Media: On Bill Clinton and Paula Jones

“‘Tis a Pity He’s a Whore”

OKAY. SO WE DON’T HAVE NIXON to kick around any­more; fortunately we have Joe Klein. I feel as if I owe the guy royalties, given the mileage I’ve gotten out of his whine some 15 years ago in Mother Jones — an irresistibly quotable classic in the annals of male liberal ressentiment — that the left had shamefully turned its attention from the poor to defending the liberties of “women, homosexuals, and mari­juana smokers.” I hereby resolve to stop squeezing that one, on the grounds that Klein’s approach to cultural poli­tics has gotten a lot more subtle, as evidenced by his bizarre piece of free association in last week’s Newsweek, “The Politics of Promiscuity.”

Klein starts out declaring that Paula Jones’s accusations against Bill Clinton, like Anita Hill’s against Clarence Thomas, are unprovable and ought to be of no interest to the media. Clinton’s enemies are “despicable,” motivated by ideology or greed. Besides, “it can be persuasively ar­gued” that politicians’ private lives are irrelevant to their public performance; take John Kennedy (I forgo the obvious interjection). “Indeed,” says Klein, “those who have come to the presidency with a prior history of philandering have been more successful than those who haven’t, at least in the 20th century (as opposed to those who’ve come to the presidency with high IQs, who’ve mostly been fail­ures).” (This in itself is a riveting piece of social analysis, which I will generously leave to other commentators to pick over.)

[related_posts post_id_1=”720675″ /]

But. (You knew there was a “but.”) The issue won’t go away, because there have been so many previous “allega­tions of personal misbehavior” against the president and because “it seems increasingly, and sadly, apparent that the character flaw Bill Clinton’s enemies have fixed upon­ — promiscuity — is a defining characteristic of his public life as well.” That is, the dictionary definition of “promiscuous,” revolving around such concepts as “indiscriminate,” “casual,” and “irregular,” fits the style and substance of Clinton’s governing in both good ways — he is empathetic, skilled at bringing people together and finding common ground, able to disarm opponents and forge compromises­ — and bad — he lacks principle, wants to please everyone, has trouble saying no, fudges the truth, believes he can “seduce, and abandon, at will and without consequences.”

I can’t quarrel with Klein’s assessment of the moral vacuum at the center of Clinton’s operation, especially in foreign affairs. What bemuses me is the not-so-deep struc­ture of this polemic, which unfolds more or less as follows: Sexual harassment charges against public figures are in­herently nebulous and an intrusion of “private life” into public discourse. (Anita Hill, Paula Jones, Gennifer Flow­ers are all the same in the dark; sexual intimidation, marital infidelity, what’s the dif?) Since JFK displayed a suitable, manly decisiveness in public, “acting in a sober, measured — and inspired — manner during the Cuban mis­sile crisis,” we can assume that he was able to contain his sexual weakness, to confine it to the bedroom, where it belonged; his expenditure of bodily fluids did not corrupt. With Clinton, in contrast, the press can be forgiven for breaching the proper boundary between public and pri­vate, because his own libidinal boundaries appear to be alarmingly porous. He is charming and seductive, wont to “wheedle” and “cajole.” “He conveys an impression of complete accessibility, and yet nothing is ever revealed: ‘I’ve had blind dates with women I’ve known more about than I know about Clinton,’ James Carville once com­plained …” In short, Bill is not only too feminine; his femininity is of the unreliable, manipulative, whorish sort. He has let sex invade the core of his being, as we all know women do (this is why it’s so much worse for a woman to be “promiscuous”); and it is this erotic spillover, this gender betrayal, that explains (or at least symbolizes) his abandonment of Haiti and Bosnia.

In conclusion, Klein quotes Clinton’s definition of character as “a journey, not a destination with ringing disapproval: “There is an adolescent, unformed, half-­baked quality to it — as there is to the notion of promiscuity itself: an inability to settle, to stand, to commit … It’s not too much to ask that a leader be mature, fully formed and not flailing about in a narcissistic, existential quest for self-discovery.” Translation: not only has Clin­ton failed to develop a real masculine superego, he hasn’t sufficiently tran­scended his roots in the decade that dare not speak its name. To be worthy of power in this era of settling and commit­ting, it’s not enough simply to refrain from inhaling — one must actively spit out. Live by the ’60s, die by the ’60s: having embraced the twin idols of Nar­cissism and Androgyny, it’s only fitting that Clinton should be zapped by their incestuous offspring, Personal Politics. All clear?

[related_posts post_id_1=”726362″ /]

An emerging theme elsewhere on the Paula Jones beat has been the failure of her case to become Anita Hill II (“Paula stunned by feminists’ silence,” a Post headline observed, while in Sunday’s Times Maureen Dowd offered such tidbits as Bob Dornan, suddenly converted to the cause of fighting sexual harassment, sporting an “I Believe Paula” button). Do feminists have a double standard? Have conservatives promoted Jones’s case mainly to embarrass feminists by making them look like hypocrites? Etc., etc.

When Marx amended Hegel to specify that history re­peats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce, he could have been talking about American popular culture. The outcry over Hill was not only, or even primarily, about sexual harassment per se, but about women’s concerns being ignored by a male-dominated society. It erupted as it did for a whole stew of reasons: the symbolism of the Supreme Court, in the midst of the right’s attempt to pack it with anti-abortion ideologues; the smug protectiveness of the old boys in the Senate; the decade-long, cumulative frustration of women in a political atmosphere that increas­ingly denied the legitimacy of their anger at men. The eruption transformed that atmosphere, putting gender con­flict back on the pop cultural map. It has also had a more problematic effect, namely the push to expand the defini­tion of sexual harassment to cover any kind of male sexual behavior or talk that offends a woman. Even with a relative­ly specific definition — mine is the deliberate use of sexual attention, or expressions of sexual hostility, as a weapon to punish a woman for presuming to take up public space as other than a sexual object-it’s not easy to draw the line between sexual harassment and plain, reflexive sexual pig­gishness. (I believed Hill’s account of what Thomas had said, yet listening to her rendition of his words — abstracted from their original context, his tone of voice, his body language — I never felt I could judge whether he was a harasser, or just a sexist jerk.) And to imagine we can change a piggish sexual culture simply by outlawing it (even if feminists agreed on what kind of sexual expres­sion is sexist, which of course they don’t) suggests a naive and frightening faith in the state. In the wake of all the emotion over Thomas-Hill, many feminists have ar­rived at a quiet recognition of how messy this issue can get. So I don’t think the “silent” women’s groups are merely standing by their man; I think they feel a farce coming on.

