nor was it for that matter true of Eddie Lee, who owned the junkyard that had once been the Robert Frost Homestead.

Around 1958, two books began circulating in the town; for a book to circulate, it had to be really something, like Peyton Place. None Dare Call It Treason informed us of the worldwide communist menace, virtually untouched by HUAC and the martyred Joe McCarthy, its domestic tendrils planted deep among the heathen, restive Negroes and (who else?) the Jews; Deliver Us From Evil, by Dr. Tom Dooley, described the hideous martyrdom endured by Christian missionaries in Red China and (where else?) Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

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My family was fascinated by stupidity, half convinced of its own stupidity, and abjectly complicit with stupid things that were plainly over the top. We knew perfectly well there were no missile silos planted around Exeter, but avidly phoned the local Minuteman line to hear a recording that said there were. We relished the crackpot fulminations of Captain Gay, the local head of the Masons, who passed his days regaling the Family Drug lunch counter with vivid tales of Mandingo types ravishing white ladies in shopping mall parking lots. We thrilled to Tom Dooley’s descriptions of satanic Chinese communists driving nails through the skulls of Mary­knolls. We knew better, but our own provi­sional, fraught, crawling-into-the-middle­-class status rendered our knowing better somehow questionable: did we really have the right to formulate our own opinions, when other people’s were so much stronger? We had never traveled, never seen anything except the mills, the factories, the shopping centers, the rocky landscape where you couldn’t grow a thing in bulk besides pota­toes. What the fuck did we know?

I really believe that people in Coles Grove were barely aware of themselves as “white people” until the demographic shift­ed in the late ’60s, and African Americans in small numbers, Asians in slightly larger ones, moved into the border towns. By the time they arrived, mass media had instilled a better-than-tolerant if not effusively wel­coming attitude among us. It’s hard to say, really. I never heard the word “nigger” used in my childhood, except by distant white trash relatives when they were drunk; I’m not sure that means anything more than the fact that difficult and alien subjects were considered unspeakable in my family. We were, I think, the most emotionally consti­pated family that ever existed.

True, “kike” was sometimes applied to George Cohn when he left the room, as in, “The thing I like about George is, he’s not a kike.” But I don’t think the person talking really knew what “kike” meant; it was just something excitingly off-color to say. “Chink” was considered a natural, rather than derisory, description of Eddie Lee, whom we liked because he always bought my brother’s secondhand cars after he totaled them.

We were only white when somebody wasn’t, European only in the presence of non-Europeans, Northern in contrast to Mediterraneans. But I suppose that’s the white thing: never having to define what you are, while other people scramble to define themselves in relationship to you. Yet whites among themselves (and blacks among themselves, Asians ditto, etc.) in­variably find something besides race to de­test in each other, ethnicity or sexual pref­erence or whatever. I am convinced that my mother’s horror over my first sexual passion, for a Portuguese friend of my brother’s named Eugene Dutra, had almost as much to do with his class and nationality as with my being queer. The Dutras had an old Ford up on cinder blocks in their front yard, they lived on the bad side of the railroad tracks, and Eugene was… well, a dangerously sexual presence, a fact regis­tered by everybody but mentioned by no one (except me, in what I thought was my private diary). He looked different and that made him sexy, and suspect.

We were a timorous and gentle family, as a matter of fact, and we were taught not to hate anybody. At the same time, there were people it was better not to trust, people we and our parents and our grandparents had been fed half-developed, silly notions about, and these notions accounted, basically, for everyone on earth outside our family. A sense of deep inferiority had been bred into us as part of the immigrant expe­rience, and we were hardly pushy about our whiteness: there was no one around to be pushy about it with, for one thing. And for another, the town was owned by people named Adams and Newell and Shepard, had been owned by them since 1721. There wasn’t a chance in hell that Quebec gypsies and dirt farmers from Brattleboro would ever be as white as they were. ■

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Total Recall

Clive James is the quintessential critic at large, what someone who delves into many subjects used to be called. James has written memoirs, novels, books of poetry, and much nonfiction. He is familiar to the British public as the host of television shows—pop-music shows, talk shows, travelogues. Chat’s his game, and when his pen hits paper, call him Deep Chat.

James, like the barely remembered bon vivant and raconteur Peter Ustinov, is a conventionally but ingratiatingly pompous stereotype of the provincial arriviste set loose in the glittering capital, someone who knows at least a little about most things and a lot about many. The topographical range of his erudition is often more formidable than its depth, but his prose, like his TV work, is lively, nimble, and stylish.

I fully agree with some introductory statements in James’s latest book, Cultural Amnesia: “It has always been part of the definition of humanism that true learning has no end in view except its own furtherance,” for example. James intends his book as a step toward producing a fresh crop of humanists. I’ll leave aside the question of whether this is, without qualification, a desirable goal. James uses the least appealing method of pedagogy, in any case, to reach it: the worship of proper names, which function as stop signs to independent thought. James’s book even presents his very significant names in alphabetical sequence. Their owners are not all currently famous, but reviving the obscure isn’t going to put any glacial shelf back together on your North Pole. James’s rescue effort on behalf of a civilization that has already collapsed is, to paraphrase the artist Jenny Holzer, beautiful but stupid.

James’s potted lives are sincere attempts to convey ideas that shaped this civilization, but perhaps the snap, crackle, and pop approach instilled by a career in television accounts for his habit of miniaturizing figures he disagrees with and hyperinflating his personal heroes. James can expound his subjects’ accomplishments without oversimplification; what he can’t do, apparently, is interrogate his own broad assumptions and prejudices.

When he wishes to denigrate a writer, artist, philosopher, or what have you, he refuses them any quarter; he writes more positive things about Hitler than he does about Celine. That someone can be a shit in private and one of the world’s most formidable writers, concert pianists, philosophers, or anything else in public is one of the many contradictions we have to live with, hold the humanism on that BLT.

One of James’s most firmly held and shakiest convictions is reflected in his mantra-like invocation of “liberal democracy” as the ideal arrangement of life on earth, which he conjoins—correctly, in fact—with free-market capitalism. As Marcuse pointed out, there is such a thing as totalitarian democracy, and to quote an old detergent commercial, “You’re soaking in it.”

Clive James is perfectly entitled to his personal bêtes noires, foremostly Jean-Paul Sartre, and could make a persuasive argument against many of Sartre’s less inspired efforts on and off the printed page without foaming at the mouth, if his mental teeth weren’t determined to tear out Sartre’s jugular vein. But they are. Sartre wins pride of place as James’s Satan incarnate. His loathing of one of 20th-century France’s indispensable minds spills out all over the place, like a trail of candlewax dripped across essays that have nothing to do with Sartre. The swipes and insults thicken into such obsessive preposterousness that when and if the reader gets as far as the “S’s” and the formal grand jury indictment of Sartre, James’s bilious “reflections” sound like a drunken sailor pounding the bar with his fist for attention.

All right, he hates Sartre. Be my guest. But if part of James’s project is to “destroy” people he considers malignant or less wonderful than other people think, as the jacket of this book asseverates, he should, at least, hire a fact-checker. It really is inexcusable to reproach the writer Karl Kraus for failing to raise his voice against Hitler’s onrushing Anschluss with Austria, if only because this event occurred in 1938. Kraus died in 1936.

I suppose if you take on the burden of saving civilization, you’re inevitably going to get some things wrong. Probably the first and largest mistake is to suppose yourself capable of saving a civilization after it has already regressed to barbarism. One can exhume parts of a dead civilization, and hope that the essential knowledge it produced isn’t lost forever. That the necessary tools for constructing a civilization can be permanently forgotten was one of Hannah Arendt’s most chilling insights. The value of retrieving what can vanish forever, though, doesn’t consist of knowing the name of its original discoverer—it’s a nice thing if that happens, I suppose, but it isn’t the important thing. Slobbering over images and the names attached to them is one of the things that’s taken us to where we are today.

Despite its highbrow-for-middlebrows exposition of other people’s work and personalities, abrupt flights of shabby moralizing over trivia, and conspicuous impertinences, Cultural Amnesia is, for much of its 800-some pages, “a good read,” and it may actually gain something from its author having his head in the clouds and his feet in the toilet. Hard to say, however, which is really worse: cultural amnesia or cultural dyslexia.

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The Devil You Know, The Devil You Don’t

The Andre Gide epigraph of The Deer Park would serve Norman Mailer’s new novel, The Castle in the Forest, equally well: “Do not understand me too quickly.”

Any novel about Hitler, or, for that matter, any other world-historical figure, is doomed to banality unless it mints a counter-myth. Beryl Bainbridge did the twentyish Hitler to a riotous turn in Young Adolf, Gore Vidal gave us a fat-assed, fatuous Jesus in Live From Golgotha. Mailer novelizes Hitler with Dreiserian heaviness, but that’s not necessarily a flaw. Only punitively narrow literary tastes would deny the felicities of Dreiser’s, or Mailer’s, exasperating but rewarding slow-motion prose.

To reveal that the narrator of The Castle in the Forest is a minion of Satan, possibly a minion of a minion, is a necessary spoiler. “D.T.” introduces himself as an SS intelligence officer, whose terrestrial commander, Himmler, wants to clarify whether Hitler’s bloodline contains any taint of Judaism. D.T.’s report to us is much fuller than what he gives Himmler. On the supernatural plane, D.T.’s memoir-writing is an act of secret defiance.

After little Adolf makes his appearance in this saga of three incest-peppered generations of Hitlers, his every poop and tantrum portends cheap and easy answers. This book draws its power by short-circuiting expectations of sensationalized clichés. Hitler’s story has been given many shapes by many writers, but his psyche is usually shrunk to an oversimplified Freudian contraption. Mailer eschews the carpet-chewing madman perverted by frustrated artistic ambitions, bitterness over the Versailles Treaty, and pee-on-me sexual fixations.

Mailer’s Hitler doesn’t need excessive egging on from hell to embrace his wretched inner nature and dissemble his lunatic hatefulness as patriotic fervor. He becomes a political genius by absorbing other people’s fanaticism and masterfully projecting it, without the slightest belief in what comes out of his mouth. He turns his own spells of bad luck into heroic excuses for ugly feelings, and lets revenge go cold as a Popsicle before sucking it down to the stick. He has some expedient use for everything, like a good chef or a bad contractor.

Mailer, shrewdly, deflects the reader’s prurient impatience to get to the Third Reich: That impatience conspires with notions of Hitler the Utterly Inexplicable that Mailer rejects. He enjoins us not to read too much into Adolf’s first glimpse of a swastika, or the gassing of one of his father’s bee colonies. If Hitler were that simple to explain, he probably would have passed his span of years working in a post office.

Castle achieves luminosity by not
making Adolf Hitler an all-consuming presence. He is, at times, nothing more than the dreary rug rat in a family with more important problems to deal with, and although he is the designated “client” of his guardian demon, even the latter is slow to understand why such unpromising material would have crucial importance for the invisible-powers-that-be.

