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Stop the G.O.P.! The Rise of the Counter-Constitution

I’VE BEEN WATCHING THE HOUSE Foreign Affairs hearings on television and am struck with the much­ remarked Yogi Berra sense of “déja vu all over again.” For it’s not just that current happenings bring to mind the televised Watergate spec­taculars. Dimly I recall from earlier eons, as an infant sprawled at my mother’s feet, watching yet other congressional hearings illumined on the screen. Senators were put­ting questions to their colleague, Joseph R. McCarthy. And the thought occurs that in each of the Age of Television’s three great contests over the Con­stitution, the rogues’ gallery has never really changed. Those are proud and pa­triotic Republicans sitting over there.

Gerald Holton tells the following story. Sir Peter Medawar, the British scientist, applied for a visa to America, went to the consul, and was asked if he intended to overthrow the Constitution. Sir Peter re­plied: “I would certainly not overthrow it on purpose, and I can only hope I wouldn’t do so by mistake.” The best that can be said of modern Republicanism is that three times in a generation it has nearly done so by mistake.

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Each of the three modern scandals has derived from a mania for anticommun­ism. Exactly what loosed that mania in the McCarthy era hasn’t ever, in my view, been adequately explained, and can’t be, since it has to do with the irrational. But there’s no mystery regarding the causes of the more recent scandals. In Watergate and Irangate alike, the mania got out of hand because of the big dys­function in American political affairs, which is the crisis, by now endemic, in foreign policy.

Everyone describes that crisis differ­ently, but the people to listen to are the ones who evoke it with the despairing phrase “the country has become ungov­ernable.” They mean, of course, that poli­cies acceptable to themselves no longer command automatic consensus, hence can’t be put into effect without going to a lot of bother. In the old days, from the late 1940s to the Vietnam War, things were different. There was a national poli­cy, the Truman Doctrine. The Truman Doctrine quite properly declared commu­nism a tyranny and worried about its spread. It identified Soviet tanks and machinations as principally responsible for the expansion. It pledged a stalwart American resistance. And since the doc­trine was drawn with an eye toward East­ern Europe, where its analysis was accu­rate enough, most Americans approved and in regard to Europe generally still approve, and aren’t entirely wrong to, as the trade unionists of Poland will leap to instruct us.

Unfortunately, the Truman Doctrine, having been devised for Europe, was de­ployed planet-wide. A fatal mistake: to err is Truman, as they used to say. Like all superinstitutions, the Catholic church, for instance, communism has different meanings in different places. On the banks of the Vistula it was a spearhead of Russian imperialism, but in regions far from there, in countries of the Third World, it was a spearhead of anti­colonialism. It wasn’t necessarily any more decent or democratic in these re­moter regions. Most places where com­munism led the anticolonial revolt it proved a disaster, just as Islam, Hindu­ism, and Negritude proved disasters. But like these others, the disaster that was communism didn’t lack, in one region or another, for popular support and national legitimacy. This fact turned the Truman Doctrine upside down. The same policy that led us, in countries like Poland, to champion the rights of the ordinary Poles, led us, in countries like Vietnam, to outdo the communists themselves at exterminating the peasantry. It became a monstrosity, that policy.

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The old Truman consensus split into three. Some people wanted to guide American policy along lines of realpolitik and have done with costly crusades­ — these people were the pragmatic center. Others wanted to follow a compass of humanitarianism and sympathy for whatever was sympathizable in the global anti-colonial revolt — they were the liber­als and the left. And these defections from global Trumanism placed the third group, the hard-line ultras, in a difficult spot. The ultras wanted no retreat at all from the “containment” crusade, or wanted something even tougher — active aggressions against communist move­ments and states. They wanted the sort of policy that, since it touches on mortal­ity and fate, requires, in democratic soci­eties, a consensus. But they didn’t have a consensus.

What happens when such a movement gets into power? Richard Nixon is what happens. Nixon is recalled as a man ani­mated solely by mean motives, namely the desire to be reelected. That’s unfair. Nixon’s motives ran high as well as low. His hairline was their graph. In wreaking his havoc over Indochina, be was making the usual fight for Western ideals and values. He was resisting the ruthless worldwide enemy. But he was discover­ing, too, that America was “ungovern­able.” No country can prosecute a war when TV nightly alarms the public and students riot in the streets and the oppo­sition party runs a virtual pacifist for president.

So the Republican president faced a choice. Either bend with the political winds, which some might call democracy, and lose the war that was defending Western civilization … or, what? Tell himself that necessity creates legitimacy, that the people were with him willy-nilly, that constitutions can take care of them­selves. Then summon the FBI and CIA to their miserable duties. Set up some frisky little agencies of his own. Call in a bit of California ruthlessness. Enlist those high-spirited right-wing Cubans.

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It’s said on Nixon’s behalf, hence on behalf of modern Republicanism as a whole, that Nixon did nothing that wasn’t pioneered by Franklin Roosevelt or by Truman and other presidents who stepped beyond the law, cut legal corners, swelled the powers of their office, operat­ed unconstitutionally. Well, true. When Dean Acheson was acting secretary of the treasury, Roosevelt ordered him to take the country off the gold standard. Ach­eson refused. There were laws; the laws forbade it — to which Roosevelt thun­dered, “That will do!”, promptly accepted the acting secretary’s resignation, and the gold standard was gone with the wind. So the imperial presidency is not a GOP invention.

But this argument evades a rather large point about the great Republican scandals. All government outrages aren’t alike. Every breaking of a law causes two injuries: to law itself, and to the victims at hand. The victims at Roosevelt’s hand tended to be marginal groups, tiny minor­ities, splinter factions. To oppress these people, to persecute small ethnic commu­nities, to harass the Socialist Workers Party, to torment and destroy the politi­cal groupings that champion or are sus­pected of championing one or another foreign power — that is terrible, horren­dous. Government abuses of that sort subvert democracy.

But Joe McCarthy, it will be recalled, ultimately started in on the U.S. Army. Nixon, not content with persecuting the Socialist Workers, went after the Demo­crats. The obstacle that Reagan has found ways to get around isn’t just the pesky peace movement; it is the House and Senate. There is subversion, and there is subversion. Democracies, let’s say, are governments that trample minor­ities. Despotisms are governments that trample majorities. And if, in America, the trampling of minorities has in prac­tice turned out uglier than the trampling of majorities, that’s only because Ameri­can majorities eventually notice what’s going on, and reflect on their historic rights, and then the Constitution does take care of itself, and the gates of Allen­wood prison fly open.

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CALAMITIES LIKE THAT WEREN’T supposed to happen to Ronald Reagan. The Reagan Revolution was supposed to be the modern colossus in American politics, something almost geological, a new mountain range, “the realignment.” It was the right-wing New Deal and Reagan was the new FDR, impervious to the ups and downs of political life. And if the administration was truly in tune with the moment, if it represented that great a shift in American life, what damage could a few moronic escapades inflict? New Deals don’t slip on banana peels.

Yet here are the peels, there is the slipping, and suspicion dawns that Rea­gan’s relation to the public is not like FDR’s. It is, on the crucial issues, like Nixon’s, the famous personality notwith­standing: Nixon with a human face. We haven’t really needed obscure Lebanese newspapers and down-at-heels Wisconsin mercenaries to see this. It’s been plain in the entirely open and public debate over Nicaragua. For what happens when a Reagan Revolutionary stands up to ex­hort the public on this topic? He begins with honest sentiments. Call them Rhetoric A. Global struggle between incompatible systems, says the exhorter. Ruthlessness. Western values. Strategic catastrophe. The Truman Doctrine and its militant codicil, the Reagan Doc­trine — all of this offered in justification of the administration role in Central America. Until suddenly, aghast, the Rea­gan Revolutionary espies his audience. There are canny pragmatists out there, sneers upon their lips. There are de­ranged nuns, people who have never heard of Nicaragua, readers of The Vil­lage Voice, Vietnam War widows. It is the American population. It is ungovernable.

So the Reagan Revolutionary makes a mid-breath shift, the shift we’ve been watching for six years with fascinated horror. From the speaker’s platform pours an unexpected new language, strangely left-wing in origin, of Human Rights, Resistance Movements, Demo­cratic Revolutions, Founding Fathers. It is Rhetoric B, offered in the same cause. Rhetoric A was coherent and plausible, though it makes most people duck. But Rhetoric B is preposterous. You can’t lis­ten to three words without reaching for a mental blue pencil. Nicaragua, no democ­racy, you remind yourself, still is not the human rights hellhole that El Salvador and Guatemala surely are. Somocista thugs are not the legions of the Lord. No one honestly believes in Rhetoric B, no one has ever been convinced by it. Yet it drones in our ears, and for an obvious reason. Any clever government that wished to stuff a minority policy down a majority throat would drone on like that. Who can’t convince, confuses. Who can’t lead, manipulates.

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I pick up the summer issue of Irving Kristol’s foreign affairs quarterly, The National Interest — a sectarian journal named with the right-wing hubris that has brought the country to its present fix — and flip through various disagreeable but honest celebrations of the Tru­man Doctrine, until I come to pages by Elliot Abrams, assistant secretary of state, El Maniotico of the Managua press, who is instructed with applying that Doc­trine. The assistant secretary assures his fellow ultras that from 1984 to 1986 the contras received no armaments aid, as per the congressional ban: “Thanks to the Democratic leadership in Congress, our humanitarian aid program to the resistance forces in Nicaragua has expired, and for two years we have given them no military aid whatsoever.” This from con­tra aid’s “general strategist,” in an article published at the very moment the strate­gist is now reported to have been conspir­ing with the Sultan of Brunei for the $10 million that subsequently disappeared! And if the urge to confuse and manipu­late is at work so cynically in even the soberest journals of the right, what skul­lduggery and disinformation campaigns must have been launched in less friendly terrains?

The Irangate details, what we know of them so far — the role of stupidity, in par­ticular — testify further to the uncolossal quality of the Reagan Revolution. Wash­ington is full of brand-new right-wing in­stitutions reeking with intelligence, de­scribed by Sidney Blumenthal in his brilliant and witty book, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment. They are think tanks and foundations and they account for Reaganism’s heft and deft, the eco­nomic ideas (such as they’ve been), the strategic initiatives, the administration’s ability to find ideologically suitable staff­ers. If we mention Reaganism at all in the same breath as the New Deal, it’s because of these new institutions, which were never available to Nixon and Republicans of long ago. But the right-wing counter-establishment is strangely limited. On its own it could never have captured Wash­ington. Right-wing thought hardly domi­nates the 1980s the way left-wing thought dominated the 1930s. An ordinary right­-wing politician could never have led the new organizations to spectacular double landslide triumphs. The right-wing move­ment was able to conquer only one way: by attaching itself to a miracle candidate, a once-in-history vote-getter.

Something peculiar results. The new right-wing institutions offer Reaganism an extraordinary base of power; but these same institutions depend helplessly on the one irreplaceable man. Nothing in the literature of American politics describes what such an arrangement can be like. I turn therefore to Leon Trotsky, the ex­pert. In his History of the Russian Revo­lution, Trotsky analyzed strengths of the Czarist Regime. There were powerful in­stitutions of every sort, the army, the bureaucracy, the aristocracy, the big capi­talists, who counted among them many capable and decisive people. But by the nature of their system, these people wielded power only by gathering around the throne. The regime was therefore cru­cially compromised. It was no stronger than the czar who held it together, and nothing at all could guarantee that a giv­en czar would be anything more than a royal jerk.

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As it happened, Trotsky tells us, the czar in 1917 was the sort of man who, with revolution breaking out around him, wrote in his diary: ”Walked long and killed two crows. Drank tea by daylight.” He was “a jolly, sprightly fellow in a raspberry-colored shirt.” His own aides were perplexed. “‘What is this?’ asked one of his attendant generals, ‘a gigantic, almost unbelievable self-restraint, the product of breeding, of a belief in the divine predetermination of events? Or is it inadequate consciousness?’ ”

Really, Trotsky has the last word on the Age of Reagan. “The sole paper which Nicholas read for years, and from which he derived his ideas, was a weekly published on state revenue by Meshchersky, a vile, bribed journalist of the reactionary clique, despised even in his own circle … He felt at ease only among completely mediocre and brainless people, saintly fakers, holy men, to whom he did not have to look up … He selected his ministers on a principle of continual deterioration. Men of brain and character he summoned only in extreme situations when there was no other way out, just as we call in a surgeon to save our lives. The czar was might­ily under the influence of the czarina, an influence which increased with the years and the difficulties.” She in turn was un­der the influence of “our Friend,” Raspu­tin, and complained that the country didn’t appreciate the mad monk. And this czar was actually governing.