[related_posts post_id_1=”60922″ /]

The Making of Conventional Wisdom Department: in a recent column in Newsday, James P. Pinkerton of the con­servative Manhattan Institute opines, “More than a quarter of all American babies are born outside of marriage. The rate among some groups is much higher, leading, everyone by now agrees, to the chaos and crime of the urban under­class.” Everyone agrees? I don’t think so. There’s been a fair amount of com­mentary, some of which I’ve written my­self, disputing this latest attempt to blame the social and economic crisis of the (black) poor on women’s out-of-con­trol breeding. What “everyone” means is “everyone who counts,” which includes ultraconservatives like Charles Murray (whom Pinkerton refers to as a “gloomy social scientist,” diplomatically omitting mention of his right-wing politics) but excludes anyone to the cultural left of, say, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. ■


How Rudy Giuliani Took the Media for a Ride

SUNDAY’S PRETAPED in­terview with Gabe Press­man on WNBC-TV’s Newsforum was Rudolph Giuliani’s first little-­screen appearance since the candidate placed himself under the tute­lage of Roger Ailes. You remember him: the sleaze-master who ter­rorized America into vot­ing Republican last year when his propaganda turned the presidential election into a referendum on street crime and the death penalty by playing fast and loose with the truth. Almost every Ailesian campaign has fa­vored media-bashing as a technique to distract the electorate’s attention from any weaknessess in his candidate’s record (and, in the process, intimidate the press); recall when The Des Moines Reg­ister and Dan Rather were attacked for their too-pointed Contragate questions by George Bush, who thus succeeded in burying the scandal as a campaign issue? Well, Rudy certainly proved himself an apt pupil on Sunday, snarling through his rented smile that a hostile press was making mountains out of prosecutorial molehills as he tried to pooh-pooh away the reams of reputation-puncturing copy heaped on his head by the tabloids last week over the failed Kidder, Peabody prosecution and his office’s alleged “Nazi” tactics.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717929″ /]

It’s a strange complaint, considering the source, for until he started shooting himself in the foot with great regularity, Giuliani benefited from an elegiac media reception of a kind not seen in this town since the salad days of an equally arro­gant prosecutor, Thomas E. Dewey (when the Republicans who owned nine of the city’s then 11 newspapers touted Dewey for president although he was not yet 40). Even before he had formally an­nounced his candidacy, Rudy’s sweet­heart relationship with the press spawned a wet-kiss orgy of free publicity the likes of which even Ron Lauder’s mother’s millions couldn’t buy.

Examples: There was City for Sale, an almost entirely uncritical celebration of Giuliani’s prosecutions of municipal cor­ruption by Daily News editor-columnist Jack Newfield and Voice political writer Wayne Barrett that owed much of its insiderish tone to the avid cooperation of Giuliani and his longtime prosecutorial sidekick and press manager, Dennison Young Jr. (who, as Jacob Javits’s former legislative counsel, could scarcely be considered a political novice). The book, published at the beginning of the year, has served as something of a campaign biography for Giuliani. Gail Sheehy weighed in with an embarrassing act of journalistic fellatio in the August 1987 issue of Vanity Fair, “Heaven’s Hit Man” (“As passionate as he is about making crooks pay, he cannot sleep for seeing the faces of their suffering families” — I won­der how they fact-checked that one). Life produced a worshipful January 1988 pro­file called “Let’s Hear It for the Good Guys.” And, in a January 1989 Newsday column, Jimmy Breslin, who has made a career out of puffing up candidates on whom he also presses his services as a closet adviser, proclaimed that “the elec­tion [is] past history … Giuliani has won the 1989 New York City mayorality race. He does not beat Koch because Koch does not run.”

Pride of place in the front ranks of those pimping for Rudy belongs to New York magazine. In May of 1987, there was a cover touting Giuliani-as-crimebuster, but its headline, “GOTCHA!”(familiar to recent New York Post readers) was inept for this oh-so-promotional transcript of a Q and A with Rudy (one of the few politi­cians in recent memory accorded such a nonthreatening platform by the mag). His self-aggrandizing White Knightery was left untouched in the spread’s 13 pages by the nerf-ball questions of a criminally unsophisticated Nancy Col­lins. But the worst was to come: in anoth­er eight-page cover story this March, Joe Klein — New York‘s condohead purveyor of middle-class race paranoia — per­formed contortions worthy of the Kama Sutra in order to let Rudy off the hook. Indeed, Klein seemed to have fantasies of himself as Rudy’s Eddie Futch: “Giuliani agreed to explore his views on urban is­sues with the understanding that this would be a spring-training sort of inter­view — he hadn’t yet announced his candidacy and was still formulating his posi­tions on a number of important issues. I agreed to keep the gloves on.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”590085″ /]

Can you imagine any other pol being annointed with such deferential treatment? When a journalist agrees in advance not to ask tough questions — in ef­fect, to simulate a real interview in order to help the candidate decide what he thinks (or thinks is palatable) — he be­comes half-courtier, half-catamite. How­ever, the shameless Klein is far from the only opinion-monger in town to have served as willing accessory to the careful cultivation of Rudy’s image. The Voice ran a highly flattering cover story in Jan­uary by Joe Conason in which the only major incident from Rudy’s government service recounted in detail was a lauda­tory one. The article was based not on any independent investigations, but on a long interview in which, as Conason admitted, “Giuliani declined to answer spe­cific questions about running for mayor, the deficiencies of the current mayor, or what he would do if he became mayor.” The only subjects the filibustering Giu­liani wanted to discuss were those putting him in a good light, and the Voice went along with the charade.