The spirit world Mailer invokes has angels and devils wrestling for human souls, exerting a limited but important influence. These metaphysical rope-pulls are rendered lightly enough that whether one reads them as metaphors or a Miltonian bent in Mailer’s ambition, they add jovial mischievousness to the novel’s unrelenting excrementalism. Castle is literally full of shit, being very much of the earth and those who till and toil in its realms of fructifying manure.

Adolf isn’t D.T.’s only client. When his satanic boss decides little Adolph is reliably developing into a twisted little fuck, D.T. is temporarily whisked away to hang around Moscow during Nicholas II’s coronation, and for eight months of its aftermath. The narrator advises impatient readers to skip the Russian part, but it’s the pivotal segue from an ambitious novel into a resplendent one. What D.T. witnesses foretells the murder of the Romanovs and the ascendancy of Bolshevism, Big Hitler’s ideological nemesis and Nazism’s moral twin.

Castle tightly focuses on questions Mailer knows are unanswerable, but the only ones ultimately worth asking. When D.T. resumes surveilling Adolf, it’s clear that Mailer’s tagging the lethal threads that made the 20th century humanity’s ugliest tapestry. (When the Second War concludes, hell’s angels are informed that their operations are moving to the United States. Texas, anyone?)

Back in Bavaria, Hitler’s father, retired Customs inspector and failed potato farmer, dreams of a honey empire, learning the apiary art from a cranky maestro called Der Alte. Adolf’s older brother, Alois Jr., gets some vivid stage time, first by popping in on Der Alte for an occasional blowjob, later incinerating Dad’s apiary as a parting “fuck you.” Big sister Angela marries a priggish loser; D.T. makes passing note of Adolf’s single passionate affair, with Geli Raubal—Angela’s daughter, who shot herself in Hitler’s Munich apartment in 1930.

The ardors Alois Sr. expends on beekeeping and their abrupt finish recalls Harlot’s Ghost‘s opening chapter, in which an island estate is metaphorically assembled with infinite precision and care, brick by board, then burnt to ruin in a heartbeat during a CIA melee. It’s a formidable example of what literature can do, which can justly be said of Harlot’s Ghost in its entirety, and of most Mailer’s novels, however ill-conceived a few of his books have been.

Mailer’s prose can turn gnarly on a dime; his humor is often labored. At the same time, he can poke a hole through almost any human head, shine a flashlight inside, and tell you exactly what’s in there.

Mailer accomplishes the counter-myth. Hitler is not a monster: Monsters aren’t human, and hence aren’t responsible for inhuman behavior. Mailer accepts this without letting Adolf off the hook. Nor does he neglect to acknowledge what is terra incognita. Everything in Hitler’s life that Castle paints for us resonates with the sour music of chance, the Manichean flexibility of human will, and the mystery embedded in every creature.

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West of Eden

You could infer from the production notes that Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain would be useful if it came in a spray can: Spritz a little on a fundamentalist and change him into a liberal, or neutralize a whole church basement of rednecks with a full blast.

This film is inflected to instill something akin to high moral dudgeon. Its depiction of ordinary Americans trapped in loveless marriages and dead-end jobs, its laconic naturalism, and the . . . well, natural way its two male protagonists find themselves, one drunken night on the mountain, riding bareback in a sleeping bag, build an industrial-strength case for breaking the mold, following your heart, and Daring To Be Different. How can anyone find happiness otherwise? On the other hand, the film makes the explicit point that deviating just a tad from the norm will probably lead you to a brutally violent end at the hands of your neighbors. But maybe if they saw this movie . . . ?

The “problem film” often equates sexual excitement with “love,” and often ends with the reconciled lovers implicitly living happily ever after—not the case here, but probably never the case when sex is the only real adhesive between two people, anyway. Even so, Brokeback Mountain (opening December 9) suggests that the opposite could be true, if only other people could respect all kinds of love, not just the kind they imagine they themselves enjoy.

One summer of love leaves cowpokes Ennis and Jack in an insoluble quandary. Seasonal workers, they’re soon divided by a lot of wide-open space, marriages, families, and in Ennis’s case, guilt and ambivalence. Probably the best thing about Brokeback Mountain is its portraiture of grim, idiotic family gatherings where brewing antagonisms explode into open hostility, and shit-kicker country barrooms full of squat, ugly men with stringy beards itching for a brawl: the whole nine yards of ghoulish Americana, for which the film rather perversely demands an overgenerous degree of sympathy. It’s important, as actors like to tell us in interviews, for even the nastiest or most vapid characters to have something “human” about them, something—why not say it?—lovable. Because let’s face it, in the end, you’ve really got to love everybody.

Four years after the first taste of carnal knowledge, Jack’s reappearance rekindles Ennis’s kundalini into a veritable bonfire, followed by 20 years of sporadic “fishing trips” where they restage that ever receding time up on Brokeback Mountain. Ennis divorces. Jack, the less inhibited and more insatiable of the two, makes furtive excursions to Mexico when his Uranian urges overpower him in Ennis’s absence.

What Ennis and Jack both refer to as “this thing,” established early, is more or less the same thing that glued Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman together in Magnificent Obsession, yet separated them in All That Heaven Allows—a socially inappropriate love, rendered acceptable in the former movie by Rock Hudson’s dedication and skills as an eye surgeon, but made impossible in the latter by his low station as a gardener. Needless to say, “this thing” activates Neanderthal reactions in the rowdy cultural backwaters of the film, necessitating a tragic conclusion with calculated echoes of the Matthew Shepard murder.

The case has already been made by some critics that Ang Lee’s is the first “mainstream” movie with “A-list stars” to deal with a gay male relationship—a weird assertion, given how narrowly “mainstream” would have to be defined for this to be true, and how small the theater audience for mainstream films, however you define them, has become, and how wholly dependent on DVD sales and rentals this putative mainstream currently is. (As far as that goes, Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, remarkable as they are as Jack and Ennis, respectively, have been “A-list” stars for about six months, which isn’t the same thing as being Barbra Streisand or Warren Beatty.)

I’m not sure what this type of claim is supposed to signify—that Hollywood is on the cutting edge of social progress? That every other movie on this subject has been merely a “festival film” or in some other way unimportant compared to one with saturation booking in a thousand multiplexes? Or could it mean that we prefer to think we’re making progress when the clock is running backwards?

Consider Brokeback Mountain‘s overt pandering to Rousseauian notions of the American West and its insularity, the toughness and self-sufficiency of its tight-lipped, xenophobic denizens, its rituals of faith and patriotism. You could say that simply depicting this hillbilly heaven accurately is itself an unsettling criticism, yet the effect, again, is to make it seem, in many ways, admirable—its unflagging work ethic, its quasi-mystical connection to harvest, soil, livestock, and weather.

Just as Capote’s eastern Kansans referred to western Kansas as “out there,” Brokeback Mountain‘s characters seem to shun the wider world as “out there.” No one ever refers to the large events of the day, or to places outside his or her immediate ken. Between 1963 and somewhere in the early 1980s, the only evidence of a realm beyond the rodeo circuit and the ranch is the cathode eye in the living room, the slowly mutating look of motor vehicles and supermarket wares, and an occasional reference to the state of the economy.


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In effect, two decades of history produce no important effects in the communities and individuals under scrutiny. Attitudes and opinions remain obstinately immobile, without any help from televangelists or Phyllis Schlafly. Even TV, which replaced verbalization in so many American homes during the period spanned, can only emit meaningless images to people who have nothing to say to each other in the first place.

This is depressingly credible. Tight-knit communities, like tight-knit families, manage to stay tight by deflecting any strong sense of connection with larger social configurations—”America,” to this mindset, is, or ought to be, a country whose norms are indistinguishable from their own, ergo not such a big place after all.

The insular quality of American life reinforces a stubborn naïveté about sexual matters that’s been part of our national character from the outset. The hermetic communities pictured in Brokeback Mountain illustrate sociologist Kai T. Erikson’s findings in Wayward Puritans (1966)—that American communities have always defined themselves in terms of who doesn’t belong in them. The deviant, whether religious, political, or sexual, has always needed to be identified from among the existing population, then exterminated or expelled. The expunged have tended to found their own little territories, which in turn establish their identities by driving out the unorthodox—who have to be invented if they don’t already exist. (Slaves, of course, were imported, and assigned a negative status as legitimate inhabitants.) From the days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to the present, American exceptionalism begins on the microcosmic level. In this respect, Brokeback Mountain is a pungent slice of an essentially unchanging reality.

What seems less real, despite the months that separate each of Jack and Ennis’s reunions, is the unfailing high voltage of their sexual connection. It’s not implausible for two people who love each other to continue for 20 or even 60 years to love each other. But it’s rare for people to stay sexually interested in someone they love for much longer than two years. If things were otherwise, the world’s oldest profession would probably be arms dealing.

On this point, denial mechanisms become mobilized in defense of institutionalized couplehood, not only by liturgical types but their surrogates in Congress, manifested in submental decrees like the Defense of Marriage Act. One wonders if marriage needs defending, or ought to be more lucidly understood as a property arrangement, which any two individuals should be able to enter as a legally binding thing.

The relatively recent repackaging of homosexuality as an arrangement of committed couples takes the arrangements of heterosexuals for granted as an ideal. “We love just like you, and have families just like you,” the argument runs. Yes and no. Not everyone wants to be in a family, or a “relationship,” or any kind of marriage, and not everyone wants to love whomever he or she happens to be having sex with. It’s often easier to do things you enjoy with somebody you merely like, or don’t know.

As the brilliant author of Our Lady of the Assassins, Fernando Vallejo, says in Luis Ospina’s documentary The Supreme Uneasiness, “Sex is innocent, no matter who or what it’s with. Reproduction is another matter. In animals it’s blind. For the majority of mankind, even now, it is still blind. People reproduce blindly because they relate the two things.” Even Jack and Ennis, who know they don’t want any such thing, blindly father children as if it were an uncontrollable biological imperative. It isn’t. In fact, you could well argue that homosexuality ought to be encouraged over procreative sex. The world has too many babies being born for no good reason. (And Vallejo is perfectly correct in saying that it’s stupid to defend the huge families engendered by parents too poor to take care of themselves, let alone their offspring. If they don’t know any better, teach them.)

“Love,” an opaque if many splendored quantity, isn’t much of an antidote to the kind of ignorant attitudes movies like Brokeback Mountain seem determined to change. Some people are just shits, as the wise old drag queen told William Burroughs. The more pointlessly fecund our species, the more shits we are likely to have.

Propaganda on behalf of gay couplehood, even intelligent and well-made propaganda, invariably addresses the social question with
a defense of “love.” “Everybody has a right to love,” “if you have love, you should hold on to it,” and “a pure and beautiful love story” are a few quotes plucked at random from Brokeback Mountain‘s press kit.

[

Yet love, in this context, is little more than a euphemism for sex—Ennis and Jack never do shack up in the little ranch Jack dreams about them playing house in, hence never experience the downside of cohabitation; this seems like too much love for too little content. And there’s too little sex to make a good argument for needing it eternally from the same person, given that there’s one fairly explicit rear entry and otherwise as much steam as Peter Finch’s smooch with Murray Head in Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971).