Thus the life of the vast Republican coalition. We always knew about Rea­gan’s brain; but bamboozled by the mythology of realignment and a right-wing New Deal, we never really thought the brain was making decisions. We thought the miracle candidate was a sort of dum­my put up by the real government, the way bubbleheaded newscasters read scripts written by the real journalists. We thought George Shultz and Caspar Wein­berger were the government and Reagan their newscaster, which was, of course, reassuring, since Shultz and Weinberger appear to be moderate mullahs among the medieval fanatics, to indulge a crazed distinction. But no: Shultz and Weinber­ger were the dummies, there to project the proper image. Reagan was ruling all along. The right-wing institutions pollulating along the Potomac, the national conservative alliance, the cabals of new capital and Sun Belt entrepreneurs that we took to be the powers-that-be — none of these counted in the end. They were strong, but without the miracle man they were nothing. The miracle man therefore held the power. This we learned at Reykjavik, when the jolly, sprightly fellow went into the room all alone with Gorbachev, and not even the American press doubts Gorbachev’s version of what next occurred.

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Events have followed, then, an intelligible course. The ultras are committed to policies like overthrowing the Sandinistas that can only be accomplished with broad consensus support. They get in office and learn there is no consensus. Their own philosophy obliges them to forge on nonetheless, meaning, to connive and manipulate. And since they hold power only because they made the cynical deci­sion to back a miracle candidate, the con­nivances and manipulations necessarily take no shrewder form than the miracle man is capable of providing. Power seeps into the hands of Oliver North, the mad monk. And the path proceeds thusly: In­competence (the blowing up of the Beirut Marines and CIA station), Panic (the ef­fort to ransom Agent William Buckley after he’s instantly captured trying to re­build the CIA), Sentimentality (the effort to ransom everyone). Next comes Cupid­ity (the discovery that the Ayatollah pays cash, good for undercutting congressional bans on contra support). And finally the decision was taken, probably the weirdest move ever made by an American presi­dent: the decision to sell off half the na­tion’s foreign policy under the table in order to subsidize the other half. The popular part of the nation’s policy, ad­mired worldwide, the policy, that is, of antiterrorism: sold! The unpopular part, terrorism of our own: bought! It was a moronic thing to do. It was an action that probably thousands of Republican office­holders could have accomplished with more finesse. But in its main lines, in its ruthlessness to battle what is imagined to be the Soviet foe, in its willingness to have done with the inconveniences of de­mocracy, in its sense that now is the moment of danger and all is permitted, no matter what Congress or the people may desire — in these ways it answered perfectly to what the right has wanted of its president.

Of the members of the Nixon adminis­tration and underground, 20 were con­victed in the aftermath of Watergate. In the present affair, the pile of broken stat­utes has already grown knee-high, even without knowing what happened to the Sultan’s $10 million and the profits from the Ayatollah. There’s no way to figure, of course, who exactly will be convicted. North, the half-late William Casey, John Poindexter, Felix Rodriguez (who wears Che Guevara’s plundered watch), Luis Posada (the mass murderer), Elliot Abrams (the essayist), Richard Secord, George Bush, Robert MacFarlane, Robert Owen, Colonels Mott and Broman — these have to appear on everyone’s list of possibilities. The trials, when they come, will center on specific offenses, such as violat­ing the Arms Export Control Act (pun­ishable by two years in jail or $100,000 or both). But as always in cases like these, the real offenses will have been the “high crimes and misdemeanors” of traditional English law, meaning crimes against the essence of the state.

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THE HEARINGS SHORTLY TO radi­ate anew from every television will spread gladness and delight, of course, and for weeks and months to come, oh joy; but they will spread nonsense, too. For there is a reigning ideology in affairs like this, shared by prosecutors and legislators of both parties and the lawyer class general­ly, according to which politics is nothing and procedure is all. If only Defense and State had been consulted, as correct pro­cedural rules mandate. If only the Na­tional Security Agency was kept to size and not allowed improperly to swell. If only Oliver North’s long-ago hospitalization for “an emotional illness” had not been covered up, thus keeping the ex­-patient’s hands off the national steering wheel. If only Senator Pat Moynihan and select colleagues had been brought into the secret, as by law ought to have oc­curred. If only, then surely …

Lists of new procedures will therefore be proposed for the purpose of “saving the presidency,” as variously interpreted by conservatives and liberals, to wit: the conservatives wish the presidency saved from the liberals, and the liberals wish it saved from itself. The conservatives will seek less restraints for White House may­hem, reasoning that what really caused the Nica-Persian fiasco was a meddling press and hypocritical liberals. The liber­als will seek congressional control, rea­soning that sanity and common sense vary inversely with the geographical spread of a politician’s electorate. The liberal proposals will be vastly preferable. But what will even the most liberal of procedural reforms accomplish in the end? It can be predicted.

The year is 1995. For six years there’s been a new president. It is Jack Kemp. Why shouldn’t he be? Looks like Bob Forehead. Never been accused of selling a nuclear weapon to the Ayatollah. Ex-star. Chairman of the House Republican Con­ference. And President Kemp, a sincere man, sets about enacting his program. This program is not a secret. He outlined it on the New York Times op-ed, Decem­ber 23, 1986, under the ominous title “Trust the President’s Foreign Policy.” Key points are: support for the South African-backed mercenaries in Angola (“freedom fighters”). Support for the So­mocista cocaine traders in Nicaragua (more “freedom fighters”). Opposition to the Contadora negotiations, in spite of State Department preference for diplo­macy. No SALT II. Opposition to any congressional attempts to restrain these extremist policies (the president “must draw the line, and, if necessary, veto any reduction in his authority to conduct for­eign policy”). Also, “immediate deploy­ment” — never mind r&d, those are for sissies — of star wars. The reason: only thus can “Western ideals and values” be defended against the “ruthless, dangerous enemy.” The source of legitimacy: the Truman Doctrine, or rather, “the Roose­velt-Truman-Kennedy tradition.”

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So Kemp acts, and since his program is war-ish and produces actual corpses at the hands of U.S. proxies, he stands in need of across-the-board political back­ing, the kind of backing that the Truman Doctrine enjoyed in its early years. A large Cold War consensus is what he needs.

But there is no consensus. The scien­tists balk at star wars, hardly anyone likes the Somocista drug runners, support for South African mercenaries is confined to three counties formerly under federal occupation in Alabama. Since Kemp’s forehead is, after all, hirsute, Congress votes halfway support. But halfway mili­tarism is no use. President Kemp there­fore faces a choice. He can bend with the wind, which some might call democracy, and abandon his ultra position … or, what? Tell himself that necessity creates legitimacy, that the people are with him willy-nilly, that constitutions can take care of themselves. Then set up some frisky little agencies of his own. Hold a meeting with some aging but ever-spry Cuban-Americans. Be decisive, by God.

So it’s 1995, and the TV is on. Con­gress is holding hearings. Prosecutors prepare preliminaries. Much has gone wrong, the simplest laws have been vio­lated, and everyone is astonished. Shocked! Everybody agrees what caused this new fiasco. It was the violation of procedures; they need to be strengthened. No one will propose the other explana­tion: that political parties can go bad, traditions can turn rancid. Yet this has plainly happened to the GOP, once the party of the upright business aristocracy, now the party of plots and conspiracies, the gangster party in modem politics. ❖

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From The Archives POLITICS ARCHIVE THE FRONT ARCHIVES

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 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FEATURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Michael Douglas: Victim Victorious

Well-Fed Yuppie Michael Douglas Lead Charge for Resentful White Men

“Why don’t I just be that guy, that evil white guy you’re always complaining about?”
— Michael Douglas, Disclosure

Was that a threat or a bleat? Or was it only the satisfied acknowl­edgment of a smart career move? Improbable as it may seem, Michael Douglas currently commands a per-picture salary of some $15 million just to play That Evil White Guy You’re Always Com­plaining About.

American movies are the R&D of American politics. To be a reigning male icon is to promote a social agenda — ­it goes with the territory. John Wayne personified anticommunism at home and in the ‘Nam, Clint Eastwood was the original law-and-or­der licensed vigilante, Sylvester Stallone achieved stardom as Mr. White (Ethnic) Backlash. Arnold Schwarzenegger embodied the global triumph of American capital, but the world-historic role Michael Douglas has assigned himself is something like der Arnold in reverse.

A well-fed yuppie with a face that bobs and weaves around the frame, pretending to menace the camera like a kid’s clenched fist, Douglas has perfected his ability to pro­ject a glowering sense of aggrieved, put-upon masculinity. Taking on the de­fense of home, hearth, and career against a succession of castrating women, not to mention menacing minority groups and ascendant nationalities, Dou­glas has elected himself patron-saint of America’s leading special interest group. He is the heroic, resentful, white-guy, white-col­lar, heterosexual vic­tim, the social hiero­glyph and talk-show staple we might call the Mighty Kvetch. “Sexual harassment is about power. When did I have the power?” Douglas wails in Disclosure. “When?”

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AMERICAN HEROES ARE STOIC BY NATURE. As the leading protagonist of the bedroom horror genre that Fatal Attraction established, if not invented, back in the Reagan autumn of 1987, Douglas taught men to whine. The quintessential Douglas vehicle is an inverted Gothic romance in which women overcome men and bodice-ripping is a source of masculine pain — or even, in the case of Basic In­stinct (1992), death. The quintessential Douglas scene transforms a cozy home or congenial work space into an arena of mortal combat. As his godlike father Kirk Douglas battled fellow gladiator Woody Strode mano a mano in Spartacus, so Michael strips down to grapple with such harridan temptresses as the Medusa-permed Glenn Close, voracious man-eater Kathleen Turner, “fuck of the cen­tury” Sharon Stone, and big-haired Demi Moore in a custom-built Wonderbra.

A figure of fantastic, self-parodic, gangster­ish drive, the senior Douglas embodied a healthy measure of America’s post-World War II strength. Back in the ’50s, when men were men and women knew their place, he slaughtered screenfuls of Vikings, Romans, and Indians. Douglas pere was the closest thing to a Jewish John Wayne. Regularly parodied by Frank Gor­shin as a hoarse, tic-ridden, volatile neurotic, Kirk was perhaps the ’50s most aggressive action star. The younger Douglas brings his father’s (or maybe Gorshin’s) teeth-clenched, anguished in­tensity to the representation of sex-whimper­ing protests even as he’s being fellated.

American tough guys are notoriously in­expressive. In the course of his sweaty, grab-ass copulations, Douglas dramatizes every cliché about erotic torment as well as the inherent ridiculousness of (other people’s) passion. Fa­tal Attraction features Douglas and Close go­ing at each other as she perches on the ledge of a dish-filled sink. In Basic In­stinct, Douglas brings Jeanne Tripplehorn home, slams her against a wall, kisses her, rips apart her underwear, smooches her again, then pushes her facedown onto a chair and takes her from behind. (“You’ve never been like that be­fore,” she observes grumpily.) As der Arnold might tear apart a phone book, Douglas simi­larly rends the panties off Moore’s body dou­ble in Disclosure, while they clank around her high-tech office like a pair of amorous robots.

The American leading man is never thrown for an erotic loss. But Douglas always manages to win the battle and forfeit the war — invariably these actresses displace him from the movie’s center. The struggle is even biologically determined. As one guy observes in Disclosure, “They’re stronger, they’re smarter, and they don’t fight fair.” The dazed recognition that life is unequal — this is the source of Douglas’s pathos.

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MICHAEL DOUGLAS’S DEMOGRAPHIC PEERS include far more talented actors: Jeff Bridges, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, to name three. Even Harrison Ford and Richard Drey­fuss exude greater screen warmth. Yet the more limited some actors are, the deeper they burrow into audience fantasies, the less apt they may be to push themselves, the easier they find it to hitch a ride on the zeitgeist.

“Charlton Heston is an axiom,” Michael Mourlet wrote 35 years ago in a once-notori­ous Cahiers du Cinema manifesto defending violence on the screen. “By himself (Heston) constitutes a tragedy, and his presence in any film whatsoever suffices to create beauty.” Michael Douglas is likewise an axiom — even if his particular tragedy usually veers closer to farce and the beauty of his presence is a matter of some dispute.

Audiences pay to gawk at Arnold’s larger-than-life, indestructible will to power. Douglas, while no less ecce homo, more naturalistically regards his oppressors with fear and loathing, trafficking in humiliation and payback. Un­charismatic as he is, Douglas wouldn’t be any­body’s first choice as a leading man. But a true star is to some degree self-invented, having intuited a need that no one had articulated before. Indeed, it’s the sense of faintly obnoxious second-rateness that makes him such a perfect patsy for his powerhouse leading ladies.

Douglas is a selective demagogue. It appears to be part of his marketing strategy to bait women with his sexist complaints, or to pick on immigrants and the homeless, or boast of his courageously unfashionable attitudes. “You don’t have time to get politically correct,” is how he explained Basic Instinct‘s primal appeal. “Which is what movies are about, emotional catharsis.” So-called political cor­rectness has no place in fantasy — or anywhere else, for that matter. In flacking Falling Down, Douglas declared, perhaps more in sorrow than anger, that “political correctness is a state of mind, it’s a dream, it’s nirvana — and it has nothing to do with reality.”