More parlor games: Remember last September’s articles alleging state comptroller Ned Regan traded on his position as trustee of New York’s pension fund to obtain campaign contributions from Wall Street (a story broken in the Daily News by Jack Newfield and Tom Robbins and in the Voice by Rick Hornung)? Giuliani, no doubt envisioning another easy notch on his prosecutorial gun, couldn’t wait to open an investigation. Neither could Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau. What happened next is related by Connie Bruck in her March 1989 American Law­yer profile of Giuliani (the best-reported I’ve come across): “According to a lawyer in Morgenthau’s office, ‘Rudy jumped right into it early on. They subpoenaed records. They said, ‘It’s our case.’ Then, on December 28, Newfield wrote in the News that Morgenthau had decided to impanel a grand jury to investigate Re­gan’s fundraising practices. About mid­way through the article, Newfield added that Giuliani was withdrawing from the case and turning his evidence over to Morgenthau.

“This was news to Morgenthau’s office. Giuliani’s office had given no indication that they ‘wanted out,’ says a lawyer in the D.A.’s office. Regan is, of course, a Republican, and many of the contributors who are being investigated are doubtless those Giuliani would be soliciting should he run … Having already made a mortal enemy of [Al] D’Amato, Giuliani could ill afford to alienate any more of the Repub­lican state network. Newfield, a long-time Giuliani booster, gave Giuliani a graceful exit.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”725621″ /]

The press’s bounty to Rudy was, of course, entirely self-serving. In his five-and-a-half-year free ride with the media as U.S. attorney, press conferences and press releases­ — the exception under Robert Fiske Jr., Giuliani’s straight-arrow predecessor — ­became mandatory rituals, while motions calling for investigations of leaks from his office have rained on the Southern Dis­trict in the cases that have collared a lot of media attention. Leaks jeopardize a defendant’s right to a fair trial, and the deontology of the federal judicial system requires a U.S. attorney to set standards for his subordinates which demonstrate that such trampling on our constitutional guarantees is intolerable.

That ain’t our Rudy: as Philip Weiss noted in a sharp-tongued November 1988 Spy profile, “Gerald Stern, the director of the State Commission on Judicial con­duct, says Giuliani has often violated eth­ical standards on pretrial publicity at his ‘circus-like’ press conferences. When ho­teliers Harry and Leona Helmsley were indicted for tax evasion last spring, the news of the grand jury’s decision was leaked to the New York Post a day early. The Helmsleys complained, and at his press conference announcing the charges, Giuliani vowed to investigate the ‘alleged grand jury leaks.’ (Minutes earlier, though, he had lavished praise on the Post reporter covering the Helmsleys for scoops that had expedited the case). Nothing came of the promised investigation.”

A report on the rise in leaks by the city bar association’s committee on criminal law last year whitewashed Giuliani, say­ing there were too many investigative agencies involved to finger any one. Dennison Young, Rudy’s longtime press handler in the U.S. attorney’s office, was a member of the committee that wrote the report (although he says he fastidi­ously abstained from voting on the final version).

[related_posts post_id_1=”725920″ /]

Collusion between prosecutors and the press can not only pollute a jury trial but lead to the maligning of the innocent, as was demonstrated by last week’s drop­ping of the insider-trading charges filed two and a half years ago against those three executives in the Kidder, Peabody case whom Rudy had dragged out of their offices in handcuffs. It was one of his most notorious cases, and, at the time of the arrest, the paparazzi had been tipped off, with the result that photos of the unlucky arbitrageurs in their mana­cles were Page One stuff across the coun­try. (One of the three, Robert Freeman, has now pled guilty to a charge wholly unrelated to the original.) As Robert Reno, one of Giuliani’s few acerbic critics in the city dailies, noted in his Friday Newsday column, this feverishly pre­pared case was part of Giuliani’s “suc­cessful race with Pope Gregory IX for the title of most effective inquisitor in histo­ry, a contest that turned out to be the preliminary round of his mayoral cam­paign … [But] lightning arrests and handcuffing of nonviolent citizens is as repulsive a way to run for mayor as using the actions of a homicidal rapist is a shameful way to get to be president.” (No wonder Ailes and Rudy get along).

There’s a line much used by Giuliani in his campaign stump speech: “Don’t let them tell you what they’re going to do, ask them to tell you what they’ve already done.” But what the dropping of the Kid­der, Peabody case demonstrates is that the press went AWOL when it came to looking at Rudy’s record. Connie Bruck is one of the few reporters who did: she interviewed 55 lawyers and federal judges. What did she find? A consensus that Rudy has “an ambition so raw and consuming that that which sustains it is embraced willy-nilly, that which does not directly feed it is neglected, and that which runs counter to it is earmarked for destruction.” (That could also serve as a fairly accurate description of Ed Koch.)

[related_posts post_id_1=”727098″ /]

Rudy’s lust for power explains the inor­dinate amount of time he devoted to stroking journalists. Bruck harvested in­numerable complaints from former Giu­liani staffers: “‘There was an untoward concern for how our prosecutorial judg­ments would play in the press … the more newsworthy our cases were, the more attention they got from Rudy.’ … ‘[Under Rudy’s predecessors, press releases were] no big deal. When Rudy came, he brought in Young, and Denny would review press releases as though they were indictments. He’d cross out as­sistants’ names and put Rudy’s in. Denny had a phenomenal devotion to press re­leases.’ … ‘[Rudy] spent more time with reporters than with [his] assistants.’ ”

By running his office as if it were a subsidiary of Hill and Knowlton, Giuliani was able to reward the flatterers while slighting the too-critical, thus maintain­ing the reporters who covered him in a carefully controlled client relationship. Steve Brill, the editor of The American Lawyer, says: “At each one of his press conferences there was just one script­ — Rudy’s —with one good guy — Rudy — and a bad guy, the one whose name was on the indictment. It was a setup, especially for TV. I’ve made my living off the reality that general, typical reporting about the criminal justice system is nonsense, ridic­ulous, too accepting of these very easy definitions of who the good and bad guys are. Take the guy who covered Rudy for years for the Times, Arnold Lubasch: what a slug. The Voice, the Times, every­body rolled over for Giuliani at every press conference. This can give you a swelled head: at least six friends of mine who are actively working in the campaign say Rudy has told them he expects to be president one day.”