As for the idea of Brokeback Mountain as a reinvention of the western genre, Andy Warhol went much, much further with Lonesome Cowboys back in 1968. Heath Ledger, who plays Ennis, gives the most revealing read on Brokeback Mountain: “I find there’s not a lot of mystery left in stories between guys and girls. It’s all been done or seen before.” The truth is, there’s not much mystery left in stories of this kind anyway, no matter who’s riding high in the saddle.

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Northern Exposures:

February 18, 1992

FUNNY MR. BILL

Sixteen and time to pay off i get this job in a piss factory inspecting pipe. forty hours thirty-six dollars a week but it’s a paycheck, jack. -Patti Smith


Up close, Bill Clinton looks like he’s covered in fresh fetal tissue. His skin is virtually poreless. The high, ample hair (a premium commodity in this race of semi-skinheads), the trim, pneumatic body, the tasteful but not unduly elegant suit, everything has been processed into movie star perfection. He could be a retired sports figure like Bruce Jenner, endorsing a home treadmill. Something in the grooming suggests one of those miniature species bred to win show ribbons, a Shetland pony or toy terrier.

Here amid the authentic wood-grain paneling of the Henry J. Sweeney American Legion Post #2 on Maple Street, in Manchester, a large and not unduly elegant crowd of Clinton people has wedged itself between the floor-level microphone and the cash bar. Someone, I’m not sure who, introduces Legion Post Commander Tom Murphy, “who is gonna do the pleasure of introducing Governor Clinton.”

The locutions are pure Main Street New Hampshire. Regarding the candidate, Murphy says, “I have read much of what he stands for and espouses to.” “It’s my distinguished pleasure to honor and introduce to you”—and perhaps he really does say—”the next president of the United States,” though the ante here is simply getting the numbers back to where they were before Gennifer Flowers. The will to believe is palpable in the room, if hardly overwhelming. There’s a certain mild electric tension skimming off the synthetic fabrics and plastic cocktail glasses, roughly the voltage of the joy buzzer.

This is a grown-up crowd. There are infants and small kids and grandmothered swaddled in bright ski parkas and knitted beanies, but the main energy emits from men and women of a certain age who buy their clothes out of state and are no strangers to the cash bar of Henry J. Sweeney American Legion Post #2. I mean that, as Nixon would say, in the best sense of cash bar. Here you have your conservative machine Democrats (what used to be called savings and loan Democrats), mingling with plumbing contractors and Goodyear franchise managers and district assemby-persons, the types that strike all sorts of sweet little deals in places like this on a normal weekday, many 100 per cent behind the candidate but ready to switch horses if the numbers today and tomorrow and next week don’t play out as expected.

Clinton doesn’t wait on too much fanfare. This is an earnest, flesh-pressing, I’m-not-there-yet-and-I-need-each-and-every-one-of-you speech. The point of the exercise is to find a credible way of projecting “concern” that these people are “hurting” Bush’s euphemism for broke. What’s Clinton’s campaign all about? Three words: “fairness, responsibilitiy, and unity.” Where do Republicans make their mistake? Well, for one thing, “most poor people get up in the morning and work” and therefore deserve government help. But let’s not slip into socialism. This guy wants “to make more millionaires than Reagan and Bush, but the old-fashioned way.” Empower those local governments. Crack down on corporations moving jobs out of the country. And let’s have boot camps, military style, for some of our less hardened, first-time-felony criminals. While we’re at it, let’s enforce child support.

The platitudinous verbal droppings, more like noises one makes to stimular horses than actual thoughts, also resemble bromides from a soothing commercial for Preparation H: the proctologist, on close examination, has ruled against radical surgery in favor of something smooth and greasy and easy to dissolve in the collective rectum. In case anybody thought he was some woolly-haired tax-and-spend liberal, Funny Mister Bill throws in enough hard talk about welfare recipients and crime to make you forget he’s a Democrat. For this particular crowd, he’s already demonstrated his Americanism by letting a lobotomized Death Row inmate go to his end by lethal injection—one of the three hideously bungled, “painless” executions the same week in America. And if a fair number of conservatives, even New Hampshire conservatives, wince at the stark realtities of capital punishment, quite a few think it ought to be as painful as possible.

If Clinton cares jackshit about anything besides getting elected, it doesn’t show on that eerily symmetrical face, a visage of pure incipience: soon-to-be-jowly and exophthalmic, a fraction past really sexy, but warmingly cocky, clear-eyed, with an honorary, twinkling pinch of humility. The accent has just enough grain, enough slow roll in it for people to recognize Good Old Boy with decent values and bootstraps pulled all the way up. His ideas are so lacking in genuine nuance or arresting detail that he might very well pass, if not now then later, as the statistically ideal mediocrity New Hampshire often favors, when it isn’t workshipping some pathologically unpleasant, penny-ante fixer like John Sununu. Apart from bland-as-buckwheat officials with no fixed opinions on anything, the Granite State likes pissy, preening patently empty wastebaskets a’ la Sununu to push its citizens around from time to time, exploiting them in sadistically unprofitable ways.

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There is real social masochism in New Hampshire among the blue-collar immigrant stock of the southland. (“Southland” is my own term for south of Concord, east of Keane, not a New Hampshire term.) Those for whom “Live Free or Die” havs traditionally meant dropping out of 10
th grade and heading straight for Klev Bros. and Jody shoe shops, Raytheon, or the mills, feel such depths of cultural inferiority that truly abusive public figures often resonate more winningly with them than reformers and do-gooders. And that’s the target constituency, despite today’s preponderance of the class three notches above trash. New Hamshirites respect cunning over noble intentions. The Bavarians of New England have never cottoned to obligatory self-improvement or any too-reachy sense of community, since these concepts involve sales tax and the dreaded welfare, which would bring hordes of shiftless coloreds swarming over the border from Massachusetts. New Hampshire makes its money on state liquor stores and highway tolls. Not coincidentally, the state has ranked, for decades, 50th in the nation in support of higher education.

Aside from the daily dose of social Darwinism provided by the Manchester Union Leader, New Hampshire’s only statewide daily newspaper, the paradigm of Ignorance in defense of intolerance is no vice has been held in place for decades by the Catholic Church, though the south is full of Catholics who stopped attending mass after Vatican II, when the transubstantial rites of cannibalism switched from Latin to English. (One woman in Derry told me the secularization of the mass was an egregious example of “coddling the young,” like the local Rock the Vote registration drive, which unsuccessfully tried to force the Supervisor of the Checklist to register students at the local high school instead of at the town hall. When the Democratic candidates moan about “the first generation of Americans to do worse than their parents,” they’re waving a blank rhetorical flag. Among working-class parents in this neck of the woods, what was good enough for them is good enough for their brats, and if their brats do a little worse, boo hoo.)

Resentment is running high at the Henry J. Sweeney American Legion Post #2. One woman in a beige parka steps up to the microphone to denounce the State of the Union address, specifically the Marie Antoinette capital gains passage about Puritans lying awake at night, obsessed with the idea that somebody somewhere might be having a good time. (Our Halcion-sedated chief executive should’ve recognized Peggy Noonan’s winsome hen tracks as relics of the good old days, when people without trust funds didn’t realize they were “hurting.”)

It takes a member of the press corps, the
Voice‘s Alisa Solomon, to mention the A-word: for this bunch, apparently, “health care” doesn’t necessarily extend to the politically charged issue of AIDS. Or perhaps it does, but they’d really rather not discuss it. Clinton exudes a pat, uninterested answer about more money for research et cetera, adding that “President Bush has only mentioned the word AIDS about three times since he’s been president,” Alisa later notes that this is the first time Clinton has mentioned it at all.


CALIBAN

She’s real Catholic, see. she fingers her cross and says there’s one reason…you do it my way or I push your face in. We knee you in the john if you don’t get off your mustang, sally. – Patti Smith


The Buchanan crowd is something else again. The palace Theatre, a porn movie house throughout my teens and later boarded up like most Manchester businesses off Elm Street, has reopened as a legitimate theater. And a grand-looking place it is, with raked seats and ormulu sconces and delicate chandeliers, like a vintage Keith Circuit vaudeville hall.

There is one black man in the cream white audience, wearing a tight black suit, applauding feverishly, a true believer who will gladly salt himself when they throw him into the stew pot, as long as he can be the last one in. Onstage, former Manchester mayor Bob Shaw lectures us about “a little tea party we threw down in Boston a few years ago,: flanked by another local hack, the city chairman of Buchanan for President. While the candidate speaks, these two mavens perch on folding chairs nearby, in badly tailored gray suits, one porcine gangling, and rabid looking, the other scrunched up like some demented antique dealer with dreams of world domination, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, cackling and stomping their feet. A tableau of jolly idiocy. Potent ecstasy from the audience of functional dipsomaniacs and blue rinse jobs with ropes of synthetic pearls and minks women circa 1970. LaRouche defectors, Chamber of Commerce ghouls, and assorted bits of space debris. An extremely fat man with inflamed pimples rocks in his seat behind me, muttering “Right on!” every time Pat scores some soaring polemical eureka.

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The thrust of The Speech is that America has to be Number One. Not simply Number One in standard of living and capitalization and investments and technology and aircraft construction and care sales, but Number One in unbridled odiousness. The tautological form of the Speech presents a self-evident case that the U.S. is not simply part of the world, but superior to everything in it. Like anyone else from Rockinghand and Hillsborough counties, I am able to instantly translate The Speech from its slightly euphemistic idioms into plain English:

We must show these sordid fuckers, the Japs, that we are better than they are because, goddam it, we’re Americans, We’re white, we’re the greatest nation the world has ever known, and we invented everything. Flat screens and chips and VCRs and semiconductors and the Waring blender. And it’s all being taken away from us by a bunch of satanic Nips and totalitarian wetbacks who’ve titled the playing field by Christ a level playing isn’t the point anyway, we’ve got to win!

The Europeans—whose gene stock, granted, is the only one worth preserving, are evilly attempting to wrest Boeing and Burger King from America’s grasp. Race filth from Taiwan is gobbling up McDonnell Douglas. My god, the bastards will be seizing control of Disneyland unless this belligerent turd at the podium with his socks falling down isn’t listened to, and then the residents of Manchester, New Hampshire can kiss the eternal glory of being an American goodbye. Poor little Mickey Mouse is gonna wind up a squalid, syphilitic frog, or a sex-crazed wop, or a stinking guinea, or a bloody wog, or, god help the little rodent, a flaming African jigaboo.

“I’ve heard about parts of New Hampshire emptying out, the way you used to read about it in the Dust Bowl…eight years of Reagan, whatever good things he did have been wiped out in these three years…the World Bank in the last three years has given $3.5 billion dollars to communist China…at zero interest…those loans are guaranteed by you…the Export Import Bank is helping American businesses locate a new paper mill in Mexico…has anybody been up to the James River Paper Mill in Berlin? I was up there yesterday…they’re holding on…they don’t know what’s going to happen…they’re responsible for 20 per cent of the economy of the North Country…what are we doing financing paper mills in Mexico when paper mills in New Hampshire are teetering on the brink of going under? [Thunderous applause.] We were the world’s leaders in textiles. Number one in steel. These industries are going, going, some of them are gone…I’ve been up in the North Country of your home state…Mr. Bush just had a new guest visiting him, Lee Pong I think is how you pronounce his name…he’s the fellow who ordered the tanks in Tiananmen Square…that Chinese communist regime is right now selling missile technology…to our enemies in Tehran…they dumped all their sweater products in the United States and killed Pandora Mills….”