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Douglas casts himself as someone who speaks truth to power (or is it powerlessness?). While it is diverting to imagine Kirk in any of his son’s roles, as a professional Man, Michael is dearly Kirk’s heir. Indeed, before he was any­thing else, Michael was Kirk’s son — which is to say the privileged progeny of’ ’50s affluence and hypermasculine display. Kirk’s career role of Spartacus adorns the cover of Roudedge’s fashionably titled scholarly anthology, Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema; self-made and self-named (he titled his autobiography The Ragpicker’s Son, boasting within that he taught his own mother to write her name), he never lost a certain class re­sentment or the sense of himself as an object. Regarding The Champion, the movie that made him a star, Douglas senior told Roger Ebert that he “was probably the only man in Holly­wood who’s had to strip to get a part.”

Kirk cast a giant shadow, at least on his firstborn. Michael Douglas first appears in the text that is Hollywood as a dutifully conflicted son. A commune-dwelling longhair during the ’60s, he broke into the movies as the would-­be Hollywood personification of the torment­ed Vietnam generation. In the supremely am­bivalent Hail, Hero! (1969), he played a hippie peacenik who secretly enlists in the army to please his World War II vet father; in Adam at Six A.M. (1970), he was an idealistic young college instructor. At the climax of Summertree (1971), draftee Michael was actually killed in battle, even as his hawkish parents contentedly made love. (The last film was produced by papa Kirk, then starring in male menopause dramas like The Brotherhood and The Arrangement.)

While falling far below the Fonda kids as a celluloid generational symbol, Douglas did successfully project a counterculture persona into American living rooms as veteran cop Karl Malden’s college-educated, idealistic-liberal protegé in Streets of San Francisco (ABC, 1972-77). In this, he earned Kirk’s approval, defined as staking out a healthy slice of the spotlight: “My father was impressed when I was doing the series because it was seen by 22 million people a week, every single week, in America alone.” Before Streets of San Francisco’s final season, Douglas quit his role as Malden’s foil. In the show, it was explained that he had left the force to become a teacher; in fact, he had retired to savor another late counter-cultural cum Oedipal triumph — as an Oscar-winning producer.

Persuading his father to give up a cherished fantasy of starring as McMurphy in the movie version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Douglas succeeded in getting the picture made and then sweeping the Oscars. “It’s all downhill from here,” he correctly told reporters after the ceremony. Douglas nevertheless followed up by producing a second liberal hit, the meltdown melodrama The China Syndrome (1979), and rehearsing his role as the zeitgeist’s darling. The China Syndrome had the amazing good fortune to open less than two weeks before the near-catastrophe at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. “It goes beyond the realm of coincidence; it’s enough to make you religious,” was Douglas’s com­ment at the time.

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LIKE MANY A BEMUSED HOLLYWOOD liberal, Douglas missed the Reagan reformation — making nothing more interesting than two adventure comedies, Romancing the Stone (1984) and Jewel of the Nile (1985), wherein he attempted to pass for a chillier version of Harrison Ford, playing opposite a steamy Kathleen Turner. It was not until that ultimate celluloid father in the White House suffered severe image paralysis toward the close of his second term that Douglas came into his own.

Fatal Attraction (1987) was Douglas’s Spartacus — a midcareer, midlife political manifesto that remains his top-grossing ve­hicle. Cannily, he promoted it as a form of sexual backlash: “If you want to know, I’m really tired of feminists, sick of them. They’ve really dug themselves into their own grave. It’s time they looked at themselves and stopped attacking men.” For the first time, Douglas presented himself as a male advocate and, in doing so, revealed a demagogue’s knack for bringing a crowd to its feet. As was well-documented at the time, the movie inspired an extraordinary degree of viewer participation, with spectators typically exhorting Douglas to “kill the bitch!” as he defended his family against the crazed assault launched by Glenn Close’s jilted one-night stand.

As Fatal Attraction, which put adultery on the political map, presaged the fall of Gary Hart, so Wall Street ap­peared less than two months after the Octo­ber 1987 stock-market crash that signaled the demise of the boom-boom ’80s. An openly “liberal” movie, Wall Street provided Douglas with an openly villainous role. His portrayal of financier Gordon Gekko was that of an unapologetically and totally powerful white guy — the megabully that lives deep inside every whiny wimp. The part, which won Douglas an Oscar, may be closest to his heart: “I don’t think Gekko’s a villain,” he explained at the time. “Doesn’t beat his wife or his kid. He’s just taking care of business. And he gives a lot of people chances.”

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Taking care of business, giving people chances. Since then, Douglas has enjoyed uncanny timing. His 1989 Osaka-set thriller, Black Rain, globalized Fatal Attrac­tion‘s sense of white men under siege. The movie, in which a typically baffled and enraged Douglas lashes out at an incomprehensibly alien (and, in some ways, “unmanly”) culture, materialized even as popular resentment peaked against the Japanese companies that — then blatantly buying up “underval­ued” American landmarks like Rockefeller Center and Universal Pictures — threatened America’s status as the world’s preeminent capitalist power. Falling Down, one of the first movies to portray Los Angeles as the new behavioral sink, was in production dur­ing the 1992 riots.

Originally asked to play Falling Down‘s heroic (but henpecked) cop, Douglas intuitively asked for the more fiercely self-pitying and demonstrative role of the laid-off defense worker known, from his license plate, as D-FENS. No less rabble-rousing than Fatal Attraction, Falling Down inspired audiences to cheer as Douglas crashed a Korean grocery (“I’m standing up for my rights as a consumer — ­I’m rolling back prices to 1965″), beat a bunch of Latino gang-bangers, dissed a homeless panhandler, and terrorized the robotic counter kids in a generic fast-food parlor.

For the benefit of the press, Douglas defended D-FENS as the personification of America’s lost middle class. What seemed lost on him was that if life in 1992 was re­ally so rough for middle-class white guys, how much worse was it for everybody else?

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REVENGE FANTASIES ARE A MAJOR COMPONENT in popular entertainments, particularly those designed for the disadvantaged. In this respect, Douglas has devised a more sophisticated form of slasher film. His vehicles are all about putting the shoe on the other foot, turning victims into victimizers and vice versa. Just as immigrants and the homeless make life lousy for hardworking Americans in Falling Down, so Fatal Attraction‘s stalker and Basic Instinct‘s serial killer are female, as is Disclosure‘s rapist. Meanwhile, Douglas is persecuted, passed over, laid off, divorced, beaten up, molested, and harassed.

A successful movie star is to some degree a public servant, shoring up those cultural norms perceived to be in crisis, or effecting a miraculous reconciliation of opposing values. Douglas’s stardom depends on his capacity to project simultaneous strength and weakness. He is the victim as hero — a bellicose masochist, aggressive yet powerless, totally domineering while bat­tered by forces beyond his control (includ­ing, of course, those of his id). It’s the same rationale by which O. J. Simpson can represent himself as a victim of spouse abuse, even if it is his own.

Basic Instinct is echt Douglas — it al­lowed him to synthesize all his previous roles in the person of an arrogantly fallible cop with an addictive personality. His heightened state of deprivation, having given up ciga­rettes, booze, and cocaine when the movie opens, alludes to his offscreen life: Douglas’s media image is typically that of the licentious workaholic. Magazine profiles emphasize his tremendous, ongoing success as well as his public battles against substance abuse and “sex addiction” in the context of a long-run­ning society marriage.

Douglas asks pity for the constraints un­der which he suffers as well as for those urges that he indulges. Both are defined as Woman. But where Sigmund Freud wondered just what it was that women desired, Douglas knows only what it is they don’t: “If we followed the rules, we’d all be these sensitive, upstanding, compassionate men­ — and no women would want us.” Hence the logic of the Evil White Guy.

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On one hand, men are persecuted. “Guys are going through a terrible crisis right now because of women’s unreasonable demands,” Douglas told the press while pro­moting Fatal Attraction. In that movie, Close demands that Douglas “face up to your responsibilities,” just as Moore, in Disclosure, orders him to “come back here and finish what you started!” The fear of being worked (or fucked) to death is matched by another anxiety. Basic Instinct is fascinated by Sharon Stone’s lesbian attachments, while Disclosure makes early, joking reference to a situation in which a child has two mommies. But these references seem less homophobic than misogynist — the manifestation of a male’s fear that he might be expendable. (It is an amusing footnote to the protests directed against Basic Instinct that one deliri­ous group of activists demanded, among oth­er things, that Douglas’s character be made lesbian and recast with his movieland ex-wife Kathleen Turner.)

Women define Douglas’s success as a movie star as well as his representation of life as a man. Even when women are not the primary enemy, as they are in Fatal Attraction, The War of the Roses, Basic Instinct, and Disclosure, they serve to exacerbate his predicament. Douglas’s crooked cop in Black Rain needs to make extra money for child support. The vengeful loser in Falling Down is driven over the brink by a cold and rejecting ex-wife. “I have to come home,” he warns her, hav­ing just delighted the audience by telling off an uppity vagrant.

There’s an underlying sadness here. Douglas, after all, was six years old when his parents split up. Broken families are at the center of The War of the Roses and Falling Down. Black Rain and Fatal Attraction alike are haunted by the image of beleaguered pa­triarchy. Disclosure opens with Douglas’s in­effectual announcement that “I am The Fa­ther and when The Father says put your jacket on — you put your jacket on.”

You do if Daddy is Spartacus. Just as Douglas suffers the humiliation of always being the son, so he is frequently put in the position of defending something he fears may no longer even exist. Thus, Basic Instinct evinces the most pathetic longing for Kinder und Küche. Projecting an ideal future with literal man-killer Sharon Stone, Douglas goofily suggests that they “fuck like minks, raise rug rats, and live happily ever after.”

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“I’m the bad guy? How did that happen?”
Michael Douglas, Falling Down

AS THE EMBODIMENT OF WHITE straight male power on planet earth, American presidents typically consort (at least in the national dreamlife) with those Holly­wood ego-ideals and doppelgängers who, like themselves, define what it is to be presumptive Master of the Universe.

Nixon identified with John Wayne, as well as the characters Patton and Dirty Harry. Underdog candidate Jimmy Carter was associated with Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky. Reagan, in addition to playing himself, could morph into Indiana Jones and Stallone-as-­Rambo. For the overcompensating Bush, there was (by then, a kinder, gentler) Arnold Schwarzenegger and diffident Kevin Costner. For Clinton, who has been known to both whine in public and sniff around Sharon Stone, it is Michael Douglas — that is, if it is to be anyone other than Dead Elvis or (oh, the horror!) Barbra Streisand.

Although Disclosure hasn’t proved as mighty a windfall as Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct — are we getting tired of him yet — Douglas has at least temporarily sup­planted Arnold as Hollywood’s Mr. America. Junior, the latest and most radical varia­tion on the monstrous Schwarzenegger physique, tanked with squeamish audiences. (In his hubristic self-sufficiency, a pregnant Arnold made the mistake of playing both characters in a bedroom horror flick — and for comedy no less.) What, especially in the autumn of 1994, was Arnold getting in touch with his female side compared to the spectacle of the ex-hippie, glib yuppie Dou­glas rallying the troops once more — pre­vailing against another oversexed, postfem­inist, smart-assed, professional bitch? Yes!

That sort of appeal can take you straight to the top — just ask the Republicans. Indeed, as unlikable as he is, Douglas will next appear in the role of a successful politician. Wayne, Eastwood, Stallone have never gone this far. As his crowning achievement, Michael Douglas has been cast in the title role of Rob Reiner’s The American President. What’s more, it’s a romantic comedy. The Ragpicker’s Grandson, playing a wid­owed commander in chief (ding, dong, the bitch is dead), presumably ups his belea­guerment quotient by getting involved with a comely environmental lobbyist (heh heh), Annette Bening, whom his aides must smuggle in and out of the White House boudoir.

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Can it work? Will the wily Bening char­acter attempt to hijack the president’s health care program? Does she accuse him of in­decent exposure? Try to steal his job? Attempt to eviscerate the D·FENS budget with an ice pick? Can the long-suffering American people forgive this well-meaning but spineless victim of his indiscretions and appetites — his basic instincts? Will we “Hail to the Chief” chump? Assuredly, providing that he asserts his presidential prerogative and puts that tricky lobby lady in her place. (Douglas should have no difficulty with the requisite flackery: Corporations are going through a terrible crisis because of environmentalists’ unreasonable demands. The greens are digging their own grave.)

Just before Christmas, gossip columns reported Douglas hanging out at the White House to absorb the presidential vibe. So was Douglas sizing up the newly chastened Bill Clinton to prepare for his ultimate ex­ercise in belligerent self-pity, heroic victimization, and protection of the realm? Or was it, somewhat more logically, vice versa? ❖

1995 Village Voice article by J Hoberman about resentful white men portrayed in Hollywood movies

1995 Village Voice article by J Hoberman about resentful white men portrayed in Hollywood movies

1995 Village Voice article by J Hoberman about resentful white men portrayed in Hollywood movies

Categories
From The Archives NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES Security THE FRONT ARCHIVES Washington, D.C.