The average reporter is a cop-junkie at heart anyway, but Rudy’s PR style (orchestrated by Young, Giuliani’s Michael Deaver) meant that the prosecutor had a lot of chits to call in when he declared for mayor. There isn’t a paper in town that isn’t in some way indebted to Giuliani for filling its columns with sexy stories. As for Rudy’s bleatings about how Ron Lau­der bought himself $6 million worth of airtime, there squeaks a man who’s used to as many soundbites on the nightly news as he wants, all for free, and all on his own terms.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718552″ /]

It’s because he’s so unused to media criticism that Rudy has turned angry at the scribes who used to collect his toenail clippings. No paper in town has given Giuliani more ink than the New York Post. But editor Jerry Nachman has transformed himself from just a little-friend-to-all-the-world columnist of piffle into a circulation-building Wyatt Earp who sees his city room as the OK Corral (and who knows how to curtsey to his publisher’s Board of Estimate moral­ity that dotes on Koch, the landlord’s pathic).

The result could only be last Friday’s screaming headlines: “Auschwitz survivor charges: RUDY’S MEN ACTED LIKE NA­ZIS.” The story — written by Nachman with recently rehired Post investigations editor Fred Dicker — involved the com­plaint of one Simon Berger, a sexagenar­ian purveyor of locks. He’d been indicted by Giuliani for having allegedly forked over backsheesh to win a lock contract with the city’s Housing Authority — if true, a peccadillo for a small merchant made cynical by too much familiarity with the world’s cruelty, but hardly one to excite the masses. Berger, in Nach­man’s tear-drenched account, was seated by Giuliani’s minions in front of a scribble-covered blackboard on which one could read the words, Arbeit macht frei. In the end, the lock-vendor happily found himself on the outside looking in: Berger was acquitted.

In terms of the future governance of this city, Newsday put the more mean­ingful story on its front page that day: the dismissal of the Kidder, Peabody in­dictments. (Despite the Post‘s touting of its blackboard story as an “exclusive,” Newsday had court papers that provided all the relevant facts; what the Post had — live and weeping on South Street­ — was Berger. Newsday ran its story at the bottom of page three with the sedate head, “Holocaust ‘Reminder’ Claimed”). Even Post columnist Pete Hamill admits to being disturbed by his paper’s Fleet Street-style flagellation of Giuliani: “When you’re going to use that word Nazi, you’d better be very careful. At least it should have been in quotes — that would have taken a little of the sting out of it. After all, to be arrested at 7:00 in the morning is not exactly to get a whiff of Zyklon-B.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”714847″ /]

Rudy, who has already dropped at least 17 points with Jewish voters, according to one poll, hardly needed a week like this. But is he being “set up,” as he claimed to Gabe Pressman on Sunday’s Newsforum? Jimmy Breslin, who with­drew from Giuliani’s advisory circle when Rudy expressed his desire to import Ailes and extradite Joe Doherty, doesn’t think so. “If he’s afraid of the Post, how’s he going to be mayor?” barks Breslin. “Who did this? Some federal agent? Is the guy still on the job scaring Jews? Who the fuck would know German like that? I’ll betcha some kid prosecutor. I don’t even know the goddamn German. If they didn’t make a real investigation, then they’re part of it. Rudy’s getting his comeuppance.”

The print players are lining up: every sentient reader knows that the Times and the Post are for the mayor; that Newsday is trying to figure out if it has the guts to endorse a black candidate; that the Voice —  too late to do any real good — will stumble toward Dinkins; and that the News, confused, will write its editorial with one eye on the circulation figures. But the whole race is on television­ — where Giuliani has a large residual Q fac­tor from the white-hat days when he fed defendants to the cameras. If Rudy final­ly does get his real comeuppance in November, we can only pray that it isn’t delivered by Ed Koch. ■


Do the White Thing

Fear Eats the Soul

[Spike] Lee is cagey and talented, but he’s a classic art-school dilettante when it comes to politics … His film … is more trendoid than tragic, reflecting the latest rifts in hip black separatism rather than taking an intellectually honest look at the problems he’s nibbling around . … All these subtleties are likely to leave white ( especially white liberal) audiences debat­ing the meaning of Spike Lee’s message. Black teenagers won’t find it so hard, though. For them, the message is clear … The police are your enemy … Whites are your enemy.
— Joe Klein, New York Magazine

I’D LIKE TO SHARE A STORY with Joe Klein. Though perhaps in light of the murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst, its moral may have al­ready occurred to him.

One summer afternoon in New Haven, a white friend went walking with her white boyfriend through the green across from Yale’s old campus. Most students had cleared out, leaving this economically depressed and predominantly black and Italian city to its own devices. Viv and Ned passed three young black men who were hanging out on a bench, cranking a radio, blasting a song called “Drop a Bomb On the White Na­tion.” According to Viv, the homies said nothing, maybe didn’t even notice them; but she sure noticed them. All of a sud­den, she said later, she was convinced they wanted to kill her. Why? Because she was white.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725402″ /]

Now, I understand fear and feeling en­dangered — that, unfortunately, is femi­nine intuition — but when this story was related to me I just laughed. It all seemed so obvious: Here’s this nice white student continuing on the road to economic as­cendancy — a very complicated given predicated on a racist, classist system. (Forgive the revolutionary tone.) Here are these young black men — statistically, their stars are not rising. They were just listening to the radio. What was she thinking? Her racial anxiety didn’t just shift, it flipped: subconsciously, she con­cluded that if we black folks aren’t mad at white folks, we should be. Repressing this conclusion, she arrived at a blind sense of threat. Others go further: Some of the best white supremacist rhetoric is couched in the language of self-defense.