Never mind that most of New Hampshire has always been thinly populated. Never mind that the former Brown Co. Mills have been in decline for 30 years—in steeper decline since their purchase, in 1980, by the Virginia-based James River Corporation, which failed to refurbish the industrial plant when the capital was there. That the population of Berlin has been dropping steadily since 1960—precipitously so since the departure of the Converse Shoe Company in 1979. Or that absolutely nobody in New Hampshire refers to Coos County as the wasteland near the Canadian border as “the North Country.”

As if happens, Pandora Mills was not ruined by Chinese sweaters being dumped on the American Market. Pandora Mills was ruined by a leveraged buyout of its clothing division following the company’s 1983 acquisition by Gulf + Western, as the former president of Pandora Knitwear, May Gruber, informs me after the Palace Theatre loathe-in has dispersed into the gelid evening, trailing acrid vapors of Nissan and Honda exhaust. Admit nothing, blame everybody, be bitter—this could easily be Pat Buchanan’s campaign slogan, as well as the state motto.

Perhaps the sorriest aspect of Buchanan’s campaign is the obligation most mainstream journalists feel to declare this raging boor “interesting,” mainly because customarily feeds at the same trough they do. Yes, he will get 30 per cent of New Hampshire Republican vote, and so would Adolph Hitler or General Franco. I’m from here, and I’ve seen this movie before. Buchanan is scary, yes, but so is the more congenial, saner fringe candidate, Charles Woods, an air crash survivor whose reconstructed face at least confronts us with the useful paradox that appearances, which all philosophy since Plato shows us to be false, absolutely dictate the selection ruler sin a televised “democracy.” By contrast, Buchanan is, tediously, exactly what he looks like: a bigoted mick whose pathology runs to fag-bashing and other symptoms of sexual hysteria.

[

And what of these bullying, cowardly people, stewing in the bilious sweats of their own zeal, bursting into rapturous applause—the heartiest applause of the evening—when Buchanan sneers that AIDS is “still a disease of homosexuals and drug addicts,” or vows to rid the NEA of every piece of “scandalous, filthy or antireligious art”? What about these jumped-up hillbillies, frothing at the dentures to beat up on people with AIDS, single mothers on public assistance, the homeless, anybody weaker than they? Who regard themselves as the only true victims of history, as “hurting,” just because the world is larger than they are, more complex than the country they live in, and not, for the most part, white?

It’s standard among the Buchanan set to begrudge any minority the status of victim, to bewail “reverse discrimination” in any attempt at social reparation, so it’s no surprise that the Union Leader, Buchanan’s principal endorser in the state, has taken up several of Pat’s pet peeves. In a January 30 editorial, staffer Leonard Larsen attacks “the annual guilt trip over Hiroshima” and complains that “the popular media history…will probably define World War II in just two events.” And guess what the other one is.

“…So that wasn’t a war we were in. There was the Holocaust and everything else was incidental. The revisionists would make it a fact.”

I should stress that the Union Leader is perfectly capable of going much further than this, of denying that the Holocaust even happened one week, and using the same fictional Holocaust the next week to attack Louis Farrakhan or some other anti-Semite of color, depending on which minority its editrix, Mrs. Nacky Scripps Gallowhur Loeb, widow of the odious William, feels like bashing when she staggers out of bed in the morning.

On the other matters, too, the paper has the mercurial temper of a pit viper. It detests Jimmy Hoffa until Jimmy Hoffa became the enemy of Robert Kennedy, and then ran a decade of editorials lauding Hoffa as the savior of organized labor. (The paper threatened to withhold its endorsement of Richard Nixon in ’72 unless Tricky Dick sprung Hoffa from the federal penitentiary; Nixon grudgingly obliged.) It devoted eight years of deifying editorials to then governor John Sununu and his albatross reactor in Seabrook, yet currently refers to him as Bush’s “pimp,” because Sununu refuses to endorse Buchanan. Like the Stalinist-era Pravda, the Union Leader never simply changes its mind; it “discovers” a pattern of ideological error or flawed character in its former allies, admits to having been “duped,” and busily retracts every positive thing it’s printed about the latest charlatan. In all of this the paper represents itself as a virgin schoolmarm violated and betrayed by her most trusted pupil, an act so long in the tooth that even its subscribers can’t read the Union Leader with a straight face.

Back to Buchanan. During Q&A, only two people, May Gruber—who does not raise the issue of Pandora Mills but instead suggests that Jesse Helms’s interference with the NEA amounts to governmental censorship—and a young woman from Merrimack, who describes Buchanan’s position on AIDS as ignorant, challenge the candidate on any of his obvious whoppers. Given the general altitude of Pat’s fans, this takes more guts and conviction than the windbag on stage ever possessed in his life. I’d like to think that these two intelligent, humane voices insert just enough dissonance to sully an orgy of ugly feelings, or at least plant a few suspicions that the Wizard of Oz cannot really give the Scarecrow a functioning brain.

On the way out of the theater, an obsessed, elderly, goofily dressed John Bircher strikes up a monologue aimed at the Voice photographer, who happens to be African American. The man carries a bundle of literature charting a vast, ongoing conspiracy by the Trilateral Commission and David Rockefeller: “I’ve had this crap up to here. This country’s gonna go right down the goddam tubes. Someday you’re gonna have United Nations troops in here. George Wallace got 10 million votes, he said we’re fed up with this crap, what happened? Boom. John Kennedy tried to buck these guys, what happened? Boom. Robert Kennedy, right? Martin Luther King was so exposed he was no longer any use to these people, what happened? Bang!” Like flies to a steaming pile of ordure, the weird creatures of eternal night drew close to the flame that is Pat Buchanan. Meanwhile, some workers roll out the set, a temple0like construction of plastic milk crates, for the Palace Theatre’s current production, The Tempest.

[


FADE TO BROWN

I look down at sweet Theresa’s convent, all those nurses, all those nuns…to me you know they look pretty damn free down there– Patti Smith


In a large auditorium with level seats, pale olive walls, dark neo-Georgian olive trim, festooned with many portraits in gilded frames of men who resemble Alastair Cooke, a number of dewlapped, earnest preppies and environmentally conscious residents of Exeter and nearby towns have gathered at Phillips Exeter Academy to experience Jerry Brown.

Our in the hall, volunteers are stacking Jerry’s videotape and piles of Jerry’s literature. As I write this, I keep hearing Sandra Bernhard’s dialogue from The King of Comedy echoing through my head. Jerry.

Jerry Brown has enough sense of humor to joke about the space cadet rap he’s getting in the press. Just enough. Perhaps infected by the sober and enlightened atmosphere of this great hall, where countless maiden blowjobs began as humid, hungering glances across rows of brilliantined schoolboy hairdos, Jerry strikes a serious yet scrappily boyish note. He reminds us that he is the only candidate with a classical education, schooled in Greek and Latin. For three years he toiled and thought and really examined himself and who he really was in the silence of a Jesuit seminary. He traveled to Japan and knows the Japanese, knows the culture and what makes it tick. After that, Jerry spent three months in Calcutta, working with Mother Teresa in her Home for the Dying, eager to see what human caring, human compassion, even in the absence of a mutual language, could do amid so much suffering and dying.

And that isn’t all. If I were to write down everything Jerry Brown has done, or even just about everything Jerry Brown says he’s done, you would still be reading this next Tuesday. Jerry’s introduction of renewable energy technologies in California alone would cover many pages, as would his hands-on approach with the state legislature in Sacramento, where he moved in to a small apartment right across from the statehouse instead of taking residence in the ugly expensive mansion built for the Reagans. Did I tell you what Jerry did about the dead-end warfare system in California? How Jerry actually lessened crime? The magnificent windmills and other devices that have made PG&E, thanks to Jerry, the most cost-effective and profitable gas and electric utility in the U.S. of A.? No? Sandra, would you please sing “Come Rain or Come Shine” just one more time?

As I listen to Jerry, something keeps irritating me. At first I believe it is the memory of a large crow I once saw bisected by one of Jerry’s power-generating windmills outside San Luis Obispo while driving from L.A. to San Francisco. Then I realized it is a small child in a pink padded windbreaker seated beside me who is playing with a Nintendo Game Boy as Jerry speaks.

Just behind me, several young men who had been discussing, avidly, the various clues on Beatles albums pointing to the death of Paul McCartney (for example, on the Sgt. Pepper lyric sheet, John Lennon’s finger seems to rest against the line, “…at five o’clock as the day begins…” –possibly the exact time of Paul’s demise) have stopped talking about that and are listening to Jerry with what seems, when I look at them, like respectful skepticism. Good day sunshine.

Jerry wants to take the system back form the politicians and the corporations and put it in the hands of the people, and that’s why he isn’t accepted more than $100 from each individual to run his campaign. We can cleanse this system of corruption and provide health care for every American and cure the rot of our inner cities with a few simple techniques. All right, I’m sorry, I don’t remember what they are, but Jerry knows them, and if you elect Jerry, he’ll tell you himself. Or at least you should take a copy of his videotape. But if you do, be prepared to pass it on to five other people. This is how a grassroots movement gets started.

Jerry is wearing a white turtleneck and a blue denim jacket with brown leather strips on the collar and baggy black corduroy trousers. Jerry has a large bald spot and strangely mottled skin, red in the wrong places, and just between you and me, there is something a little delusional about Jerry, even though I know he really was the governor of California at one time.

[


SEACOAST

In all fairness to the candidate, he only sounds this way because America has evolved so far from the notion of direct rule that even people who agree with Jerry understand he has no chance of being elected. One thinks of direct rule in connection with local rather than national politics. Brown does have a constituency in New Hampshire, as would any ecology-minded consumer advocate, because local communities have seen what can be accomplished by write-in drives, petitions, and town meetings. This I, paradoxically, partly thanks the William Loeb and the politicians he supported over the years.

Loeb, by the way, never resided in New Hampshire. For decades he occupied an 80-acre high-security compound in Pride’s Crossing, Massachusetts, furtively darting back and forth across the border, it is said, in order to avoid subpoenas. In league with a succession of vacuous New Hampshire governors, Loeb sponsored uncountable schemes to wreck the environment in the interest of various contractors, developers, and high-tech corporations. Sununu’s Seabrook nuclear reactor was only the most recent venture to mobilize conservation groups throughout the state.

Before Seabrook, there was Durham Point. In 1973, Governor Meldrim Thomson Jr. (now an occasional columnist for the Union Leader) announced his vision that New Hampshire needed an oil refinery. No one had perceived this need before, but because of his campaign pledge of no new taxes, Thomson had to find money somewhere for deteriorating state services. At the same time, employees of Aristotle Onassis’s Olympic Oil Co., posing as real estate agents, began buying options on 3000 acres of shorefront in Portsmouth, Rye, and Durham, under various guises: the establishment of bird sanctuaries and hunting preserves, retirement homes, etc. The biggest chunk of optioned land was at Durham Point. Onassis also optioned parts of the Isles of Shoals, a little archipelago 10 miles off the coast.