The Spy Who Came Down on the Freeze

Rees, Reagan, and the Digest Smear: The Spy Who Came Down on the Freeze
August 16, 1983

“Certainly, while he was campaigning, and in the years before he was president, he had my material, and he made use of my material in his radio programs. And that goes back years. That goes back to the time he was governor of California.”

The man describing his intelligence gathering for the president is John Herbert Rees, right-hand man to John Birch Society chairman and Georgia con­gressman Larry McDonald. Rees has been dogged for years by charges that he is a con man, police informant, and agent pro­vocateur.

Rees may be boasting a bit. But ob­servers on both the left and the right have credited his articles as the primary source for the Reader’s Digest piece Reagan cited last fall as gospel “evidence” that the Soviets had “inspired” and were “ma­nipulating” the U.S. nuclear freeze move­ment. Digest author and senior editor John Barron assured reporters that the president “made very extensive inquiries, before he spoke, on the facts in that arti­cle.” FBI assistant, director Roger S. Young told The New York Times the same day that Reagan’s comments were “persistently consistent with what we have learned.” And in an Oval Office press conference, Reagan himself claimed he had verified the Digest piece.

Since then, FBI director William Webster has retreated from the allega­tions. But as surely as The White House stands by its charges, with the freeze reso­lutions now coming before the Senate, John Rees denies he was ever more or less than a journalist. However, documents released under the Freedom of Informa­tion Act, and recently produced in a Na­tional Lawyers Guild lawsuit charging unconstitutional government surveillance, prove that Rees made informing on politi­cal groups “a profession”; moreover, a 1968 FBI memo concludes, “Rees is an unscrupulous, unethical individual… Information from him cannot be con­sidered reliable.”

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Given current political realities, it’s no great surprise that the president echoed charges which first appeared in print under Rees’s byline. Rees, 57, plays a central if largely unseen role among the coterie of ultraconservative commentators and courtiers influential with Reagan, a group whose legitimacy Reagan’s presidency has boosted enormously. Reagan, after all, chaired the unsuccessful senatorial cam­paign of arch-conservative Birch sup­porter Loyd Wright in the 1962 California GOP primary. Such are the connections that lie at the heart of the smears against the U.S. freeze movement.

It is Rees’s job, within this clique, to “document” the charges of “subversion” often used in right-wing attacks on the left. Besides covering Washington for var­ious Birch periodicals, Rees publishes the closely circulated Information Digest (subscription price: $500 a year), which purports to focus on “the background … operations and real capabilities of social movements and political groups.” ID reports have been distributed mostly among intelligence units and conservative politicians such as former governor Meldrim Thomson of New Hampshire and Reagan.

Rees is also listed as editor at the curious Western Goals Foundation, founded in 1979 by Larry McDonald in Alexandria, Virginia, to “rebuild and strengthen the political, economic and so­cial structure of the U.S. and Western Civilization so as to make any merger with totalitarians impossible.” To this end, Rees produces foundation tracts such as “The War Called Peace — The Soviet Peace Offensive,” and oversees the com­puterization of what McDonald claims are 100 file cabinets of data on “terrorism and subversion.” (In an outgrowth of an ACLU lawsuit charging Los Angeles po­lice with improper intelligence activity, the department recently investigated whether one of its detectives improperly supplied confidential police files to West­ern Goals. According to Stern magazine, staff members of the German-based Western Goals Europe have been linked to the CIA and its German equivalent, the BND.)

The New Right’s leading lights have shined warmly on Rees. Robert Moss, co­author of The Spike, who in the summer of 1981 testified as an “expert on terror­ism” at Senator Jeremiah Denton’s hear­ings on “Terrorism: The Role of Moscow and Its Subcontractors,” says Information Digest is “the most important public source available in this country on the activities of the radical left … ” Allan Ryskind, an editor at Human Events, which Reagan has called “must reading,” says he has reprinted articles from Information Digest “directly,” and lauds “Rees’s enterprising journalism and credibility.” Heritage Foundation pundit Sam Francis cites Rees as “authoritative.” Reed Irvine of Accuracy in Media con­fidently quotes “John Reese (sic) … a well-known investigative journalist.”

Such endorsements may help explain the striking similarities between Rees’s Birch and Western Goals screeds and the Reader’s Digest piece Reagan cited last October. In the February 1982 issue of American Opinion, Rees concluded that “the Soviet Union is running the current worldwide disarmament campaign through the KGB and front organizations … ” Eight months later, Barron averred in The Reader’s Digest that the U.S. freeze campaign “has been penetrated, manipulated and distorted to an amazing degree by people who have but one aim — to promote communist tyranny by weak­ening the U.S.”

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In the Atlanta Constitution last No­vember, Ann Woolner and Jerry Nesmith said Barron told them he had seen the Western Goals report, but that it was one of over 200 sources. Woolner and Nesmith listed numerous instances in which Bar­ron cites the same meetings, excerpts the same quotes, and uses paraphrasing simi­lar to Rees’s. For example:

In March, in his Western Goals report, “The Soviet Peace Offensive,” Rees wrote: “Mel King, active with both the World Peace Council and the U.S. Peace Council, gave a militant speech, saying, ‘We’ve been too damn nice … (and) al­ways on the defensive … It’s time we stopped just getting mad and started get­ting even.’ ”

In October, in Reader’s Digest, Barron wrote: “Mel King, a Massachusetts state legislator active in both the World Peace Council and the U.S. Peace Council, demanded a more militant spirit. ‘We’ve been too damn nice,’ he declared. ‘It’s time we stopped just getting mad and started getting even.’ ”

In March, for Western Goals, Rees wrote: “Rep. Gus Savage (D-Il.) stressed the need to bring black and other minority groups into the disarmament move­ment.”

In October, in Reader’s Digest, Barron wrote: “Congressman Savage spoke about how to induct blacks and other minorities into the disarmament drive.”

In March, Rees wrote: “… U.S. Peace Council executive director Mike Myerson, who has been a Communist Party U.S.A. functionary since his student days some twenty years ago, emphasized the U.S. Peace Council and World Peace Council’s unique responsibility of merging the fight for Western disarmament with pro­vision of support to … revolutionary groups in El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile, South Africa and the PLO … ”

In October, Barron wrote: “The execu­tive director of the U.S. Peace Council, Michael Myerson, a longtime communist functionary, asserted that the U.S. Peace Council had a unique responsibility to fuse the cause of disarmament with that of the Palestine Liberation Organization and guerrillas in El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile and South Africa.”

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“John Rees is simply a good journalist who has done a valuable service in alerting the American people and the American government to the threats against our se­curity from terrorists, subversive, total­itarian and extremist organizations,” said Larry McDonald in the Congressional Record in 1981. “John Rees deserves com­mendations and accolades from the Amer­ican people.” Law enforcement agencies, however, have not always agreed with Rees’s boss.

The FBI first took note of Rees in the early 1960s in his native England. He worked in a minor business position for the London Daily Mirror. According to an FBI memo released under the FOIA, Rees misused his personal accounts, and was fired by the Mirror. Agents in the FBI office at the London U.S. Embassy dis­covered that during 1962 Rees had been “keeping the company” of a bureau steno­grapher. “Rees’s background and the fact that he was married and had five children were confidentially furnished to this stenographer, who was visibly shaken by this news inasmuch as she had planned to marry Rees,” the memo notes. Humil­iated, the secretary resigned from the FBI.

Leaving his family behind, Rees came to America in 1963 to take a reporting job. The job fell through. But when Rees was introduced that fall to Grace Metalious, author of Peyton Place, he presented himself as a writer for a Boston daily, and talked her into letting him do a “profile” on her. Metalious had been ruined by her own success, writes Emily Toth in Inside Peyton Place. She was recently divorced, isolated, and a chronic alcoholic.

The promised profile never appeared. But Rees soon became Metalious’s lover and business manager, and by December had moved into her Gilmanton, New Hampshire, estate. According to Toth’s book, Rees often kept family and friends away from her as Metalious sank deeper into alcoholism. On a rare visit, Metalious’s daughter Marsha found the house strewn with garbage and empty liq­uor bottles.

During a trip to Boston shortly there­after, Metalious collapsed, and died on February 25, 1964, of cirrhosis of the liver and massive cerebral hemorrhaging. Her deathbed will left her entire estate to Rees and nothing to her three children. She had known Rees less than six months. After the will was contested on behalf of the children, Rees relinquished his claim for what he called moral reasons. The FBI reached a different conclusion: “Rees subsequently renounced all claim to the estate when it was determined that the liabilities exceeded the assets.”

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By 1968 Rees had relocated in riot-stricken Newark where he worked as a research director in a Great Society job­-training program until he was forced to resign. Auditors discovered that while col­lecting his federal pay, Rees was often out of town for his own company, National Goals, Inc., a “non-profit organization spe­cializing in areas of education, training and law enforcement.”

In a plan submitted to the U.S. Justice Department, National Goals proposed the creation of “community peace patrols” to quell “the summer months and threats of violence and disorder.” Rees wanted to use federal funds to equip Anthony Imperiale’s North Ward Citizen’s Commit­tee, a white militant group, and Kamiel Wadud’s United Brothers of Newark, a black militant group, with uniforms, helmets, walkie-talkies, tape-recorders, cameras, patrol cars, four offices, and two warehouses. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and New Jersey governor Richard Hughes denounced it as a vigilante scheme.

Meanwhile, Rees and an investigator for the House Committee on Un-Ameri­can Activites (HUAC) quietly visited the Newark FBI office to cut a deal. “He stated he had information of a racial and criminal nature which he and the in­vestigator from HUAC believed was of an interest to the FBI,” agents observed in a report. “He attempted to sell himself and his services to the FBI.”

But like the Justice Department, the FBI wasn’t buying — at least. not yet. “Rees talked in generalities … and furnished no information of value,” the memo concludes. “The interviewing agents believed his interests were self­-serving and that he came to the FBI thinking this would enhance his creden­tials in contacting other potential clients.”

Rees remained undaunted. In Septem­ber 1968, according to FBI documents, he was undercover in Chicago, covertly tap­ing lawful political meetings for secret testimony he would later give before HUAC. Again a HUAC investigator of­fered the FBI the fruits of Rees’s labors. Again agents shied away. “We should not initiate any interview with this un­scrupulous, unethical individual concern­ing his knowledge of the disturbances in Chicago,” wrote an agent, “as to do so would be a waste of time.”

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Yet Rees had found his niche. He’d made several cameo appearances before HUAC, peddled his information to vari­ous police departments, and by now, ac­cording to Rees, Information Digest was finding its way onto the desks of Reagan gubernatorial aides beset by campus pro­tests. Frank Donner charged in The Age of Surveillance that “Rees used a familiar scam: he would hawk information to one department (typically a lurid tale of a violent plot) and in the course of this transaction pick up information that he in turn would peddle to a unit in another city. In the same way, he enlarged his sources for Information Digest.”

He also found a spouse. John Rees and Sheila Louise O’Connor arrived in Wash­ington, D.C., just before the 1971 May Day protests and quickly assimilated themselves into left circles.

Rotund, bearded, and longhaired, Rees was an articulate pamphleteer who often sported an Anglican priest’s collar. Sheila, big-boned and over six feet tall, was a whiz at office work. They came complete with then-rare commodities: an IBM Selectric and Gestetner mimeograph ma­chine.

In July Secret Service agents spotted Rees in a demonstration at the South Vietnamese Embassy. Running a com­puter check on him, they received several interesting reports. According to a Secret Service memo obtained by the National Lawyers Guild, the Washington Metro­politan Police Department disclosed that it employed Rees as an informant. The Chicago Police Department reported “subject is unreliable and is known to make a profession of providing intelli­gence to police departments.” The Secret Service memo also stated that the IRS had revealed “subject was a known con man in England.”

The agents also learned that Rees “possibly carries a gun” and used a string of aliases, including John Sealy, S. L. O’Connor, and Jonathan Goldstein. Besides his work as an informant, agents found, he had no known employment.

Yet at about the same time, FBI docu­ments indicate, the FBI designated Rees Potential Security Informant (PSI) No. WF-3796. (Sheila would later become a PSI too.) Like full-fledged informants, PSIs are paid for their information.

Former FBI agents and congressional staff familiar with intelligence matters said the government’s negative evalua­tions of Rees should have disqualified him from working for the FBI. But they noted that, as with Mel Weinberg in the Abscam case and Gary Thomas Rowe in the Ku Klux Klan, the bureau has used less-than-­credible informants in attempting to get convictions or discredit a target. The FBI will use “anybody they can,” explained a former agent. “But I wouldn’t touch Rees with a 10-foot pole … all you’re going to do is get yourself in trouble.”

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Rees and O’Connor moved into a left collective at 1616 Longfellow Street, N. W. Friction quickly developed. One day while searching for a packet of checks she be­lieved the Reeses had taken from her, a housemate stumbled upon a bizarre cache in their usually locked room. Pat Richartz, now a West Coast legal assistant, recalled finding “several guns, boxes of bullets,” and “a large black suitcase con­taining everything to wiretap a house.”