I’m not a fan of reading movies as ambiguous and nuanced as Do the Right Thing as agitprop, or even thinking that a director has the special handle on his film; Spike has said some iffy things. Even so, when Joe Klein wrote that the film might lead to riotous behavior on the level of the Central Park Horror, he turned reality on its head. Instead, why didn’t he envision this, more common scenario: in a city tense about race issues, a gang of white youths hunt down four black men and kill one of them.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716036″ /]

Klein seems unable to accept that black moviegoers can become angry with­out rioting; he also ignores the possibility of backlash, of a reverse race riot. But while Klein is baffled by the complexities of what Lee put onscreen, the residents of Bensonhurst are unable to admit the simple reality of what happened on their streets. Witness the defensiveness of their responses: it wasn’t racism, it was a case of mistaken identity, or the age-old axe murder/rapist/molestor/batterer de­fense, “He couldn’t have done it, he was always a nice guy.” The fact is, you don’t know whether someone is racist until they come face to face with another race — or until they feel the need to justify the racist actions of a neighbor.

This past Sunday my brother, some friends, and I were having brunch. One person at the table was reading the cover of The Daily News, something about wa­termelons and a jeering crowd of young Bensonhurst residents out to rid the neighborhood of protestors. Watermelons and racist exhibitionists and another black death in New York City. Suddenly, it was all too cartoonish and hopeless. My brother just began to laugh his beau­tiful soft laugh, slightly hysterical. I joined in — our two friends, both white, just looked horrified. ■

Next: “This Land Is Your Land” by Joe Wood

1989 Village Voice article by Kathy Dobie about murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst

1989 Lisa Kennedy article for the Village Voice about the murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst and also Joe Klein’s obtuse review of DO THE RIGHT THING


Joe Klein and the Comeback Kid

On March 6, independent counsel Robert Ray released the final 237-page report on Bill Clinton’s relationships with the rule of law. Sufficient evidence did exist, he said, to prosecute Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice in the cover-up of his assignations with Monica Lewinsky.

Ray added, “President Clinton’s offenses had a significant adverse impact on the community, substantially affecting the public’s view of the integrity of our legal system.”

In An Affair of State: The Investigation, Impeachment, and Trial of President Clinton (Harvard University Press), Richard A. Posner—a former chief judge of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals—provides what he considers evidence that Clinton was guilty of serial perjury, tampering with witnesses, and subornation of perjury. Posner writes that a conservative estimate of the sentence for those offenses, committed by an ordinary citizen, would be “30 to 37 months” in prison.

But Robert Ray had used his discretion as a prosecutor not to bring those charges. After all, said Ray, the man had suffered through the impeachment process, paid $1 million in fines, and had his law license suspended for lying under oath—”adequate substitutes for criminal prosecution.”

Responding in the March 2001 American Lawyer, Akhil Reed Amar, author of The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction (Yale University Press), asked: “Even if discretion counseled against indicting ex-president Clinton, should Clinton be given permanent immunity—the functional equivalent of an acquittal or a pardon?”

Many Americans appear to agree with Alan Brinkley, chairman of Columbia University’s history department, that enough is enough. “I think this [Ray] report,” Brinkley told The New York Times, “is a tinny echo of a happily lost era. There are certainly people who cannot get enough of any charge against Clinton. That group aside, though, I doubt anyone wants to think about this anymore.” Why not permanent immunity?

For those, however, who might want to glance back at the Man From Hope’s presidency, there is a widely publicized and often admired new book, The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton (Doubleday) by Joe Klein, a political reporter for The New Yorker, which used to have Richard Rovere in that job. But times and standards do change.

In its February 11 issue, Publishers Weekly forecast success for Klein’s book. “Who won’t want to pick up this careful analysis by one of the nation’s foremost political observers?. . . This is sure to be a big seller.” Joe Klein has made the interview rounds, saying repeatedly that “Bill Clinton conducted a serious, substantive presidency” and that “this [era] will be remembered more for the ferocity of its prosecutions than for the severity of his crimes.”

The Natural is not straight-out hagiography. Klein is critical of various Clinton failures, and of his priapic propensities. What Klein leaves out, however, makes fatuous his assertion that Clinton ran “a serious, disciplined, responsible presidency.”

In next week’s column, I will cite just a few of the serious assaults on the Bill of Rights committed by this former professor of constitutional law at the University of Arkansas. I’ve detailed many others in previous columns, presaging them with a March 1992 Voice piece, called “The Executioner as President,” which described his telling black voters on the campaign trail that capital punishment more often takes care of the killers of black people.

In March of that same year, the American Bar Association Journal had noted that the killers of whites in Georgia were nearly “10 times more likely to receive a death sentence than killers of blacks.” Similar color-coded disparities existed in other states. But Clinton, naturally, was a compelling liar. Klein calls capital punishment a “substantially irrelevant issue.”

In 1997, Robyn Blumner, a former ACLU official now on the editorial board of the St. Petersburg Times, noted in her nationally syndicated column that “Clinton [as president] has supported warrantless searches of public housing residences, drug testing of high school athletes without any suspicion of their drug use, and the use of roving FBI wiretaps without a court order.

“Clinton,” she continued, “has signed into law legislation that strips the courts of jurisdiction to hear claims of rights violations by immigrants and prisoners, both marginal populations with virtually no political power. And his Justice Department argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that a criminal defendant could be sentenced for crimes of which he was acquitted.” You won’t find any of that in The Natural—nor anything about Clinton’s attack on habeas corpus in the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.

The very nadir of his presidency, also overlooked by Klein and his applauding reviewers, came as a result of Clinton’s amorality and his obsession with making room for himself on Mount Rushmore. Clinton chose not to save hundreds of thousands of lives before the 1994 holocaust in Rwanda took its ghastly course.

For the grisly details, see not Joe Klein but two new books: A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power (Basic Books) and The Fifty-Year Wound: The True Price of America’s Cold War Victory by Derek Leebaert (Little, Brown). As I have written, Clinton and the UN were warned that huge numbers of Tutsis would soon be slaughtered, but Kofi Annan, in charge of the UN’s peacekeeping and later a Nobel laureate, was silent. And with elections coming here, and voters angry over the loss of American lives in Somalia, Clinton ordered that the word genocide not be used by his administration in connection with Rwanda. Madeleine Albright, then our representative at the UN, delayed any action, on White House orders, until it was too late—800,000 Tutsis were killed in a month.

A mere 5000 UN troops, supported by the United States, could have stopped the killings, because the Hutu murderers were armed largely with machetes. Four years later, in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, William Jefferson “the Natural” Clinton, sounding like Uriah Heep, actually said, “All over the world there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day, who did not fully appreciate the depth and speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.”