In November 1973, Thomson announced the Olympic Oil would install a $600 million refinery at Durham Point. Supertankers would offload at the Isles of Shoals, where the oil would be pumped into Portsmouth via underwater pipe, then shunted to Durham Point through another pipeline. Onassis himself would visit the state on December 19. Loeb’s front-page editorial announced, “WELCOME To the Two Big O’s—Oil and Onassis!”

Appalled property owners in the quiet university town of Durham quickly joined forces with environmentalists to block Durham Point, as the Union Leader devoted reams of fawning newsprint to Onassis, whom it characterized as “Santa Claus.” According to Loeb biographer Kevin Cash, the Durham Point project would have been “the largest single-unit oil refinery ever built.” It also would have transformed the countryside around the University of New Hampshire into a moonscape.

The project met its toxic avenger in the form of Mrs. Thomas Dudley, the town of Durham’s representative to the state’s General Court. (Mrs. Dudley, therefore Dudley Dudley. She was a descendent of Joseph Dudley, who was governor of Massachusetts and New Hampshire between 1723 and 1728.) A Mrs. Nancy Sandberg, also of Durham, organized Save Our Shores, which opposed Olympic Oil with legal services to optioned property owners, a speakers’ bureau, bumper stickers, et cetera.

Mrs. Dudley cast the Durham Point issue in terms of home rule. This had immense popular appeal. Town meetings throughout the Seacoast area rezoned the target properties to exclude the refinery, while House Bill 34, intended to override the local ordinances, wnet down to defeat 109 to 233. Onassis returned to Skorpios and Maria Callas. Cash speculates that Loeb never fully recovered from the rejection of Durham Point by New Hampshire voters.

Now it seems, some kind of attitude shift is taking its gradual course in the state—very gradual, if you compare with the mall and condo boom of the Reagan years, when developers and retail chains could contrive, swept through southern New Hampshire like shit through a cane brake, transforming a landscape of harsh, bucolic beauty into one of unparalleled hideousness. Steady migrations of “Massachusetts people into the southland have brought with them, unexpectedly, a burgeoning circulation of the liberal Boston Globe. This, combined with a generous cable range, has eroded the Loeb information monopoly. Even if people generally don’t like black and gays and other menacing elements, now they hear about them all the time.

When I was young, the hotel cocktail lounge beside the bus station was the only place you could go for a little company, and the truck drivers from Laconia and a similar-looking woman with a crewcut. There is an ACT UP chapter in Manchester now, a network of out gays if not a whole community.

[

There is still no alternative statewide paper in which to rebut insane accusations and slander that appear in the Union Leader, but the influx of new s from CNN and other sources has miniaturized the paper’s impact. Simply to say marginally competitive with the Maine cable channels and the Globe, the Union Leader and WMUR-Manchester have to report the unpleasant minority news that used to suppress, even if the paper’s editorials—mainly crayoned by geriatric Loeb protégé James J. Finnegan—continue to sound like bulletins from a psychiatric ward.

But the era when William Loeb’s campaigns against local college presidents could hound them out of the state—for allowing gay organizations on campus, or sponsoring “Communist” lectures, as happened with Loeb’s untiring persecution of Thomas Bonner at UNH from 1971-1974—is over.


NOWHERE TO RUN, NOWHERE TO HIDE

I drive to Keene one bleary morning with a Martha and the Vandellas tape blasting in the car, up Route 3 to Pinardville, down 101 to Milford, Milford to Peterborough. Just before Dublin the Tsongas signs start appearing on the trees and fence posts and mailboxes, I wake up feeling sorry I met you, and hoping soon, that I’ll forget you, when I look in the mirror to comb my hair—

Well Tsongas has very thinning hair, but this is the least of his problems. In a tiny conference room at
The Keene Sentinel, surrounded by a restrained crowd of at least 10 people, the candidate is defending his record in Massachusetts, not that anyone is attacking it, and expounding a fairly conservative philosophy of government, conservative but compassionate, and I know he can’t help his face but it’s full of little moues and funny tics and because I arrive late I am practically sitting in a large potted plant just outside the conference room hoping he will raise his voice above a steady drone. Paul Tsongas looks like somebody who could do a fairly credible Lamont Cranston imitation if he really let his hair down, such as it is, but this morning he’s stuck on a tone of infinite reasonableness and gentle self-mockery.

“Look,” he says after a half hour, “I’m a Greek from Massachusetts who’s had cancer, so I’ve got to either be really serious about what I’m doing or else I’m crazy.”

This is followed by an unfortunate moment of silence. Note to press corps: if you find yourself in Keene next week, Lindy’s Diner has terrific oyster stew.


A LA RECHERCHE DU DEBRA WINGER

Floor bass slides up to me and says hey, sister…you’re screwing up the quota, you’re doing your piece work too fast, now you get off your mustang, Sally, you aint going nowhere – Patti Smith


There was bound to come a nadir, a point below which the tedium of the campaign trail could not dip without degenerating into chaos. I am a student of chaos, absurdity, and life’s little ironies. Moved to tears one morning by a CNN report on unemployed factory workers in West Virginia, I then bring my cousin Kathy some lunch my mother’s prepared; Kathy has just opened a tax accounting service in town, having left her job at a law firm that lost its major corporate client. Kathy is one of the least neurotic, most industrious people I have ever known. I tell her all about these poor laid-off steelworkers.

“Well,” she says, “remember when we were kids in the ’60s? And all we wanted was to do something in life where we wouldn’t have to work in a factory?”

Of course she’s right. It’s possible to listen to these visiting politicians jaw on about restoring New Hampshire’s industrial base without remembering the sheer meaningless misery most of our relatives endured, day in, day out, some for twenty or thirty years, gluing on shoe soles or soldering circuit boards, an unending pointlessness for which no amount of quarterly raises and benefits packages could ever compensate. The idea that 40 to 60 hours a week of monotony was good enough for us, for our class of people, was sufficiently appalling to propel us both into college and out of town.

But we came from that factory world, a little more directly than most of the people we know, which is why Kathy and I , in our different styles, have nothing but contempt for New Hampshire yuppies. And why, I suppose, the Conservation Center in Concord, a perfectly benign, tree-rescuing operation in a solar-heated, light and airy facility of dressed knotty pine, activates my class hatred in a way that Phillips Exeter Academy doesn’t. I know I’m as smart as any given graduate of Phillips Exeter, but I will never be rich enough to spend all day worrying about acid rain and printing brochures about it on recycled paper.

[

The gorgeous assistant press officer wants to know if I think they should move the podium for Senator Kerrey into the solarium from the observation deck. It is 17 degrees on the observation deck and everyone coming into the solarium shudders when they get a look at it, why on earth do we have to stand outside to hear him? Well, because of the photo op. on the observation deck you’ve got your panoramic view of a gazillion pine trees and the Route 93 access over the frozen Merrimack River and the dome of the statehouse like a little burnished bubble of junk jewelry, whereas inside you’ve just got all this knotty pine and several cases of brochures of the culture of Christmas trees and timber management areas and some wall diagrams of the facility and the membership desk. Plus this long knotty pint table where I’m writing this.

“If you get any wind it’s going to blow right into the microphone and you don’t hear a thing,” I tell the gorgeous assistant press officer, who doesn’t believe me.

“We’ve tested it,” he says. “You’ve got the good audibility everywhere except in that corner over there.”

I am about to say that Senator Kerrey is already low enough in the polls without making the press corps stand around in 17 degree weather when the press comes pouring into the solarium, and there’s actual excitement in the air, strange considering the candidate, a definite buzz, something’s up, something’s happened, SOMETHING HAS FINALLY HAPPENED, what can it be?

“The write-in Cuomo campaign has opened an office in Concord,”
Voice photographer Brian Palmer explains.

On the tail of this news, Kerrey’s arrival is indeed an anticlimax, his little speech on the observation deck a nonevent of numbing proportions, one of his aides tells me Kerrey’s numbers have climbed from 6 to 12. Wavering numbers, but the money’s coming in, he’s planning to hang in until Super Tuesday. Personally I would ditch the undertaker’s overcoat, change the tie, do a nice even rinse on the hair and try to get him to stop doing that thing with his mouth where he looks like he’s sucking a Fisherman’s Friend. I now see the wisdom of keeping the podium outside, since most of us would fall asleep if it were anywhere else. At least he doesn’t mention The Leg.

“He’s gotten more mileage out of that leg,” my aunt Beatrice complained when Kerrey’s commercial came on a few nights earlier. “And he can walk better than I can.”


RETURN TO PEYTON PLACE

En route to Berlin, I detour onto Route 140, a hardscrabble two-lane of disintegrating asphalt for a look at Gilmanton Iron works. As a child, my role models were Grace Metalious, Emma Peel, and Oscar Levant. Poor tragic Grace ripped the lid of Gilmanton Iron Works in her immortal Peyton Place, made a fortune on that and subsequent The Tight White Collar and
Return to Peyton Place, then drank herself into an early grave. It’s a New Hampshire kind of fate.

What I’ve forgotten is that Gilmanton Iron Works doesn’t have much lid to rip off, consisting as it does of a Corner Store and a Post Office. And no one in the Corner Store or the Post Office knows who Grace Metalious was. No one in the Corner Store or the Post Office has decided who to vote for in the primary, either.

“Are there still Iron Works, anyway?” I ask the woman at the Corner Store deli counter.

“There never were any Iron Works,” she says, “Not buildings. They used to take iron ore out of Crystal Lake and ship it off.”


THE SMELL

Every afternoon like the last one, every afternoon like a rerun…yeah we may look the same, both sweating…but I got something to hid here called desire…and I will get out of here…and I will never return, no never return to burn out in this piss factory – Patti Smith


Berlin, late afternoon. Big, bruisy skies with long, gray clouds rolling through them. Shops on Main Street all offering clearance sales, 20 per cent off, 50 per cent off, going, going, gone. The only places to get a cup of coffee are the Woolworth’s lunch counter and the local pizza joint. It’s 11 degrees.

[

This is an incredibly bleak town, not really a city anymore. Snow piled everywhere, ice crunching underfoot, the streets almost empty. The Berlin Reporter, which has just gone from weekly to daily, reports an increase in headlice at local schools. “AIDS victim speaks to Berlin high students,” reads one headline. “Study finds shortness of breath among older mill workers.”

In LaVerdiere’s Super Drug Store, amid a pile of Waylon Jennings and Lawrence Welk tapes, I find an Ink Spots compendium I can play on the long drive home.