In the midst of Richartz’s discovery, the Reeses returned. According to Rich­artz’s signed affidavit, Sheila beat her “unmercifully” while John held her two young daughters. Stew Albert, then a D.C. activist and now a California-based writer, saw Richartz shortly after the al­leged attack. “She came up to my apart­ment looking very messed up,” he said. “She said John and Sheila did it to her.” Richartz claims she still takes daily medi­cation for migraine headaches stemming from the assault.

Richartz accused the Reeses of being informants, but no one believed her at the time. She was seen as an outsider; the Reeses were valuable volunteers. Richartz left for California. In researching this arti­cle, Sheila Rees could not be reached for comment on the charges.

When in July 1972 the National Law­yer’s Guild opened a Washington chapter and became rapidly involved in represent­ing activists and antiwar groups in Wash­ington, Sheila volunteered to be office manager. Soon she became the office’s key administrator and a member of the Guild’s national executive board; mean­while, John supplied the FBI a steady stream of internal Guild documents.

During the Guild’s 1973 national con­vention in Austin, Texas, for example, Rees provided the bureau with “ex­tensive” information, according to FBI memos, noting who spoke, what they said, the names of petition signers, and amounts of chapter contributions to the national office. He also supplied a letter concerning the Guild’s anti-surveillance project.

The Guild’s worst fears were not con­firmed until 1975, however, when New York State Assembly staff investigating Information Digest contacted them. The Reeses, now living in Baltimore, soon be­came central figures in anti-surveillance lawsuits brought by the Guild, the In­stitute for Policy Studies, and the Social­ist Workers Party. Shortly thereafter, ac­cording to a deposition Rees gave IPS attorneys, he transferred Information Digest‘s materials to McDonald’s office. McDonald brought O’Connor onto his congressional staff, and made Rees editor at Western Goals.

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When enough time had passed after the Reader’s Digest article to form a fat political cushion, FBI director Webster told Face the Nation in April that “the overall freeze effort does not seem to us to have been dominated … or successfully manipulated” by the Soviets. Yet those most vocal about alleged dissemblance in the freeze movement were most reticent about government reports on Rees’s shady past.

Reader’s Digest prides itself on its ac­curacy. It touts Barron, a former naval intelligence officer, as an expert on Soviet spying. But while Digest staff assured me that he’d picked up my messages, Barron returned none of my calls.

Last September, Jeremiah Denton en­tered some of Rees’s work into the Con­gressional Record to back up his claim that freeze supporters were commie dupes. Denton’s press aide said he was too busy for an interview during the next two weeks. But questioned briefly on his way to a Subcommittee on Security and Ter­rorism meeting, Denton said he was un­aware that the FBI had evaluated Rees as “unreliable,” or that the IRS had reported he was a “con man.” Asked if he did consider Rees reliable, Denton explained, “I was handed that stuff, that’s it, just to get information into the record on that matter … I didn’t get to see it … ”

McDonald refused requests for an in­terview. When shown a copy of an FBI memo on Rees outside an elevator, he summoned a nearby officer. “This reporter is bothering me,” he told the cop.

Rees himself, in an abruptly termi­nated interview, said he was merely a reporter with a unique philosophy. He said he favors stories that focus on “what I like to call the further shores of political thought, which range from Marc Raskin at IPS to Gus Hall of the Communist Party to the people who run Posse Com­itatus and the Minutemen and the Klan. And I see no difference between Marc Raskin and the Grand Dragon of the Klan because they’re both fuckheads … who want to control the world. I don’t like that.”

Rees claimed that similarities between his stories and the piece by Barron, whom he has described as a friend, were “coincidence.” He said Reagan had used his information during the 1980 campaign, and that while he was governor “members of his staff were getting Information Digest.”

He challenged charges that he or his wife had ever worked as government in­formants. “You just have to do one thing,” he said. “Find me proof that we have been paid informants … ”

Faced with such documents, however, Rees refused to comment and halted the interview. He and his assistant left our table at a congressional cafeteria, went directly to McDonald’s office, and slammed the door.

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In his suite at the J. Edgar Hoover Building, FBI assistant director Roger Young and two assistants sat at the op­posite end of a huge coffee table, on chairs about a foot higher than the long, low couch where I sat alone.

Young said the FBI was familiar with the Barron article, but could recall no White House requests to verify it. He shrugged off questions about Rees. “We cannot be involved in evaluating some­body’s factual situation,” he said. “Our job is not to evaluate one journalist’s statements.”

The agent who escorted me out suggested, “It would probably be better if you went through the White House.”

White House deputy press secretary Lyndon Allin spoke with me several times over the phone, carefully evading my questions.

“When the president said he verified the Reader’s Digest article, did he mean it was examined as to its factual content?”

Allin: “Well, I think the term ‘ex­amined’ is a little harsh …. ”

“Who would have actually checked it?”

“I have no idea … There was no for­mal investigation — we don’t do that with the free press in this country for crying out loud!”

“Can you tell me who, if not an agency, verified the Digest piece?”

“No. We don’t get into process around here. That isn’t the way you run a govern­ment.”

“Was the president aware that one of the main sources for the Digest story was John Herbert Rees, a former police informant whom the FBI once called an ‘unscrupulous, unethical individual’ and an ‘opportunist,’ whom the IRS once described as a ‘con man’?”

“I just told you I wasn’t going to go any further … ”

“Rees claims he sent materials to Mr. Reagan and his staff during the presidential campaign, and that tbe president used them. Is that true?”

“I have absolutely no idea.”

“The FBI seems to contradict the pres­ident’s assertion that the KGB is manipu­lating the U.S. freeze movement. They say they’ve attempted — and failed — to manipulate it.”

“No. I think they say they’ve at­tempted to control it … But the fact of the matter is that the definition of ‘ma­nipulation’ is, ah, I think, subject to some discussion … Look — I’m not Noah or Daniel or whatever his name was that wrote the dictionary. And I’m not gonna get into that. The president’s word stands. And that’s that.” ■

Categories
From The Archives NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Madison Avenue, Moscow

With the Russians at the Summit

GENEVA — The Russians called their Mission in Geneva “Madison Avenue, Moscow” and won­dered aloud if an American Express card in Raisa Gorbachev’s hand would change the world. The 150 men and women who made up the delegation were the Westernized elite of Moscow’s cultural and scientific communities. They sucked on Marlboros and Salems; many chewed thoughtfully on the tips of designer eyeglasses, others removed their jackets to reveal the Ralph Lauren polo ponies embroidered on the shirts they had selected at Bloomingdale’s while on assign­ment in New York. When not caught up in the hard­-sell of Mikhail Gorbachev and his version of the Soviet Union, they tuned their TV sets to French cartoons, or strolled to the supermarket to load up on corn flakes.

Fully versed in the arithmetic of nuclear death Rea­gan and Gorbachev had come to Geneva to discuss, the Kremlin account executives also displayed a savvy and sometimes frightening understanding of Patrick Ewing’s rebound average, and what it took to make Raisa a People magazine cover girl. They joked that Gorbachev’s jet was nick­named Comrade One, quipped about the unfortunate bag ladies who must sleep in Union Square, and — breaking a long­standing Soviet policy of never attacking an American leader personally — cracked gleefully that Ronald Reagan was a bad actor who couldn’t remember the time of day. Representatives from the Institute of the U.S.A. and Canada — the Soviet think tank on American policy and cul­ture headed by Georgi Arbatov — wan­dered Geneva like old divas back under the klieg lights, showing a unique affinity for American public relations; they chat­ted up morning talk show bookers, de­scribed by one Russian as “those cute little women” dispatched by the networks to usher the comrades in gray flannel suits into hastily built sets for transmission back to Americans eating their breakfast.

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The Russians stormed Geneva five days before the two leaders arrived, eat­ing, drinking, cajoling, and press releas­ing their way through the snow-dusted city, telling blue-nosed network reporters about their love affair with America. The Russian public relations exercise was a smash, so effective that it overshadowed the critical issues both sides were to have discussed. Mikhail Gorbachev came to Geneva to field test the weaponry of pub­lic relations instead of the weaponry of war. He may not have met Reagan mis­sile for missile, but he beat him badly press event for press event. The ultimate irony of the summit was that the Great communicator was bested at his own game by a former Soviet agricultural minister.

“I’ve seen all this Russian stuff on TV back home for days,” said Patrick Bu­chanan, the White House’s most hawkish adviser, upon his touchdown in Geneva four days into the Soviet PR blitzkrieg. “They’re not saying anything new. I don’t know why anyone is listening.”

The Russians might not have been say­ing anything new, but they were saying it in a new way — with style, the cool, famil­iar televised style that Americans used to consider their own. Although the Soviets never fully understood what they wrought in Geneva, they were generally pleased with the result. The Old Guard of Brezhnev and Chernenko and Andropov had been wrong — not all Americans were congenital scum. There were great Amer­icans — people like David Hartman, Bry­ant Gumbel, Maria Shriver, and the hungry packs of style reporters from the New York Times and the Washington Post.

The Russians plunged head first into media-politics, selling their general secre­tary like an American president. “Ronald Reagan is used to the image of the Sovi­ets as cheaters who do things behind closed doors,” said Sergey Plekhanov, deputy director of the Institute of the U.S.A. and Canada. “Our job here is to show that the image the American public has of us is untrue.”

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The White House press corps, who whisked into Geneva wearing baseball caps sweaty with jet lag and toting leatherette gym bags emblazoned with the official White House summit logo, weren’t prepared for the fandango the Russians had to offer. The boys on the bus had come prepared to be disappointed with the Soviet posture toward anything Western, and were shocked to find repre­sentatives of the Evil Empire ready, will­ing, and exceptionally able characters worthy of being quoted. The White House crew had ensconced itself in the Intercontinental Hotel, a $5 cab ride from Madison Avenue Moscow’s head­quarters in the International Press Cen­ter. The first thing they viewed upon ar­rival at the Intercontinental was a Broadway marquee flashing WELCOME TO THE SUMMIT and a dove of peace in bright white lights. “The moment I saw that I knew we were in for a show,” chuckled Jon Margolis, who covered the summit for the Chicago Tribune.

In preparing for the summit, the Sovi­ets had to Russianize words and phrases for events that had been alien to their culture in the past. “Press pool” flowed off Russian lips as “prezza poola,” and the Russian translation for the “news blackout” that was in effect for the sum­mit had something to do with draping a dark curtain over a body. “The Soviets are really turning it on for the summit,” observed Bill Eaton, Moscow correspon­dent for the Los Angeles Times. “It’s really hard to get to these guys back in Moscow, but we’re falling all over them here in Geneva.”

“We were surprised at the extensive­ness of the Soviet briefings, and at Gor­bachev’s quickness to respond to report­ers’ questions,” said Richard Cooper, Los Angeles Times news editor. “It was clear­ly calculated to serve and advance Soviet interests. I think Reagan had made a conscious decision to give Gorbachev the center stage because in some ways it increased the Soviets commitment to a successful summit. Nonetheless, it made them a critically important source of news and comment in light of the news blackout.”

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The Russian PR campaign went to great lengths to script Gorbachev, who arrived in Geneva with a fanfare of accommodation, as a friendly uncle. “Gorby is arriving in a few moments,” said one of the members of the Soviet delegation sent to greet him. The Russians wanted us to like Gorbachev, who, despite his iron teeth, harbored no viceral desire to blow us to kingdom come over Reagan’s intention to orbit a space-based laser weapons system named after a George Lucas movie, the videocassette of which would cost a Muscovite bureaucrat a month’s wages on the blackmarket.

But when it came to Gorbachev’s appe­tite for chewing on meaty global issues like Soviet troops in Afghanistan, the starving children in the Horn of Africa, and the plight of Jews and other minor­ities in the Soviet Union, the general secretary, rather than take a fresh view, took a stance that sounded all too familiar. What impressed people here was that Gorbachev ordered his troops to parade his unsavory policies in public with the snap-crackle-pop sophistication and elec­tric energy of Pepsi’s anti-Coke cam­paign.

“It’s not practical for a Soviet citizen to stand up on a soap box,” roared Soviet jurist Dr. Samuil Zivs, eyebrows flying like a humorless Groucho Marx. Zivs, proud of his role as deputy chairman of the Anti-Zionist Committee of the Soviet Public, a Kremlin-controlled human rights group, was flown to Geneva to hec­tor American television viewers that So­viet Jews never had it so good. Nobody in the press believed him, of course, but they were amazed when he began drop­ping bombs on the Reagan administration for its lack of action on federal budget deficit. “I’m shocked by your monetary problems, outraged that people are homeless and out of work in America. You talk of human rights? Bah! When was the last time anyone in your country listened to the street corner critics you say are so important?”