Kirkus Reviews: “A supremely fascinating look at a ‘serious, substantive presidency.’ No journalist is better matched to this subject than Klein.”

Related Article:

Joy Press’s review of The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton by Joe Klein


Laughter and Forgetting

Americans have a talent for mass amnesia. The scandal that convulsed the nation for more than a year—complete with semen-stained dress, cigar props, and bent-penis allegations—evaporated the moment Bill Clinton left the Oval Office. And the cloud of illegitimacy that cast a pall over George W.’s ascension to the White House—once signified by piquant phrases like “hanging chad” and “voter fraud”—dissipated as soon as an exhausted public opted to embrace its new fratboy in chief.

This culture moves at such speed that there’s some satisfaction in pausing to pick through the entrails of Bush’s campaign, as Frank Bruni does in Ambling Into History, or in burnishing Clinton’s tarnished credentials, as Joe Klein attempts in The Natural. But perspective comes with time, and you have to wonder how much hindsight can accrue with such quick turnaround, which is more likely to generate EZ-Bake instant history than lasting historical analysis. Both authors are savvy enough to understand this, but they charge ahead anyway, eager to add their voices to the babble of commentary and claim a spot in presidential posterity.

Blame it on Campaign Trail Syndrome: Journalists often spend a year or more shadowing their candidate, moldering in hotel rooms and at rallies. Joe Klein prefaces The Natural with an anecdote about dragging his daughter to an event during the 1992 primary. Clinton told her, ” ‘I know that your father hasn’t been home much these past few months. He’s been with me . . . but he talks about you all the time.’ ” The anecdote illustrates the awkwardness of the political journalist’s task—hanging out with a man that you’re paid to critique. It comes through in the way Klein flip-flops between thrashing and idealizing Clinton.

Ever since Hunter S. Thompson took on the 1972 election in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, flacks on this beat have fancied themselves New Journalistic spies, inserting themselves in the story as latter-day Alices adrift in political wonderland. Joe Klein penned one of the more searing contributions to the genre with Primary Colors, a darkly funny account of the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign. But because he dubbed it fiction and hid under the inventive byline Anonymous, Klein was able to loosen his tongue without repercussions (or so he thought). Readers who pick up The Natural expecting Primary Colors Part 2 will be disappointed, however. Klein’s nonfiction portrait seems stilted and stale compared with its fictionalized predecessor. Far from an exposé, The Natural attempts to rehabilitate Clinton’s reign. Klein proposes that “Bill Clinton conducted a serious, substantive presidency” and struggles to separate Clinton’s “libidinous crudeness” from his political achievements. The book reminds us that there are plenty of reasons to deplore or adore Bill Clinton that don’t involve his dick. (Unfortunately, Klein—an avowed New Democrat centrist—also bludgeons us with his biased political opinions, and is particularly peeved by Clinton’s “liberal” tendencies.)

The Natural tries to nail down slippery Bill, weighing his staggering intelligence and charm against a “needy, high-cholesterol quality” that feeds on a public “enthralled by his vast, messy humanity.” The most affecting image in this book bears witness to candidate Clinton’s compulsive need for affection. One night he invited Klein to bowl with him: “At times, as we stood there, waiting for our balls to turn down the alley, he’d lean up against me—a strange feline sensation; he needed the physical contact.”

Much narrower in scope, Ambling Into History specializes in catching Bush off guard, exposing “the often offbeat character that flickered through the frippery and pomp.” He offers an impossibly evenhanded take on Bush: “part scamp and part bumbler . . . an adult with an inner child that often brimmed to the surface or burst through.” Unhampered by the desire to prove his subject’s seriousness, Bruni draws on his stint as the New York Times reporter on Bush’s campaign and as a White House correspondent to give us a panoramic view of George’s boggling goofiness: lifting his pinkie to the corner of his mouth like Dr. Evil in Austin Powers, clowning and wiggling his eyebrows at reporters during a public memorial service in 1999.

Before 9-11, Bruni writes that Bush was taking it easy and enjoying himself: “Months into the presidency, he was still raving about all the cool extravagances and gadgets, like the made-to-order food from the White House kitchen and the little red button in the private dining room off the Oval Office that he could use to summon the butler.” Commentators have attributed Bush’s popularity to anti-intellectualism. After the silver-tongued Rhodes scholar Clinton so fatally disappointed us, Bush’s inarticulate everyman shtick seemed refreshingly innocent. In one revealing scene, Bruni records Bush gleefully crowing to a group of students that even a slacker can be president.

Clinton, on the other hand, pulled himself up by his brainy bootstraps. Klein mournfully proposes that Bill spent his life “dreaming of a heroic, Rooseveltian presidency, of great acts and grand gestures,” but in an era of peace and a gridlocked Congress had to settle for “a tactical, defensive administration.” The Natural even hints that this was the root of the former president’s self-sabotage: “There was always the sneaking suspicion that Clinton was a bit bored, that he needed the thrill of a crisis—and that if the world didn’t present him with a challenge, he’d create one for himself.” Ironically, 9-11 handed Bush exactly the kind of life-defining challenge Clinton had longed for.

Not surprisingly, both of these books expose as much (or more) about the media than about their presidential prey. Klein laments his colleagues’ role in the Clinton imbroglio: Even though polls showed overwhelming public support for the president, reporters were unable to cope with the subtle, incremental nature of Clinton’s political achievements and rushed to fill the news void with scandal. Meanwhile, much of Ambling Into History reads like a jaundiced road diary in which campaign reporters, bored senseless from eking out news stories from phony photo ops, often find themselves “zooming toward anything sexier than issues.” Bruni seems sheepish about his behavior as he, with the rest of the pack, hunted for “inklings of a changed dynamic” and failed to grasp “the danger of willing such changes into being rather than accurately noting their occurrence.” Both Bruni and Klein inadvertently demonstrate the hazards of writing history as it happens, and then they ignore their own advice.


Scrawler I.D.