We always knew of the paper mills in what Pat Buchanan calls the North Country and we always called “up there”: grim clusters of silos and smokestacks, the Cascade Plant at Cascade Flats, the Burgess Plant a quarter mile up the Androscoggin River. The chemicals spreading out through the water, poisoning the Adroscoggin River, Tinker Brook, Pea Brook, Dead River, Peabody River, the dead trout, the cancer-riddled horned pout, the stillborn perch and smelts, the perpetual sulfur-and-boiled-cabbage stench wafted on the mountain winds, covering Gorham, blowing down to Randolph, on a clear day you could smell it all the way to Shelburne, a smell that stank like nothing else on earth, a smell like something crawled up inside you an died, filling everything, like water rising in a sinking ship.

In Harkin headquarters on Pleasant Street, a buxom volunteer in a harlequin sweater set tells a middle-aged man sitting against the wall: “You know he’s gotten over 50 awards from different disabled groups? Including Veterans with Disabilities? Because he wrote the Americans with Disabilities Act, you know. Which we’re all gonna need some day. With arthritis and so on.”

The man regards her coolly. He’s my age, he resents this. “Well, I hope not.”

By and large, an early middle age, late-ish thirtysomething, hyperthyroidal gathering. Working people, lots of beards, lots of mustaches, a number of Alan Alda types, turquoise down jackets, no pretensions in this place, everything ready-to-wear, maybe a certain Cambridge influence, the snack table covered with potato chips, ginger ale, pretzels, Ritz crackers, a jar of Cheez Whiz. Ratty green carpet. Looks like a furniture showroom.

Waiting and waiting and waiting for Harkin. I stand against the wall behind the chairs reserved for seniors and the disabled, with a clear view of the speaking area. It occurs to me not for the first time, that I could easily have assassinated any of the major candidates. But they seem to be doing a good job of it themselves. A camera crew glides through the place, interviewing people just out of work and people who are “just hanging on by a shoestring.” Times are tough. The James River Corporation hasn’t hired anyone in two years. Harkin’s almost here. Some aides are holding open the door. No, not yet, they’re still parking the car. Suddenly…something in the air…quite unpleasant…one of these senior citizens has farted…I move away from the chairs…the smell follows me…it’s even over here in the middle of the room…a thick, rich, bean supper fart…wait though, it’s everywhere…my god, it’s the James River Plant!

Yes, folks, just leave a door open on Pleasant Street and these factories that everybody wants to ram back into high gear have practically stunk out Harkin headquarters. Once the candidate’s inside, the door closes and the fart smell gradually dissipates, like a minor motif in a symphony of hot air. A distinguished-looking man, like your favorite high school civics teacher, carefully raked gray hair, a cracker-barrel face that belongs on a dollar bill, light blue shirt, burgundy V-necked sweater, olive gray slacks, a navy blazer—remember Jean Arthur playing a congresswoman in A Foreign Affair, swinging from the ceiling pipe in a Berlin (Germany) speakeasy, singing “Ioway, Ioway”? Harkin has that same wholesome, rolled-up-shirtsleeves quality, and his rap has the plainspoken, blocky style of Harry S. Truman, on whom Harkin’s modeled himself. Trailing just about everybody in the polls? Big Deal:

“I love history. ‘Course you know my favorite president was Truman. One night Truman was speaking to the young Democrats. And he was way down in the polls. Strom Thurmond had walked out with the Dixiecrats, Henry Wallace had walked out with the Progressives, Life magazine in that summer had run a picture of Dewey calling his President Dewey. One young Democrat yelled out, ‘Who’s gonna be the next president?’ Truman looked at him, he said ‘Young man, next January, there’s gonna be a Democrat in the White House, and you’re lookin’ at him.’ And that’s what I say to you. You’re lookin’ at him. ‘Cause we’re gonna win.”

[

“I sense a hunger to turn away from the legacy of the Reagan-Bush Administration. Those policies that have made the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, made the middle class pay the freight both ways. Those policies that have cost your jobs, exporting them out of this country…young people can’t get a college education, don’t know where they’re gonna get the money…

“If you’re a junk bond dealer, a corporate trader, best of times. If you’re a corporate CEO with a golden parachute, best of times. But if you’re a working class person, lost your job, no job training, don’t know what to do? Worst of times. If you’re a family, unemployed, you don’t know how you’re gonna pay your health care bill? An elderly person? Worst of times.

There is nothing to argue with in Harkin’s broad-bush portrait of America today, though his vignettes about what is wrong are more than a little stale by this time. Free trade is a two-way street. Jobs. Tell Japan to open its doors. Level playing field. Reciprocity. If I ever go to Japan, I won’t be taking the three top auto executives. They can’t even figure out to put the steering wheel on the right-hand side. Bring the money home, invest it here. Rebuild our infrastructure.

Tell you the truth, this guy is a little too calculatedly down-home for my taste. Okay, they’ve got an answer for everything, but the tone…this picture of America as a land of happy workers, raring to go to pitch in…the way everything is us versus them…and the way everybody’s complaints feed directly into his argument about minority issues, racial divisions…of course, none of the others have, either, except in code. You go to White America, you talk the White America talk.


“WHAT ABOUT THE DRUGS?”

This question punctures the rhapsodic upswing that was supposed to conclude Harkin’s speech, and the candidate is clearly irritated, but game:

We’ve gotta beef up our coast guard. Anyway, who was it that put Manuel Noriega on the CIA payroll? George-Herbert-Hoover-Bush!” And he goes on. Rather alarmingly. If I understand him correctly, Harkin has no qualms about sending the Marines into South America. With its permission, of course.

“Mr. Harkin,” a boozy-sounding woman in the back pipes up, “why should be send billions of dollars to Russia, when they have always been our enemy? And Poland, and Yugoslavia, and all those countries, instead of keeping the money in this country?”

Before Harkin can open his mouth—well it’s already open, but before he can say anything—a large, craggy old man with a face like Lionel Stander chimes in:

“Ten billion going to Israel to put these guys to work on the Golden Heights for Russian immigrants! What the hell is this? Everybody afraid of the Jews?”

“Now sometimes you—” Harkin begins, but the man is implacable.

“I’m not a bigot, I’m not—but on the other hand, they’re human beings, but we’re human beings, looking for jobs too.

“That’s why you need to make sure that they are investing back in this country, that’s exactly what I’ve been telling you.”

The woman from earlier is also implacable:

“What I feel, you go into a store, and myself, I buy U.S. made. Made in the U.S.A.”

“You bet,” Harkin panders.

“If it’s made in U.S.A. we keep our people working, right?”

“That’s right,” he says.

“But what you see in most of the stores is Made in China. Made in Taiwan, all that. What’s the point of these countries—and if those articles were not on the shelves, people would buy U.S. made. It wouldn’t be there. So you pay a dollar more for the product. But our people don’t work for nothing, they don’t live 12 in one apartment. We have a nice way of living. And we wanna keep it that way. And I don’t want to support the Russians, believe me.”

Harkins talks about a bill he’s introducing, instructing U.S. representatives to the IMF and the World Bank to vote against any loan to any country that spends more on its military than on its health and education. This sounds nice, until you consider that the U.S. itself wouldn’t qualify for such a loan, though most other countries in the world would.

“They never pay it back. Did they ever pay it back?” the woman screeches.

“There’s one country that have paid back every loan.”

“Which one?”

“Israel.”

“Well, the Jews, they have more money than everybody in the world!”

Harkin quickly takes a question form another part of the room. For me, anyway, he has just collapsed into nonexistence. I suppose one can, in these bankrupt times, in a state where the only major paper once ran an editorial entitled “Kissinger the Kike?” expect a little Jew-baiting on the campaign trail. But I cannot imagine Mario Cuomo or Jay Rockefeller letting such remarks just sit there in the room, just to grub a couple of votes. Not in a million years.

[

On November 7, 1960, John F. Kennedy stood in Victory Park in Manchester, directly across from the Manchester
Union Leader offices, and said:

“I believe there is probably a more irresponsible newspaper than that one right over there somewhere in the United States, but I’ve been through 40 states and I haven’t found it yet.”

The kind of ignorant sentiments sounded at Harkin’s Berlin headquarters can be heard throughout the state of New Hampshire, and even if they originated generations before Loeb’s acquisition of the Union Leader, the paper has fueled them for decades. As a result, bigotry has been institutionalized among the less-educated, who believe their lives have been ruined by the Jews, the blacks, the Japanese, the communists, or invaders from Massachusetts, rather than by bad choices, bad leaders, and a refusal to learn from the larger world. The candidates certainly know this coming in, and at the risk of sounding idealistic, I think any presidential candidate stumping through this backward but maybe not entirely hopeless state has some moral duty to offer a corrective example, to show some high-mindedness, instead of just promising jobs and money and material aggrandizement.

During the years of artificial plenty, New Hampshire was happy to sell off the intangible wealth of livably scaled towns, forests, and wide-open spaces for a quick buck, three or four extra K-marts within driving distance, and an idiotic abundance of worthless consumer goods. Now that people have to live in the debris, their fields and meadows long vanished under now-vacant malls and abandoned tract developments, they might reflect that this all happened once before, when the great Amoskeag Mills shut down earlier in this century, and that history has repeated itself as farce instead of tragedy. Of course people are “hurting”—you usually do hurt after shooting yourself in the foot. And instead of yacking about wake-up calls and level playing fields and “sending a message” to the rest of the planet that America intends to remain a vicious mongoloid among nations, first in everything but human reason, any candidate worth voting for, however hard the times, ought to offer people an appeal to their better natures, as well as to the part that eats. Nobody did.

Categories
NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Susan Sontag (1933-2004)

Like Maria Callas’s voice, Susan Sontag’s mind, to borrow a phrase from the great filmmaker Werner Schroeter (one of countless underappreciated artists Sontag championed), was “a comet passing once in a hundred years.” In a dauntingly, often viciously anti-intellectual society, Sontag made being an intellectual attractive.

She was the indispensible voice of moral responsibility, perceptual clarity, passionate (and passionately reasonable) advocacy: for aesthetic pleasure, for social justice, for unembarrassed hedonism, for life against death. Sontag took it as a given that our duty as sentient beings is to rescue the world. She knew that empathy can change history.

She set the bar of skepticism as high as it would go. Allergic to received ideas and their hypnotic blandishments, she was often startled to discover how devalued the ethical sense, and the courage to exercise it, had become in American consumer culture.

Sontag had impeccable instincts for saying and doing what needed to be said and done while too many others scrambled for the safety of consensus. Hence the uproar when she declared, at the height of Solidarity’s epochal crisis in 1982, that “communism . . . is fascism with a human face.” Hence also the depressingly rote indignation mobilized against her response to a New Yorker survey about the 9-11 attacks, published on September 24, 2001—a survey that most respondents used to promote themselves, their latest books, the depth of their own “feelings.”

Of course it was, and still is, easier for many Americans to pretend the events of 9-11 were inexplicable eruptions of violence against American virtuousness, perpetrated by people who “hate us for our freedoms.” Indeed, the habitual assertion of the American way of life’s superiority is probably what persuades supposedly serious writers to weigh in on a civil catastrophe by promoting their own narrow interests, dropping in news of their current travel itineraries, their marriages, their kids—oh, and how shaken they were by the tragic events.