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But then Zivs, a big man with a deep voice and the huge, dappled hands of an NFL nose guard, dropped his old style polemics and held court on a bright or­ange couch next to a coffee stand in the International Press Center. The couch was his domain, and he ruled the area surrounding it with the sharp gaze of a life-long party member who knows he’s the boss. Zivs said that he was willing to discuss anything, so I asked him if he had seen the movie Rambo.

Rambo,” exclaimed Zivs in a loud whisper, his dark eyes radiating an eager glow. “Did you bring a videocassette with you to Geneva?”

The lengths to which the Russians were willing to go in their attempt to emulate American style was shown in the Battle of the Blondes, a tawdry footnote to the first superpower dialogue in six years. Karna Small, the press spokes­woman for the National Security Council, certainly the most attractive female to take the stage over the course of the sum­mit, sat next to National Security advisor Robert MacFarlane during his briefings at the International Press Center, prompting the Russians to search for a counterpart to perch next to Soviet spokesman Leonard Zamyatin during his own twice-daily press conferences. The Soviets brought out Marina Volotskova, a blonde stenographer at the Soviet Mis­sion to the U.N. and had her look long­ingly into the televison cameras. The Russians thought this was a great coup, and later privately asked a few reporters if they wanted her phone number back in Moscow.

The Soviet thinking behind the meet­ing between Reverend Jesse Jackson and Gorbachev showed how the Kremlin intended to portray the American public’s perception of nuclear peace to their peo­ple. Jackson traveled to Geneva with the leaders of four antinuclear groups to ap­peal for a comprehensive ban on nuclear testing and a freeze on new atomic weap­ons. SANE, Nuclear Freeze, Women for a Meaningful Summit, and Jackson’s Rain­bow Coalition presented Gorbachev with petitions signed by 1.25 million Ameri­cans urging nuclear disarmament and an adequate solution to the plight of Soviet Jews and other Soviet human rights vic­tims. The tête-à-tête between the two men was big-time news in Moscow, re­ceiving seven minutes on the Soviet eve­ning news show Vremya and a front-page story in Pravda — but the reports, not surprisingly, failed to mention Jackson’s appeal for human rights.

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“Gorbachev thinks that the peace movement in the U.S. is significant,” ex­plained Soviet-America watcher Sergey Plekhanov excitedly. “Gorbachev’s popu­list instincts made him meet with Jack­son. He was impressed with Jackson and he thought it was his duty to meet with him because the people he represented were an important part of America and they [the American people] shared the same aspirations.”

But Jackson, who said “good God Al­mighty, these international waters are treacherous” shortly after he was burned for accepting a bear hug from PLO chair­man Yassir Arafat, is a political surfer who roams the world looking for the big­gest wave. Although he was playing for a U.S. audience, Jackson neglected to grasp how the Soviets were going to hitch a ride for their own propaganda purposes, and, more important, as a hedge against Rea­gan. Gorbachev called Jackson a “prominent political leader” because he repre­sented a constituency worthy of stroking in the event of a failed summit. “The meeting between Jackson and Gorbachev was diplomatically risky because Reagan might have taken the time to meet with [Anatoly] Shcharansky’s wife,” a Soviet journalist speculated privately after the summit. “If the summit had been a fail­ure, then Jackson was Gorbachev’s pro­tection. He could say that he was for peace because he met with Jackson.”

The Russians gambled that their en­counter with Reverend Jackson wouldn’t become a pilot fish for disaster, and it paid off when Reagan refused to match the Russians by taking a meeting with the wife of Soviet dissident Anatoly Shcharansky, or any other of the dozens of Soviet human rights activists who flocked to Geneva like cripples to Lourdes.

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The Soviets slickly played the human rights issue to achieve a notable degree of intimacy with the West, particularly in their use of Irina Grivnina, the founder of the now disbanded Moscow Committee to Investigate Psychiatric Abuses. It had taken Grivnina nearly three years to get out of the Soviet Union and she had come to Geneva as a reporter for the Dutch magazine Elseviers only three weeks af­ter being issued an exit visa.

Grivnina is a haggard woman, the re­sult of hard times spent behind Russian bars for editing an underground newspa­per critical of the Kremlin’s psycho-gu­lags. Over the course of the summit, she engaged Soviet spokesmen Leonid Za­myatin, Albert Vlassov, and Vladimir Lo­meiko in barbed public exchanges on the plight of Soviet human rights activists being force-fed drugs in Russian hospital wards.

“We have no psychiatric units and our medical examinations follow strict inter­national norms,” Zamyatin said during one of their frequent arguments in the International Press Center. “We are not scared to confront human rights or the Helsinki agreements. I do not know your circle of friends.”

The poor woman, whipped into a fren­zy by Zamyatin’s lies and threats to “call the militia” to have her removed, would literally foam at the mouth and shake violently, prompting Soviet diplomat Ni­koli Kosolapov to say at one point: “Look! Look for yourself! Do you see how crazy these people you call human rights activists are?”

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The Russians (after a praetorian pha­lanx of KGB guards surrounded her at the Geneva airport so that Gorbachev and his wife would not hear her pleas) asked the Swiss to pull her credentials. They refused, and Grivnina returned to Madison Avenue Moscow for one final battle with foreign ministry spokesman Vladimir Lomeiko. Everyone in the room knew that Grivnina was a ticking time bomb for the Soviets, the only human rights activist willing to risk alienating a press corps utterly charmed with the Russians by wrestling with the Kremlin high command in a forum reserved for questions. Lomeiko spotted Grivnina mo­ments before the briefing began and asked Swiss security police to have her thrown out. Grivnina refused to leave, and the press corps — more interested in asking Lomeiko questions that he never answered — began shouting for her to be removed and pleaded with Lomeiko to stay. Grivnina, gutsy to the end, didn’t budge, forcing Lomeiko to storm out of the room threatening to cancel future briefings.

Madison Avenue Moscow’s queer idea that they could court the West with pub­lic forums was suddenly beginning to look insane. They had not counted on predatory characters like Grivnina domi­nating the scenes they had so carefully sculpted for Geneva. Or so it seemed. Lomeiko, the coolest man in the Soviet camp, turned the confrontation to his ad­vantage by dismissing the incident and holding an impromptu press conference around a small and intimate table in the Situation Room on the third floor of the International Press Center. It was the oldest and most effective trick in Ameri­can politics. The Soviets had not only learned how to cope deftly with their cra­zies, but had effectively dismissed, for the moment, the “ridiculous lies” of Sovi­et human rights activists.

But on one issue, at least, the Soviets seemed ready, even eager, to recant one of their own “ridiculous lies.” Over the past year, the Russians had expressed a hysterical attitude toward the AIDS cri­sis. Pravda and the labor newspaper Trud had written that AIDS was the re­sult of germ warfare research conducted by the CIA on the east coast. One Trud article claimed that the CIA tested this chemical weapon on poor Haitians and unsuspecting homosexuals. Moscow sneered at any suggestion that AIDS was a disease, and categorically refused to discuss the problem in an international forum.

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Robert Kunst, a gay activist from Mi­ami, came to Geneva attempting to change the Soviet’s attitude toward AIDS. Kunst wanted the superpowers to donate $3.6 billion — the price of 20 mis­siles — to a superfund for AIDS research to be set up under the auspices of the World Health Organization. For three days Kunst stood with a banner in the gray Geneva cold outside Madison Ave­nue Moscow, waiting patiently for a promised meeting with a Soviet official, a meeting that nobody — not even Kunst — ­ever thought would take place.

“Kunst and I met over tea for 45 min­utes, and I was there as a representative of the Soviet government,” said Dr. Vladimir Federov, a Russian physician who works at the World Health Organization. “I’m aware of the Soviet position in the past, but I’m taking a scientific approach to the problem of AIDS. We’ve yet to have an outbreak of AIDS in the Soviet Union, but it’s time we get together on this serious problem before it becomes out of control.”

Over breakfast in the Hotel de Rhone, Dr. Yevgeniy Velikhov wanted no news of Soviet dissidents either, but, like Dr. Federov, went out on a limb to modify the Soviet headline in another area. Plunging his spoon into a bowl of Kellogg’s Corn ­Flakes, the mastermind of the approxi­mately $70 million program to computer­ize Russia’s schools and the scientist responsible for Moscow’s own star wars research paused between bites to speak glowingly of America and his “friend” Steven Jobs, one of the founders of Apple Computer. “Steven is very smart and represents the entrepreneurial culture,” enthused Velikhov, wiping a wet flake off one of the tigers on his Princeton tie. “The entrepreneurial spirit is not in conflict with Marxist-Leninist thought. Gen­eral Secretary Gorbachev understands this spirit and is sensitive to it happening in the Soviet Union.”

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If a leading Soviet scientist had equat­ed Marxism with entrepreneurship in the past he would most likely have been trucked off to the gulag for rehabilita­tion. But Velikhov — who signed “From Russia With Love” on U.S. Defense Department booklets that called him “in­strumental in the development of ad­vanced ballistic missile defensive systems” — is a Kremlin favorite, the man who first showed Gorbachev how to use an IBM PC. He deals with his love of things American much in the way a newly dry alcoholic deals with booze — with a reluctant longing for something he desires, but knows he can’t have and wishes he didn’t want.

When asked how a nation that keeps its typewriters and copying machines un­der lock and key will control the free flow of information once the first wave of his 3.5 million computers hits the Soviet Union, Velikhov began speaking of barnyard animals. “We’ve put our first com­puters to work controlling cows,” said Velikhov. “They are much happier with PCs than people. Our cows don’t worry and they milk better.

“The problem with people and com­puters is the technomania that occurs once they understand how computers operate,” Velikhov stressed as he boarded a Mercedes limo waiting to whisk him to Madison Avenue Moscow. “Technomania led the U.S. to develop star wars. We must learn to control technomania.”

Controlling technomania, of course, is Soviet code for controlling the informa­tion fallout from the computer revolution they so desperately need to ignite if they hope to catch up with Western technol­ogy. And that’s the great irony of the Soviet Union, a country that yearns to give its people the tools necessary to com­pete with America yet remains frightened to allow them the personal freedom nec­essary for real growth. In a world geared for specialized and upwardly mobile technicians, the Russians are potential losers, and they know it. Kremlin leaders don’t want their people to submit quietly to their collective fate, but they are stone-cold terrified over what could hap­pen if the Soviet people start believing in the Kremlin’s American PR campaign.

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The interesting thing is that the Rus­sians, who have always been so blunt and colorless in their posturing toward America, wore the facile suit of marketing with real flair. They did it well, better than they expected, and by the time they left Geneva the world had been presented with a whole new Russia and was left hungry for more.

“America is a fascination for us,” said Julian Semonev, a Russian spy novelist and feature writer who recently took home the annual KGB award for artistic merit. “We disagree with you, but we must learn now to deal with you.” Se­monev is a Russian in a class by himself, and his opinions and popular screeds have meaningful reprecussions through­out the Soviet Union. So it was no won­der that Leonid Zamaytin brought Se­monev, a crew-cut stump of a man with the countenance of a Hell’s Angel and a striking resemblance to football coach Bum Phillips, out in front of the press at Madison Avenue Moscow to tell the world that the Soviets were concerned with getting out of Afghanistan.

The attention paid to Semonev was pure balm to the Russian ego. Semonev and his cronies were courted by the talk shows like Liz Taylor after her second divorce from Richard Burton. They bull­ishly defended their presence in Afghanistan, stopping just short of comparing their Afghani debacle to America’s war in Vietnam. “When a country is no longer in a position to defend its revolution,” ex­plained Soviet Justice Minister Alex­andre Soukharev, “we move in.”

Although this kind of propaganda was met with predictable cynicism and disbe­lief, the warmth and friendliness with which the Soviets packaged their spiel seduced the American media. Semonev, and others like him, came away from this experience with a sudden fame that con­firmed what they had always wanted to believe: recognition of the fact that the Soviet Union is a major world power, driven by people as fascinating and rare as those in America. The pleasing shock of this long overdue pat on the back made them giddy with pride.

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So much pride, in fact, that the Rus­sians were able to joke about the summit. “Is it not significant,” chuckled Vladimir Pakhomov of Komsomolskaya Pravda, “that Gorbachev arrived in the daylight and Reagan arrived in the dead of night?”

They were also able to laugh at the jokes the Western press played on them. At one point some reporters got their hands on a Soviet Press Group press re­lease letterhead and distributed a story that former KGB turncoat Vitaliy Yur­chenko had written to Gorbachev urging him “not to sell us out to Reagan.”

“Please beware of the pitfalls placed in your path,” read the bogus letter from Yurchenko, who actually told a Moscow press conference a few days earlier that the CIA had forced him to play golf and get a suntan. “The CIA is everywhere in Geneva. They have been known to kid­nap innocent Soviet ballerinas, chess masters, and shepherds, drug them into submission, force them to accept huge sums of money, and, at gun point, make them appear on the Today Show with Jane Pauley.”