In 1984, a young graduate student named Don Foster approached Oxford University Press with a book proposal for his dissertation-in-the-works: a study that would determine the author of the decidedly Shakespearean 1612 obscurity “A Funeral Elegy,” which Foster had stumbled upon in the UCLA library. Foster’s abstract was given to an anonymous Elizabethan scholar who pooh-poohed the project, stating that its author could not be decided on internal evidence alone and, in the same breath, declaring the poem too tedious to be Shakespeare’s. And if the Bard didn’t write it, why read it?

Foster’s devilish response gives a good name to passive aggression. He set aside his meticulous textual analysis of “A Funeral Elegy”—in which he descried Shakespeare’s rhythms, syntax, and mannerisms in each of its nearly 600 lines—and turned to his unattributed, unsympathetic editorial report. Like any good lit student, he did a close reading and looked up a few relevant scholars. Foster then wrote a friendly letter of respectful disagreement to Samuel Schoenbaum, the man he believed was his critic—and Foster was right. His opponent having declared this wasn’t a dagger he saw before him, Foster had no choice but to wield it against him.

Twelve years later, Foster’s attribution of “A Funeral Elegy” to Shakespeare, the first such discovery in more than a century, made the front page of The New York Times. Journalists then pounced on Foster as the best hope for outing the author of the just-published Clinton-campaign roman à clef Primary Colors. Après Joe Klein, le déluge—authorities have called upon Foster’s self-taught expertise in literary forensics for the Theodore Kaczynski criminal trial, JonBenet Ramsey murder investigation, Lewinsky-Tripp “Talking Points” fracas, and countless lower-profile cases, as he recounts in his recent book, Author Unknown (which also includes a terrific chapter on Wanda Tinasky, Thomas Pynchon’s erstwhile alleged doppelgänger).

Foster somehow manages this pro bono workload as well as his duties as a Vassar English professor, and stresses, “My first love is teaching. That’s what I would like to make my continued top priority, not all this other hoopla.” His fall course schedule crystallized his long, strange trip from toiling grad student to discipline-straddling High Counsel: He taught the first half of a yearlong Shakespeare survey and a seminar on anonymous and pseudonymous texts.

Oddly enough, Foster’s literary-celebrity status was ignited by making a positive I.D. of the writer with the most famously amorphous identity in Western literature. “A Funeral Elegy” presented a bottomless paradox, a feast for decon appetites: Because Samuel Schoenbaum was at least right in calling the lament a dull read (Foster dryly notes that “there are plenty of scholars, especially across the Atlantic, who would say I’ve ruined Shakespeare’s reputation with that poem”), the general audience’s interest in it would seemingly begin and end with its author-in-dispute. But that author doesn’t exist in any concrete, demonstrable sense. Just ask any Shakespeare purist, clutching to the precious few remaining records of Will’s existence, to say nothing of the scribblers who claim Francis Bacon, Queen Elizabeth I, or—by far the most persuasively—Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real deal. Author Unknown could double as an alternate title for the First Folio, and the irony isn’t lost on Foster.

Foster considers himself a Stratfordian, though he could be easily pegged as a gimme-some-truth Oxford hardliner. “The evidence is for Shakespeare as Shakespeare,” he says. “It’s not just one definitive scrap of evidence—you have to include things like references in Lord Chamberlain’s account book, Stratford records of the stage, finance records, testimony of his colleagues. These texts belong together, and many of the greatest were written after the Earl of Oxford was dead.” Still, for classroom purposes, Foster says, “with Shakespeare, we’re talking about a body of work; we’re not talking about a man. But once ‘Funeral Elegy’ came to be grudgingly known as the work of Shakespeare”—there are still plenty of holdouts, of course—”we could start asking, How does the ‘I’ of this text connect to the ‘I’ of the sonnets, the ‘I’ of The Rape of Lucrece? The discourse is within the work.”

An Oxfordian would counter that Stratford proponents studiously ignore the ‘I’ of the intensely private sonnets: Aligned with the factual scraps of Will’s life, they seem a curious diversion even as fiction, but matched up with Oxford, their lovesick shame is transfigured into a nakedly confessional cri de coeur. Are we discoursing with a tormented nobleman or a stage-dabbling grain-puller? Foster responds with typical intertextual wit: ” ‘What matter who’s speaking?’ asked Foucault, quoting Beckett. Sometimes it matters quite a lot. Take ‘A Funeral Elegy.’ One big problem is that it’s written in the first person. Even allowing for the inevitable discrepancy between the scriptor (the ‘I’ that wrote the poem) and the narrator (the ‘I’ of the text), it’s difficult to say anything of critical interest without first deciding whose voice it is that we’re hearing.”

Just after the “Elegy” story broke in 1996, Foster received a transcript of what was purported to be an Elizabethan theatrical manuscript. The owner, apparently attempting a one-sided game of Gotcha, was inquiring as to its authenticity, but Foster could hear its authorial voice loud and clear, declaring it “an elaborate but unsuccessful hoax.” He continues, “If it were to be ascribed, rightly or wrongly, to an Elizabethan playwright, its meaning and value would change with the attribution. The kinds of cultural work that the text might be able to perform would change as well. Its intrinsic aesthetic values would remain more or less the same—the question of literary ‘merit’ has little to do with attribution.”

Yet in that qualifier “more or less” resides a thousand shades of gray, as literary hoaxers know so well. The story on the page needs a back story on the book jacket; biography interlocks with orthography. The acclaimed poet Andreas Karavis, a reclusive Greek fisherman, was a ruse by Montreal poet David Solway; the writer Helen Demidenko, winner of a top Australian literary prize for a novel about her Ukrainian family’s experiences in the Holocaust, was the alter ego of the well-to-do Brit Helen Darville; Hiroshima survivor Araki Yasusada, celebrated in a 1996 special issue of American Poetry Review, was a fiction contrived by community college professor Kent Johnson. The list goes on; creative writing mutates into creative authoring. Painstaking frauds like these hit a nerve because they organically indict the practice of using the author’s sociocultural status to confirm the “authenticity” of a text. In a larger sense, they uproot the reader’s assumption of inscribing her idea of an author onto the text she is reading. The reader writes the author as surely as the author does the text; if one authorial mask slips to reveal a less convenient face, the mirror cracks.