It takes unusual bravery to cite, in a large media venue, cause and effect as operant elements in a man-made emergency—especially when the programmed pieties and entrenched denial mechanisms of society run in the opposite direction.

Sontag drew her own better-than-well-informed conclusions about what happened on 9-11. The habit of independent thought has so little currency in 21st-century America that dissent is the last thing most Americans consider worth protecting.

What Jean Genet referred to as “the far Right and its imbecilic mythology” have already been activated in several “obituary” pieces, including one fulminating, hateful dismissal of Sontag’s entire lifework. It’s lowering to realize how terminally bitter the American right really is: Even in its current triumphal micro-epoch, it needs to demonize somebody.

Sontag’s political “lapses,” cited even in sympathetic articles, are in fact the public moments one should most admire her for. She was usually right, and when she hadn’t been, she said so. It’s customary these days to damn people for “inconsistency,” as if it’s somehow virtuous to persist forever in being wrong. Sontag interrogated her own ideas with merciless rigor, and when she discovered they no longer applied, or were defectively inadequate or just plain bad, she never hesitated to change her mind in public.

Certainly she felt the same revulsion and horror at the atrocity of 9-11 that any New Yorker, any citizen of the world, did. But she also had the moral scruple to connect the attacks to generally untelevised, lethal American actions abroad, to the indiscriminate carnage that has typified both state policy and terrorist violence in the new century. Where, exactly, does the difference lie?

Unlike our government’s loudest warmongers and their media cheerleaders, Sontag put her own life on the line, many times, in defense of her principles—in Israel during the Six Day War, in Hanoi during the American bombardment, in Sarajevo throughout much of the conflict there. Like Genet, she was willing to go anywhere, at a moment’s notice, out of solidarity with people on the receiving end of contemporary barbarism.

The range of her talents and interests was no less impressive than her moral instincts. She once told me that “every good book is worth reading at least once” (in her case, it was usually at least twice). Her appetite for cultural provender—opera, avant-garde theater, film, dance, travel, historical inquiry, cuisine of any kind, architecture, the history of ideas—was inexhaustible. If you told her about something she didn’t know, she soon knew more about it than you did. She routinely went directly from a museum to a screening, then to a concert; and if there was a kung fu movie playing somewhere after all that, off she went, whether you were still ambulatory or not.

I know I’m in a minority, but I remain a fan of Sontag’s early novels The Benefactor and Death Kit—Sontag herself cared little for them in later years. Not enough people have seen the films she directed: Duet for Cannibals and Brother Carl in Sweden, Promised Lands in Israel, Unguided Tour in Venice. These early and middle works could be considered noble experiments, operating on a high level of fluency and daring.

[

None of these works are as sumptuously realized as her best essays, or her later novels The Volcano Lover and In America. At times, her reverence for the European modernists who influenced her eclipses her own seldom mentioned, American gift for absurdist black humor. (Death Kit has anything but a reputation for hilarity, but it’s one of the most darkly funny narratives written in America during the Vietnam War.) Many of Sontag’s essays, for that matter, have threads of Firbankian whimsy and manic satire running through them—and no, I’m not referring to “Notes on Camp.”

There’s no way to summarize her restless cultural itinerary and her immense services to “the republic of letters” in the space of an obituary. What I can speak of, here, again, is the indelible example she set as a moral being, citizen, and writer. She sedulously distinguished between the merely personal and the insights personal experience generated. “I” appears less frequently in her writings than in those of any other significant American writer I can think of. If Sontag was less averse, in recent times, to saying “I,” it could be that she at last realized she’d earned the authority for “I” to mean more, coming from her, than it does coming from most people. (In America, “I” isn’t simply a pronoun, but a way of life.)

It’s my guess that growing up in Arizona and Southern California, among people who placed no special value on intelligence and none at all on its cultivation, Sontag’s first line of defense against being hurt by other people was the same thing (aside from physical beauty) that distinguished her from ordinary people—that awesome intellect. She could be ferociously assertive, and at times even hurtful, without at all realizing the tremendous effect she had on people. In some ways, like any American intellectual, she often felt slighted or underappreciated, even when people were actually paying keen attention to her.

Her personal magnetism was legendary. Even in later times, she had the glamour of a film star. She almost never wore makeup (though she did, finally, find a shade of lipstick she could stand), and usually wore black slacks, black sweaters, and sometimes a black leather jacket, though occasionally the jacket would be brown. She had the body language of a young person: She once explained to me that people get old when they started acting like old people.

I never heard her say a dumb word, even in moments of evident distress. She did, from time to time, do things that seemed quite odd, but then, who doesn’t? Her will to keep experiencing, learning, and feeling “the old emotions”—and, sometimes, to make herself empty, restock her interiority, break with old ideas—came with a project of self-transcendence that Sontag shouldered, like Sisyphus’s stone, cheerfully, “with fervor.”

She once told Dick Cavett, after the first of her struggles with cancer, that she didn’t find her own illness interesting. She stipulated that it was moving to her, but not interesting. To be interesting, experience has to yield a harvest of ideas, which her illness certainly did—but she communicated them in a form useful to others in ways a conventional memoir couldn’t be. (To be useful, one has to reach others on the level of thought, not only feeling—though the two are inseparable.)

In light of her own illness, she set about removing the stigma then attached to cancer, dismantling the punitive myths this fearsome illness generated at the time. We don’t look at illness in the same way we did before Illness as Metaphor and the widespread examination of our relationship to medicine that it triggered.

Her detachment in this regard was a powerful asset. Many years ago, I went with her one morning to her radiologist. The radiologist had gotten back some complicated X-rays and wanted to discuss them. On the way uptown, Susan was incredibly composed, long resigned to hyper-vigilance as the price of staying alive.

At the clinic, she disappeared into the doctor’s office for a worryingly long time. When she came out, finally, she was laughing.

“She put the X-rays up,” Susan told me, “and said, ‘This really doesn’t look good.’ So I looked them over, and thought about it. Then I said, ‘You’re right. These don’t look good. But you know something, these aren’t my X-rays.’ ”

They weren’t her X-rays. Her most recent procedure had left a temporary, subcutaneous line of staple sutures running from her throat to her abdomen. The tiny metal clamps she knew were there would have glowed on an X-ray.

[

For some reason this was the first memory that flashed to mind when the sad news came that she was gone.

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Kiss Your Rights Goodbye

A Parliament that undertakes to legalize a coup d’État is merely signing its own death warrant. —Curzio Malaparte, Coup d’État: The Technique of Revolution


And in the end the age was handed/The sort of shit that it demanded. —Ernest Hemingway, “The Age Demanded


It will never be said of George W. Bush that he left office with any less intelligence, grace, and dignity than he came in with. Intimidation of black voters in Florida has already begun, with surprise visits to the newly registered by Jeb Bush’s state police, “investigating voter fraud”—an ingeniously ironic whopper, of the stripe that’s endeared the Bush family to generations of Saudi princes, defense contractors, and homicidal dictators.

Iraq is a catastrophe, bloodier by the hour. Our Afghan proxy controls a full 10 yards of sovereign territory around his office in Kabul. The only successful war Bush has waged from the comfort of his ranch thus far has been an unremitting attack on the U.S. Constitution. The First, Fourth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments in the Bill of Rights have already sustained serious injury.

The usual method of redressing constitutional grievances is through the court system. But well in advance of the fait accompli, Bush’s fans in Congress derailed most of President Clinton’s judicial nominations, a practice the media overlooked in its frenzy to document a cum stain artfully preserved by Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp. No member of the Senate was more fanatical in excluding qualified people from the federal bench than our current attorney general, John Ashcroft. The vacancies imposed by Ashcroft and other Senate evangelicals have now been filled by right-wing ideologues, who dominate seven of 13 federal appellate districts.

It’s a small, telling measure of G.W. Bush’s contempt for the electorate that after Missouri voters chose to elect a deceased candidate rather than give Ashcroft another term, Bush promptly installed him as the country’s chief law enforcement officer. When sworn in, Ashcroft was, appropriately, anointed with oil by Justice Clarence Thomas.

Ashcroft is, not to mince words, a lunatic. This would have been universally recognized at almost any other moment in American history. In the looking-glass world of “the war on terror,” however, Ashcroft’s religious manias haven’t excited even mild censure from anyone in government. By all reports, Ashcroft runs the Department of Justice like a Pentecostal revival meeting, enjoining his staff to raise their voices in righteous hymns of his own composition.

After 9-11 and the anthrax scare, Ashcroft’s Patriot Act, and the subsequent Homeland Security Act sailed through a terrified Congress like shit through a canebrake. Although Ashcroft has disavowed a leaked draft of the Domestic Security Enhancement Act, which bears a twinship to the Nazi Party’s 1933 platform, Patriot Act II, as it’s affectionately known, is definitely on the menu for a second Bush administration, should Diebold Corporation and Brother Jeb come through for our current appointee.

A curious feature of the Patriot Act is that it authorizes virtually nothing that would effectively prevent terrorists from hitting American targets. Like other “emergency” measures since 9-11, it attacks Americans. Racial profiling, arbitrary searches and seizures, roving wiretaps and judge-less warrants, harassment of nonviolent activists, indefinite detention without probable or even improbable cause, and guilt by association are only a few of the “appropriate tools required to intercept and obstruct terrorism.” Not all of them are stipulated in the Patriot Act, but such has been its use-value.

Naturally, putting these and similar “tools” in the hands of intelligence agencies and police officers guarantees their rampant misuse, just as deregulating industry has freed corporations to break every labor and environmental law they haven’t managed to rescind.

Unfortunately, a large terrorist event in New York City is just as likely to happen with or without the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security, no matter how many random Muslims and political dissidents the FBI harasses or locks up.

Inflating ordinary misdemeanor crimes into “terrorist acts” does nothing to enhance security; it’s a standard practice of police states, and will only benefit the corporatized prison racket. Since operations like 9-11 and the earlier embassy bombings in Africa took at least five years to plan, the fact that nothing’s happened here since 9-11 has nothing to do with Ashcroft’s theatrics or Bush’s “toughness.”

When it comes to cases, every legal tool law enforcement needed to hunt terrorists was already on the books before the Patriot Act. If “the war on terror” were serious and not a bait-and-switch operation to squash dissent and push an agenda long preceding 9-11, legions of “intelligence” personnel and presidential advisers would have been out of work on 9-12.

Nobody in this administration has lost a job for failing to uphold the Constitution, ignoring the public interest, or exhibiting limitless incompetence. No honor among thieves, as the saying goes. Even the pornographic horror of Abu Ghraib wasn’t enough to make Donald Rumsfeld resign. As Dick Cheney asserted in a different context, everyone in the Bush administration has “other priorities,” all of them antithetical to the public interest. What is the public, compared to Jesus Christ and Halliburton?

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I mention Jesus Christ only because John Ashcroft frequently likens himself to the simple carpenter from Nazareth who died for our sins. In his autobiography, Ashcroft reveals a messianic complex seldom found outside a locked ward, characterizing each of his career disappointments as “crucifixions.” On rare occasions when things go well, his father, an Assembly of God cultist, or someone equally demented is always on hand to smear a little Crisco on his forehead, as was done for the prophets in biblical times.