With the first salvo of the Soviet PR barrage ended, it is unmistakably clear that Mikhail Gorbachev is not your typi­cal Kremlin boss. Nowhere did the image of Gorbachev as an enlightened manipu­lator of Western Culture express itself better than at the extraordinary press conference he conducted at the Soviet Mission the day after the summit official­ly ended. Gorbachev spoke more openly to reporters than any other Soviet leader in history, on issues ranging from space­based laser beams to radical cuts in stra­tegic and other nuclear weapons. But his most curious, and significant, comment came in a response to the final question of the press conference. Julian Semonev asked Gorbachev if he thought Hollywood might start acting in the spirit of the fireside summit and stop making movies that portray Russians as fiendish warmongers. Gorbachev glowed at the question and his face broke into a huge grin. “Yes,” said the general secretary. “The motion picture industry should start acting in the spirit of Geneva.”

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It was a perfect line on which to end the summit. And that statement will just sit there like a heavy hole card in Gorbachev’s hand. How can we have peace while Sylvester Stallone is making mil­lions greasing evil Soviet colonels and computerized boxers on the silver screen?

The summit was no more than a begin­ning to a new relationship between America and the Soviet Union. All that came out of the two-day meeting were a few harmless and loosely worded agree­ments that ranged from cultural ex­changes to bilateral cooperation on the development of fusion energy sources. But it came as no surprise to the Rus­sians that they were the stars of Geneva. Ronald and Nancy Reagan may have been movie stars, but Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev looked like movie stars.

“What I make of all this is change,” said Pavel Mamaev, a Soviet diplomat who was the ringmaster for the Moscow Circus during its 1976 tour of America. “My country is changing and your coun­try is changing. Hopefully it will all be for the good. Nobody wants to die.

“I woke up last night dreaming about what we accomplished in Geneva,” Ma­maev added with a laugh. “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls of all ages, wel­come to the Moscow Circus.” ❖

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FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives Housing NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Body Count: How the Reagan Administration Hides the Homeless

Cold weather is coming, and the streets of American cities are decorated for the holiday sea­son with homeless people and their meager belongings. Shop­pers often feel affronted by the sight of the homeless. Most stare straight ahead; a few make gestures of contempt. Our unspoken desire is for these spectral presences, these Dickensian ghosts, to disappear.

In its way, the Reagan administration has acted on that wish. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has tried to make the homeless vanish with numerical sorcery. During the winter of 1984, HUD undertook a $138,000 study designed to refute the claim by advocates of the homeless, in particular Washington’s Community for Creative Nonviolence (CCNV), that over two million Americans have no place to live. CCNV spokesman Mitch Snyder has become one of America’s most visible and relentless advocates for the homeless (see “The Flatbush Faster,” below), and until HUD released its findings in May 1984, Snyder’s two-mil­lion figure was widely accepted as a rough estimate.

The HUD findings, published as A Re­port to the Secretary on the Homeless and Emergency Shelters, stated that probably no more than a quarter of a million Americans were homeless on any winter night last year. The report imme­diately provoked charges of fraud and deception. Snyder, joined by other home­less advocates, sued in Federal court to stop distribution of the report. That suit was summarily dismissed, but an appeal is still pending.

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Last week, after waiting six months for HUD to respond fully to his requests for data underlying the report, Snyder filed another action to force the agency to sur­render more documents. But the hunt for hidden information is only one more step toward his ultimate goal. Assisted by vol­unteer counsel Terry F. Lenzner (former­ly of the Senate Watergate Committee staff) and James H. Rowe III, Snyder is seeking a grand jury investigation of at least two administration officials on charges of criminal perjury and conspiracy.

Snyder and his co-workers in CCNV have worked with street dwellers for more than 10 years. Snyder’s frequent dealings with the federal government, as well as the local bureaucracy, have added considerable political experience to his street wisdom, and he is convinced the report’s conclusions were a predetermined attempt to “deprive the homeless of the only thing they have: their exis­tence.” HUD’s claim that there are far fewer homeless than previously believed, he says, is meant to ease pressure for federal relief. The homeless, after all, are not simply an affront to other Americans; they are also a living rebuke to the “suc­cess” of the president’s economic program.

•••

When HUD’s Report to the Secretary was released, it was front-page news. Its assessment that there were only 250,000 to 350,000 homeless persons seemed to justify Reagan administration policy, which regarded these people as a problem for the states, localities, and private sec­tor — not the federal government. This view is reflected in the skewed funding of homeless programs: over the past three years, the Reagan budgets have allocated a total of $218 million — about the same amount that New York City spends on its homeless in a single year (see “The Federal Failure,” below).

On the frontlines of opposition to the Reagan policy stands CCNV, which along with local officials and other homeless advocates insists that only federal re­sources can provide adequate food and shelter. For more than a decade, CCNV has cared for the capital’s homeless with a combination of donated goods, hip in­genuity, and a defiant, prophetic activ­ism. While local communities including Washington were still ignoring the grow­ing numbers on the streets and in shel­ters a few years ago, CCNV activists went public with hunger strikes and other ac­tions intended to penetrate public apa­thy. Snyder’s style doesn’t charm every­one in official Washington. Some politicians and pundits are offended by his bold challenge to authority, accompa­nied by caustic remarks about our “little Western minds that have to quantify everything in sight, whether we can or not.”

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But in 1982 Snyder did try to count, admittedly unscientifically, the ranks of homeless Americans by calling shelter providers in other cities and projecting their estimates nationally. From that telephone survey came the figure Snyder used in congressional testimony, of “two to three million.” It was a neat statistic that rounded out to about 1 per cent of the U.S. population, and was intended to reflect the number of people without shelter during the course of a year.

What irritated HUD officials was that the little Western minds of the media had, by early 1984, latched onto Snyder’s figure and used it — in editorials, in news stories, on TV and radio. One way or another these stories all posed the same question: If there are two million home­less, why isn’t the government doing more to help them? The HUD report was Washington’s answer: turn the debate about what to do into a dispute over numbers.

When Mitch Snyder and his colleagues around the country read the report, it didn’t make sense to them. Many of them had been interviewed by HUD and were convinced that the numbers they’d given had been misused. Snyder angrily disput­ed the report’s techniques as well as its findings and purposes; he said it was “a political document” intended to “mute the atmosphere of urgency” that he and others had fought to create.

A few weeks after the report’s release, Snyder accused HUD officials of fraud before a special joint hearing of the House Banking Committee’s subcommit­tee on housing and community develop­ment and the Government Operations Committee’s subcommittee on manpow­er and housing (which will reopen its probe of the HUD report December 4). He and other CCNV members called shelter operators around the country, in­cluding colleagues in the National Coali­tion for the Homeless and discovered they too were furious. Snyder organized them to join a lawsuit against further distribution of the report, the first volley in his legal war against an administration whose top officials, as he told Congress, “remind me of nothing so much as a school of piranha circling, waiting to tear the last ounce of flesh.”

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Snyder has a dramatic flair. In another life, years ago, he worked on Madison Avenue. But the former ad man has gone much further in combating HUD than Secretary Samuel Pierce or his advisers must have expected. Not satisfied with discrediting the report itself, he is pursu­ing those whom he accuses of writing the homeless out of existence. And if the Jus­tice Department doesn’t probe his charges, Snyder says he and Lenzner will seek their own hearing before a grand jury and the appointment of a special prosecutor. In the meantime, he has con­vinced banking subcommittee chairman Henry Gonzalez to reopen his investigation.

•••

Secretary Pierce has never been a White House favorite. He is the Cabinet member who, early in his tenure, was mistaken by the president for a black mayor, and under his tenure HUD has suffered the heaviest cuts in the Reagan budgets. Pierce has also been lambasted annually on Capitol Hill for HUD’s fail­ure to assist the homeless.

In January 1984, Pierce’s boss suc­cinctly entered the debate with his own assessment on Good Morning America: “What we have found in this country­ — and maybe we’re more aware of it now — ­is one problem that we’ve had, even in the best of times, and that is the people who are sleeping on the grates, the homeless who are homeless, you might say, by choice.” This was the presidential reac­tion to a media blitz — including pictures of homeless families with small chil­dren — that took place that same month.

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Pierce’s response to the growing public relations problem was to study the issue. In early 1983, a HUD deputy had pro­posed a small study of how HUD initia­tives were helping the homeless and how innovative programs in 10 cities were preventing homelessness or assisting homeless families to find permanent homes. But Pierce instead ordered HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research to formulate a national estimate of the homeless, ascertain who they were and what was being done to help them. The study was undertaken by Dr. Kathleen Peroff, then deputy director of the office’s division of policy studies, and the official Mitch Snyder would later ac­cuse of criminal perjury.

Under her direction, HUD staff and an independent consulting firm, Westat, used four techniques to estimate the total number of homeless. HUD had already decided that what they wanted was a “snapshot” of how many homeless there were on an average night in January or February 1984 — a number that would certainly be lower than a count of how many people were without shelter for any extended period during a year. Many people are homeless for a few months, then stay with friends or family before they hit the street again. Others end up in jails, hospitals, or vouchered housing for periods during the year, but adminis­tration policy is to consider none of these people officially “homeless.”

The derivation of social statistics such as the number of homeless, hungry, or illiterate is often difficult to comprehend. To lay readers, disputes over methodolo­gy may seem arcane or even irrelevant, but they lie at the heart of the political struggle over who should help the home­less and how much they should be helped.

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HUD’s estimate was an extrapolation based on previous estimates — and in a very few instances, actual headcounts — done by other agencies. Each of the four methods used was, in essence, a survey of other surveys, manipulated statistically into a national estimate:

  • HUD’s researchers took published estimates for 37 localities, most of them large urban areas, added them together, and divided by the combined populations of the cities surveyed. That came to one-­quarter of 1 per cent of the population which, when multiplied by the total U.S. population, yielded an “outside esti­mate” of 586,000 homeless. HUD consid­ered this number its least reliable, since it relied wholly upon newspaper and oth­er published accounts, and focused on large cities where the homeless tend to be concentrated.
  • Westat’s employees conducted tele­phone interviews with 200 operators of homeless shelters in 60 cities — 20 small, 20 medium, and the 20 largest — and asked dozens of questions, mainly con­cerned with how the shelters operate. The next to last question was: “On an average night last week, how many home­less (including those in shelters, using vouchers to live in hotels, in cars, streets, parks, etc.) would you estimate are living in this metropolitan area?” The answers were added together and extrapolated to a national figure of 353,000.
  • HUD staff conducted 500 interviews in the same 60 cities, asking local offi­cials, advocacy groups, researchers, shel­ter operators, social service agencies, and police departments to offer their best guess as to how many homeless were in their cities or counties. Many refused, but the answers received were analyzed for “reliability” based on the perceived experience and knowledge of the inter­viewee, given a weight based on city size, and then added together and extrapolat­ed. This figure came to 254,000.
  • Three studies by local homeless ad­vocates which attempted to count the number of people on the streets in Bos­ton, Pittsburgh, and Phoenix, along with a 1980 census “casual count” were used to derive a national figure of 192,000.

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All these methods suffered from a vari­ety of technical, practical and even arith­metical errors, according to two statisti­cal specialists — Eugene Ericson of Temple University and Richard Appel­baum of the University of California, Santa Barbara — who examined the re­port and some of the underlying documentation at Snyder’s request. Several of the shelter providers and experts inter­viewed by HUD and Westat complained that their estimates had been misquoted or misused. Nine of the 20 largest cities were assessed on the basis of one or two local estimates. And the authors of the Boston and Phoenix studies — Valerie La­nier and Dr. Louisa Stark — blasted the report for ignoring the limitations of their estimates, such as the fact that in Boston, for example, the counters only examined a limited area and not the whole city. Lanier and Stark are plain­tiffs in Snyder’s lawsuit demanding that the report be withdrawn.

Ericson and Appelbaum both criticized the weighting system used by HUD, which gave the highest weight to the smallest cities surveyed, and the lowest weight to the country’s five largest cities. Ericson, who assisted the city of New York in analyzing the 1980 census, told the Voice he believed this was a deliber­ate attempt to understate the number of homeless.

But both Ericson and Appelbaum were most vehement about what Snyder calls the “smoking gun” in HUD’s calcula­tions — an arcane geographical measure known as the “Rand-McNally Metropoli­tan Areas” or “RMAs,” which were used by HUD to arrive at a ratio between local estimates of homelessness and the coun­try as a whole. Each of the 60 cities sur­veyed for the HUD report belongs to an RMA, which is a large geographical unit, usually used for marketing purposes, similar to the better-known Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area. The New York City RMA includes the city’s seven million people, plus another 10 million spread across 79 other cities in 10 coun­ties spread across three states. The Los Angeles RMA also comprises about 80 cities; Boston includes 40 cities; Chica­go’s RMA stretches across three states, and includes 10 counties and 46 cities.