As it can for the hoaxer. Take the perpetrators of the Ern Malley prank, which Foster taught in a seminar session on famous literary deceits. In 1943, the aspiring Australian poets James McAuley and Harold Stewart sent a batch of dog-eared, coffee-speckled pages of verse by a Keatsian unknown, dead at 26, to the journal Angry Penguins; the editor, Max Harris, adored the poems, much to the wicked delight of McAuley and Stewart, who claimed they had dashed off Malley’s 17-poem canon in half a day. But their little joke turned out to have more than one punch line. As Foster explains, “The Ern Malley poems received critical acclaim even after the actual authors announced them to be utter rubbish. Skilled parody, after all, requires a measure of artfulness.” Foster adds, “McAuley and Stewart may join in the critical discussion, but they do so as readers, not as arbiters of meaning or value.” He quotes one of his students, Hilary Shroyer: The duo’s disavowals “make as little difference to readers (those who ‘own’ the text in terms of its meaning and interpretation) as would the protestations of a madman that his grocery list is a work of stunning genius.”

Harold Bloom says Shakespeare created us; you could infer from Shroyer that we create Shakespeare. It’s a splendid means of passing the buck. During the Primary Colors contretemps, Joe Klein shouted from all available rooftops that he didn’t pen the book, even after Foster had plucked him from the lineup of suspects; Klein knew the gig was up only when notes in his hand were found on the manuscript. But Don Foster, of all people, sets the bar for burden of proof higher than handwriting analysis or his own well-tested brand of linguistic sleuthing. And it turns out that partisans on any side of the who-wrote-Shakespeare debate have no earthly hopes of reaching it: “It wasn’t even the notations that absolutely proved authorship. It was the living author saying, I was lying, it’s me.”

Check out the other stories in the Winter 2001 Voice Education Supplement.


Dancer in the Dark

JoJo Dancer had a bone to pick, a big bone, hell, a mastodon’s femur. He was settling old scores, kicking ass and naming names. But to the chagrin, fury, and general amusement of both those named and those left unscathed, JoJo Dancer, a/k/a The Gay Rapper, a/k/a Anonymous, refused to yield his own name, initiating the most intriguing media parlor game of whodunit since Joe Klein penned Primary Colors. One of JoJo’s victims has even promised to deliver a “beat down” to the putative author. The intrigue, for better or worse, would seem to be coming to an end; attributional evidence seems piled high against Spin senior editor Charles Aaron— like JoJo, a “veteran music scribbler.”

In the last week of February, JoJo premiered the “first annual Rock Critical List, a self-serving circle jerk/seance on the grinding, but not irreversible, decline of POP MUSIC JOURNALISM.” Part manifesto, part industry ombudsmanship, and part bilious cheap shot at some of the most prominent rock writers in the business, the RCL was sent to a select number of critics, journalists, and publicists. Soon after, it was made available at the East Seventh Street fanzine emporium See Hear. Spin, of all places, recently posted it on its Web site.

Aaron, however, has adamantly denied authorship, interestingly echoing Klein’s initial denial. “I don’t know who did it, and it’s not me.” At its worst, the RCL is a barrage of pointless, and in some cases potentially libelous, insults aimed at targets with no recourse for satisfaction. But at its best, the RCL is a gauntlet thrown at the feet of the rock-critical community. It is in turns abusive, brilliant, petty, self-loathing, witty, juvenile, and trenchant. And if it’s inspired a great deal of Downtown chatter and venomous backbiting within the incestuous circle of rock writers whence it presumably issued, it should also inspire sincere and rigorous self-scrutiny, an accreditation review which all genres of journalism sorely deserve.

If the author isn’t Aaron, it can only be someone who set out to frame him, laboriously cataloguing his literary tics and compiling them into the JoJo missive. Most damning of all, perhaps, is a reference Aaron makes in an article in the March issue of Spin to “JoJo Dancer” as an alias for Method Man. Oh, but there’s so much more. Both JoJo and Aaron deride “poolside… schmoozing.” Further, both use the same words and syntax. They both litter their prose with unwieldy, hyphenated word pairings like “hormone-
sozzled” and “adjective-addled”
(JoJo) vs “hormone-addled,” “idea-addled,” “coffee-addled” (Aaron); and “Heineken-stained futons” (JoJo) vs. “beer-stained ambience” (Aaron). The two also share a talent, à la Tom Wolfe, for compound coinings like “cringeworthy” (JoJo) and “crushworthy” (Aaron). They even, and this is where it starts to get a little eerie, use the phrase “noontime feedings” in order to drape their subjects in condescending derision (JoJo on Joe Levy vs. Aaron on Jarvis Lestat).

And the catalogue of thumbprints continues: They hyphenate the same words (“late-era,” “party-hearty”), but forego the hyphen in “catchphrase,” “rimshot,” and “starfuck.” Incredibly, it’s hard to even find a single epithet in JoJo’s pile of bile that’s not also present in Aaron’s writing. “Balding,” “bedraggled,” “cheeseball,” “clunky,” “punchless,” “self-righteous,” “self-serving,” “smirky,” and “wounded” all make appearances in the oeuvres of both. The list continues; but what’s the point?

This, at least, was Aaron’s response to inquiries e-mailed to him by the Voice. “A story like yours is hurtful, and it’s also impossible for me to provide any ‘evidence’ to refute it. How does that serve any public ‘need to know’? It doesn’t, and that’s why it’s so depressing.”

The point is that, though the RCL was clearly a smear campaign, that’s not all it was. JoJo did several things at once. For one, he invited the public to a game of Clue. You don’t distribute a puzzle and then ask the recipients not to solve it. It looks like Aaron, it sounds like Aaron, it reads like Aaron. Doesn’t mean it’s Aaron. It’s no easier to conclusively “prove” that Aaron is JoJo than it is for him to “prove” that he is not. But in this age of *69, people are sure as hell going to try. More important, JoJo also asked us all to take him— and those portions of the RCL that actually pose substantive, thought-provoking criticisms— seriously. It’s a perfectly valid request. What’s depressing isn’t that inquiring minds want to know; what’s depressing is that now that we’ve complied with JoJo’s desire (whoever he is), he won’t step to the plate and accept the applause as well as the pillory.