Ashcroft inhabits the same mental universe as Osama bin Laden, which isn’t as useful to a “war on terror” as it sounds. Like bin Laden, Ashcroft considers his job to be smiting the infidel, prosecuting Muslims and Arabs on an ethnic-religious basis. Many Homelanders conflate Muslims with terrorists, so Ashcroft has been able to do the same, forearmed by Jesus for the clash of civilizations. Alas, unlike bin Laden, Ashcroft really doesn’t know much about our civilization, much less anyone else’s.

The Justice Department would have it that numerous “sleeper cells” have been ambushed since 9-11. Fat chance. Plea bargaining, a judicial travesty designed to relieve our court system of its onerous duty to give defendants jury trials, and mandatory sentencing, which voids the discretion of judges to tailor sentences appropriate for individual defendants, have placed the fate of anyone charged with a crime in the total control of prosecutors.

In the terrorism cases to date, people from targeted ethnic groups have been fingered, for whatever reasons, by informants; locked up without benefit of counsel; and threatened with life imprisonment or execution (typical mandatory sentences for “terror” crimes). Predictably, these casualties of the Patriot Act tend to confess to lesser crimes the prosecutor offers from a standard menu of transgressions. The so-called Lackawanna Six, U.S. citizens of Yemeni origin, pleaded out on “providing material support to terrorists” when menaced with capital charges.

Eleven alleged terrorists in Alexandria, Virginia, charged with what amounts to “association” with Al Qaeda, pleaded out on violations of the Neutrality Act.

Seven members of a “terrorist cell” in Portland, Oregon, likewise charged with multiple crimes, pleaded out on lesser, tossed-in charges of gun possession.

A hearing on probable cause in most of the above cases might have concluded that the defendants’ rights had been violated. It’s more likely that these people are innocent than guilty, considering how many episodes of mass hysteria have translated into show trials—or, in these cases, no trials—throughout American history.

In every case “linked” to 9-11, Muslims, mostly American citizens, have been confronted with the same dilemma anyone “overcharged” with felony counts faces: Take your chances with an overworked, underpaid public defender or plead out for lesser jail time, even if you’re innocent. In the rare cases in which a defendant’s lawyer has managed to compel production of the state’s “secret evidence,” it proved so flimsy that charges were drastically lowered by the courts or simply thrown out.

The Moussaoui case illustrates how the terror war has played out in the U.S. Initially indicted on six conspiracy counts, any one of which could lead to life imprisonment or execution, Moussaoui insisted on questioning three “enemy combatants” in detention who he said would testify to his non-involvement in 9-11.

The judge ordered Moussaoui’s access to the detainees; rather than produce them, the Justice Department claimed that they could reveal “classified information.” The prosecutors moved for a dismissal, in hopes that an appellate court would void the judge’s order and call for a new trial.

Under the weird procedures Ashcroft has devised from a breathtakingly cynical reading of international law and U.S. statutes, the government can switch Moussaoui’s status to that of “enemy alien” and try him before a military tribunal. This isn’t just overcharging, it’s railroading.

Only 3 percent of felony defendants in the U.S. ever receive a jury trial. For “terror” suspects, just being called a terrorist by the Justice Department is enough to get you shipped to a dog pound on Diego Garcia without being charged. This is likely to entail being sleep-deprived, tortured, and raped by some smirking hillbilly like Lynndie England, courtesy of Donald Rumsfeld.

Three years after the fact, there has been no satisfactory explanation for what happened on 9-11, although it’s clear from many credible accounts that the House of Saud was paying protection money to bin Laden, and several Sauds who died under fishy circumstances afterward knew in advance that an American target was going to be hit. The Bush family’s complex business dealings with the Saudis, including some of bin Laden’s siblings, have clouded every inquiry into the 9-11 plot.

[

What should have been a disaster for G.W. Bush’s presidency, then, has instead served as a pretext for conducting it like a dictatorship, with John Ashcroft’s Justice Department as its secret police. Strange to say, the branch of the government that got the country into this mess is the only one that can get us out. The Supreme Court’s rulings in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, Rasul v. Bush, and Rumsfeld v. Padilla, affirming habeas corpus rights for detainees as well as criminal defendants, while not unequivocal triumphs for Hamdi, Rasul, or Padilla per se, at least indicate a dawning recognition within the Supreme Court that its own prerogatives are liable to be usurped by an executive branch that defines “war” against a phantom enemy as an eternal state of emergency. If we can’t rely on the court for fairness, the republic may yet be rescued by its resentment.

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Wonder When You’ll Miss Me

In the normal order of things, a 957-page autobiography by a person who had served two terms as president of the United States, in command of his faculties, recounting his version of the history he lived through, and to a considerable extent made, would not be widely, automatically, sarcastically execrated for its excessive length, faulted for the often unsparing mirror it held to the author’s complicated and by his own admission flawed character, or mindlessly attacked for nebulous, dark “motives” imputed to the book’s publication.

We are not living in any sort of normal times. We are living in the depths of a surreal fait accompli produced by the Supreme Court’s corrupt, meretricious, absurdly argued, transparently illegal, hubristic, and ultimately self-serving rulings in the matter of Bush v. Gore. Quite aside from usurping powers that properly belonged to the Congress and the Florida Legislature, and placing in the White House a criminal cartel whose contempt for the Constitution and democracy itself has turned our country into a terrorist oligarchy and an object of fear and loathing throughout the world, Bush v. Gore, in a rapid succession of inept, inane, overtly totalitarian strokes, demolished the entire foundation of American law by proclaiming itself “unique to this case” and exempt from any further use as judicial precedent. This may not have been apparent to anyone except a legal scholar at the time. However, now that the Bush Junior government is frantically seeking, and at the same time asserting, legal justification for torture, arbitrary detention without right of counsel, and other “emergency” powers, assertions cast in identical language to Nazi statutes (just look them up on the Internet if you think I’m exaggerating), the true implications of Bush v. Gore, and the nature of the court that accepted this case and ruled for the plaintiff, have become ever more apparent to the ordinary citizen.

A quality that informs much of Bill Clinton’s My Life, however self-congratulatory its author’s account of events may be, has been expunged altogether from American public discourse by G.W. Bush & Co. and by the media conglomerates who are among its few beneficiaries. That is, a sense of the greater good. The concept that the United States is a community of persons entitled to equal treatment under the law, and that every life in that community has intrinsic value, rather than a variable monetary one, had already been rendered so alien by eight years of Ronald Reagan’s polished, senile performance as a ventriloquial doll and four years of miserable sequel under the American Andropov, George Bush the First, that Clinton’s election in 1992 was perceived by the country’s owners as a dire threat to their property rights.

Presuming the reader is old enough to cast his or her mind back to the poisonous social atmosphere that prevailed before the expulsion of George the First and dissolved for eight years under Clinton despite the grotesque efforts of the hard right to remove him from office, and again, presuming our reader has not been sufficiently hypnotized—by the prospect of an even larger plasma TV screen, a space-shuttle-size SUV, and a cell phone that gives you an enema while booking you into a fancy restaurant—to ignore the stench of malaise and hopelessness that a few years of our Dry Drunk and Compulsive Liar in Chief, George the Second, have poured over all but the very, very rich and very, very psychopathic, it should be easy to credit most of Clinton’s book with abundant goodwill, a fair amount of wit, and far more reflection and intelligence than any of the recent literary effusions of G.W. Bush’s hagiographers and anorexic cheerleaders have evidenced, despite the fascinatingly demonic abandon they have brought to their exhibitionism.

Admittedly, Midge Decter’s biography of Donald Rumsfeld may stand the test of time as a classic achievement in the literature of coprophagia; the vivid yet bulimically svelte anthology of paranoid slanders Ann Coulter has given us in Treason has added something innovative to that small, delectable canon of hallucinatory works that also includes Céline’s Bagatelles Pour un Massacre and the unjustly anonymous Protocols of the Elders of Zion; and the eloquent-as-a-treacle-tart Christopher Hitchens, in a prodigious outpouring of books and articles, has rendered the mental process by which intellectual prostitutes magically change form in alignment with shifting power formations as legibly as few besides Curzio Malaparte have managed since the fall of Mussolini.

Despite the cornucopia of bijoux items from the crackpot right and free-range, publicity-addicted blabbermouths that publishers like HarperCollins and other multinational subsidy boutiques were touting a mere nine months ago as wonderful additions to whatever bookshelves American homes still feature as decorative touches, even the antic Ms. Coulter would have to concede—well, actually, I doubt it—that the popularity of these offerings has been remarkably transient, and most did nothing in sales next to Hillary Clinton’s recent blockbuster. It seems that Americans who can still afford to buy a book, and are able to read one, prefer political books that appeal to their better natures instead of their baser instincts and favor writing that offers, at the very least, some hope that diverse people might one day live in acceptance of difference and the golden rule instead of eternal antagonism and warfare.

Regarding My Life itself, it is long. Yes. While I doubt that any of the reviewers who have disparagingly compared it to the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant have ever actually read the latter, I also doubt that they have read the former. Say what you will about Clinton, but he is one of the few U.S. presidents since Grant to have written a book by himself. While reading it I often wished someone else had written it for him, since he clearly has a tin ear and little sense of what to include and what to leave out. All the same, it’s impossible to actually read this book without missing Clinton, for unlike his predecessor and his successor, the Spook and the Born-Again Cokehead/Booze Hound, he isn’t mean-spirited, homophobic, racist, or idiotic, never confuses himself with Jesus Christ, and even when putting annoying people in their place, does it with a light touch. “Unfortunately, my relationship with Bill Bennett didn’t fare well after I became President and he began promoting virtue for a living.” “Vice-President Dan Quayle said he intended to be the ‘pit bull terrier’ of the election campaign. When asked about it, I said Quayle’s claim would strike terror into the heart of every fire hydrant in America.” Clinton is even gracious to Barbara Bush, a vicious old bag in pearl sets who could’ve given Angela Lansbury notes for her role in The Manchurian Candidate.

I will leave it to others to parse whether it is preferable, given the systemic and implacable evils of maintaining an empire that is inherently vampiric and suicidal, to have its declining years managed by Rapture-hungry mental dwarves, cretinous judges flapping about in Iolanthe-inspired Inquisition costumes of their own design, and megalomaniacs of indeterminable species such as Richard Perle; or by a plain-talking arriviste who can’t resist a Big Mac and a strawberry milk shake, and once in a while needs a blowjob from somebody he isn’t married to. I happen to think it does make a difference what kind of arse sits in the Oval Office and whether he governs with a sense of his own transience and imperfection or uses fear and intimidation to whip the population into line with whatever brand of pious bullshit makes him feel like Superman. For people who truly believe the Bush coup d’état has “restored honor to the Presidency,” or however that tired tune goes, I recommend Bill Clinton’s book as a good strong dose of the reality principle. Honorable people don’t waste any time proclaiming how honorable they are, and sometimes honor consists in admitting you fucked up.

Oh, yeah, and all you brilliant Nader voters, ask yourself this: Are you better off now than you were four years ago?