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The problem, according to Ericson and Appelbaum, is that HUD used the RMAs this way: They took already dubious esti­mates of homeless populations in the sur­veyed cities and counties which are part, but only part, of the RMAs, added them, and used the total as the numerator in a gigantic fraction. Then they added up the total populations of the 60 RMAs, includ­ing cities which were never surveyed or surveyed only superficially, and used that total as the denominator. The resulting fraction, which supposedly represented the ratio of homeless population to total population in the 60 RMAs, was then multiplied by the entire U.S. population, supposedly yielding a national homeless figure.

Appelbaum and Ericson both say that if the estimates gathered by HUD had been applied solely to the central cities from which they were taken, and not to the RMAs, the final figures on national homelessness would have been anywhere from 2.5 to five times as high, or from 650,000 to 1.6 million. This is because the number of people in the 60 central cities surveyed is about 30 million, while the 60 RMAs have a population of 90 million.

•••

Peroff was obliged to defend her study in two separate forums. On May 24, 1984, she and other HUD officials and consul­tants testified at a joint hearing of the House Banking and Government Opera­tions subcommittees. Six weeks later, she gave a sworn declaration as a defendant in Mitch Snyder’s federal lawsuit to have the HUD report withdrawn.

Snyder and his lawyers examined both the congressional testimony and the sworn statement carefully, and he says he has found at least 13 instances of perjury by Peroff. Whether Peroff lied intention­ally is a matter to be decided by a jury, but there are serious discrepancies in some of her statements — enough so that Gonzalez subcommittee director Gerald McMurray says discreetly that he “hopes HUD will be more forthcoming on how they put together the report” at next month’s hearing.

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Among the discrepancies is Peroff’s de­scription, in her sworn statement to the U.S. District Court, of the HUD report’s definition of “homeless” and her asser­tion that that definition, which included homeless people temporarily in jails and hospitals, was explained to the local ex­perts surveyed by HUD and Westat. The questionnaires used by interviewers show this isn’t true, and several of those interviewed say it was never explained to them.

Most of the accusations of perjury, however, revolve around the issue of RMAs. Some of these could be dismissed as differences of interpretation, but there certainly are contradictions between the report itself, HUD’s congressional testi­mony, and Peroff’s account in her sworn statement.

Although the word “metropolitan” ap­pears nowhere in the seven-page ques­tionnaire strictly followed by the HUD interviewers, Peroff claimed in her sworn declaration to the U.S. District Court that they “always noted what the area basis of the estimate was so that the com­putation of the final metropolitan reli­able range was based on: 1) an entire metropolitan figure; or 2) adding esti­mates obtained for separate jurisdictions within the metropolitan area.” In the same declaration she also referred to the “metropolitan estimates provided in these interviews (which) resulted in a na­tional estimate…” And she claimed that in the largest metro areas, such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Philadelphia, “calls were made by HUD staff to central cities and to all jurisdictions outside the central cities but within the RMA, to obtain additional homeless estimates for these jurisdic­tions.” In fact, HUD interviewers did call some of the counties surrounding the central cities in each RMA, but this was far from surveying “all jurisdictions.” Several of the shelter operators and other professionals interviewed by HUD dis­puted Peroff’s assertion that “those in­terviewed… were asked only to give es­timates for the particular jurisdiction within the metropolitan area which they were knowledgeable about.”

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The defense of the estimate for New York City, in Snyder’s view, is the clear­est example of an outright lie. Peroff claimed in her sworn declaration that “Forty interviews were held with persons knowledgeable about specific suburban areas in order to obtain estimates of the extent of homelessness in each of the sep­arate jurisdictions. These separate esti­mates were then added to the New York City estimate to arrive at an estimate for the entire metropolitan area.” Assistant HUD Secretary June Q. Koch repeated the same claim in a statement submitted to Congress.

But Appelbaum, after examining HUD’s documents, could find only 32 in­terviews with suburban New Yorkers — ­and only 18 of these offered homeless estimates. The others all refused, yet the jurisdictions served by their agencies were counted in the total population figures.

Peroff, who has moved from HUD to the Office of Management and Budget, is indignant at Snyder’s charges and the criticism of her work. “I simply didn’t perjure myself,” she says. The RMA method was chosen, she says, because it best represents the country’s urbanized areas where most of the homeless are lo­cated, adding that “critics of the report… don’t have a statistical background.” The smaller RMAs were given greater weight, she explained, because they had “a lesser probability of being sampled. There was a greater probability that we’d select one of the large RMAs, of which there are few, than the small RMAs, of which there are many.” But nowhere in the report is the precise rationale for the weighting scheme explained — that is, why a small RMA was given 20 times the weight of a large one.

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Peroff agrees that HUD only got 18 estimates for the urbanized areas outside New York’s five boroughs, but insists that “we made an attempt to call every person whose name came to us and in New York City we had good statistics made available to us on the number of people in shelters.” Peroff hasn’t re­tained a lawyer to defend her; she says there’s no need to. June Koch, her supe­rior at HUD, failed to return repeated calls from the Voice.

On August 27, 1984, Snyder filed a for­mal complaint against Peroff and Koch with Joseph DiGenova, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, alleging that the two HUD officials had committed multiple acts of conspiracy and perjury. He asked DiGenova to investigate and present his findings to a grand jury. Sny­der offered evidence and witnesses to cor­roborate his charges, but received no re­ply from DiGenova. Last March, seven months after the charges were filed, Sny­der again wrote to DiGenova — whose of­fice had successfully defended HUD against Snyder’s civil lawsuit in U.S. Dis­trict Court.

“We were hesitant to file the complaint with you, knowing that your office was representing HUD — and still is — in U.S. District Court,” noted Snyder. “We doubted that you would deal fairly — or at all — with these criminal activities, since you would be both representing and in­vestigating/prosecuting the same HUD officials.”

A few weeks later, Snyder got a reply from Charles Roistacher, a DiGenova as­sistant. Roistacher referred to his own office’s declaration in defending HUD against the civil lawsuit, saying, “We re­sponded to your complaints of flaws in the report’s methodology.… Upon review, I have concluded that the investigation you request is not warranted.”

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Lenzner and the other attorneys repre­senting CCNV charge that DiGenova’s decision was tainted by a conflict of in­terest. Last month they asked the ap­peals court to exclude the U.S. Attorney’s office from continuing to represent HUD in the civil suit brought last year to force the withdrawal of the report. They point­ed to Roistacher’s letter as proof of the conflict, protesting that “No distinction whatsoever was drawn between the U.S. Attorney’s undertaking of HUD’s defense in the civil action and its responsibility as a neutral, investigative body to expose criminal activity.” No ruling has been handed down yet, but if the court agrees with CCNV, HUD will be forced to retain outside counsel, and DiGenova may have to reconsider Snyder’s allegations of per­jury and conspiracy.

Two weeks ago, Lenzner and Rowe filed a new complaint in federal court seeking an injunction to force HUD to release the records and files they request­ed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) six months ago. Lenzner is also assisting congressional staff to prepare for the appearance of HUD officials for further questioning on December 4. The House subcommittees investigating the report are chaired by Texas Democrat Henry Gonzalez and Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank, who will be trying to determine how the report was shaped, the extent of involvement, if any, of the White House, and whether HUD officials told the truth when they testi­fied about the report after its release in May 1984.

•••

Although administration officials may consider him disreputable, Mitch Snyder has contacts in the White House. Before mounting his war against HUD, he met with one of them and warned that Secre­tary Pierce should be quietly forced to withdraw the report on homelessness. But Snyder realized the administration was committed to defending the report when the right-wing Heritage Founda­tion, the Reagan administration’s private sector arm, tried to bolster HUD with an attack on the report’s critics.

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The Heritage paper, written by Anna Kondratas, seems to have done little to resuscitate the report’s credibility. Local and state officials across the country told the Voice that HUD’s estimates were useless and had not influenced their decisions about aiding the homeless. No one on Capitol Hill, in the press or even in the White House has dared to cite the report as a policy guide. In that sense, Snyder’s war has already been won.

Why then have Snyder and his allies continued to press for withdrawal of the report and investigations by a grand jury and Congress? They are prompted in part by a belief that government shouldn’t lie, and that if government officials do lie they should be held accountable.

Mitch Snyder has taken HUD’s at­tempt to conceal the dimensions of homelessness and used it for the opposite end: to make us face how great a disgrace it is, and how our country is dishonored by manipulations and excuses. Most of all, he feels attention must be paid, not to numbers but to the men, women, and children we forget when we aren’t forced to see them. When the city streets turn to ice, and people we ought to be caring for begin to die, maybe we’ll remember what he tried to tell us.

Research assistance by Ellen McGarrahan.

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The Flatbush Faster

Mitch Snyder has been labeled a “zealot” on the editorial page of the Washington Post, and last year the paper published an op-ed piece which called his threat to fast until he died­ — unless the government provided facili­ties for the city’s homeless — “a fancy form of terrorism.” But on the streets of Washington, where his face is well known, people constantly approach him to say things like “God bless you. We’re praying for you.”

Snyder, 42, is the high school dropout from Flatbush who began what could have been a successful Madison Ave­nue career in the ’60s. One morning in 1968, he woke up and decided he didn’t like his life. Snyder left his fam­ily — he is now on good terms with his ex-wife and two grown sons — and drifted around the country for a cou­ple of years. He was arrested in 1969, under the since-repealed Dyer Act, which made it a federal crime to ride as a passenger in a car rented with a stolen credit card. Convicted in 1970, Snyder spent most of the next two and a half years in Danbury prison, where he met Philip Berrigan, did a lot of reading, fasted for 72 days to protest the Vietnam war, and emerged in 1972 prepared for a life of commit­ment. Snyder says he’s fasted for peri­ods totaling about two years, sometimes for political purposes, mostly just to “cleanse my system and get in touch with those people in the world who don’t have enough to eat.” After one fast protesting the Navy’s plans to name a nuclear submarine “Corpus Christi” — literally, “Body of Christ” — Snyder nearly lost his sight. But surgeons at Johns Hopkins donated their services to save his eyes. The Navy called their sub “City of Corpus Christi,” and Snyder called off his fast.

The Community for Creative Non­violence was founded in 1970 as a pacifist commune dedicated to resistance against the war. By the time Snyder joined them soon after his release from prison, the group had discovered “a direct equivalent at home to the war abroad” — the homeless poor. They opened a soup kitchen in 1972, and over the next couple of years es­tablished a “hospitality house” where anybody could find food and shelter. During the 1975 recession they opened their first shelter, in the living room of the commune’s old house on a run­down street in northeast Washington. In addition to about 1000 volunteers who help when they can, CCNV has 50 members, mostly in their twenties and thirties. About 35 of them, including Snyder, live in the giant shelter on Second Street, which the federal gov­ernment is now trying to shut down.

The confrontation over this dilapi­dated building, formerly Federal City College, began a few hours before President Reagan’s 1983 State of the Union address, when 160 CCNV mem­bers and friends were arrested in the Capitol Rotunda where they were demonstrating to win the use of feder­al buildings to house the homeless. The following month, Reagan ordered HUD and the Pentagon to prepare a list of suitable buildings, but it took until December for CCNV to obtain the use of the empty college, which the feds were planning to sell the follow­ing year. With more than 800 people using the building that winter, CCNV decided that they would refuse to get out when their “lease” expired on April 1, 1984.

Government officials extended the lease, but refused CCNV’s demand that the run-down shelter be renovat­ed to make it decently habitable. On September 15, 1984, Snyder and other CCNV members began a fast that ended on November 4, with a federal commitment to transform the shelter with extensive repairs, thanks in part to the intervention of Susan Baker, wife of presidential aide James Baker.

According to Snyder, the feds have reneged on their commitment to re­build; he wants to hold them to their promise of a “model shelter.” The government says it never contemplat­ed the $10 million worth of work Sny­der has demanded. CCNV has refused to let the government make a partial repair, and the feds have responded by opening a smaller shelter in the remote Anacostia section of the city, threatening to evict the hundreds who live at the CCNV shelter.

Snyder has warned that some shel­ter residents, including a number of Vietnam veterans, might become vio­lent if the government tries to throw them out. He has gone to court to forestall the eviction, which could happen within days after a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals, which now has the case. Like the legal battle over the HUD report, the shelter dispute is, for the moment at least, a stand-off. — J.C.

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The Federal Failure

Getting the Reagan administration to request funds for America’s home­less is an uphill battle, but Represen­tative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, has a strategy. “Per­haps if someone could discover a Com­munist threat among the homeless…,” he said, Washington would be persuaded to take them seriously.

Although the administration is not exactly waging a war on poverty, the United States Armed Forces have al­ready been pressed into service. In fis­cal 1984, Congress gave the Depart­ment of Defense $8 million for the conversion of empty military struc­tures into shelters for the homeless. When the Voice first called the Penta­gon to inquire whether that $8 million had been used for homeless relief, press spokesperson Jim Trimmer said he “personally knew nothing about” that appropriation, explaining, “Eight million dollars is not very much around here.”

In fact, only $900,000 of the con­gressional appropriation was ultimate­ly used to provide shelters; the remaining $7.1 million was “turned back into the Army Reserve funds, where it was used for [military] construction” according to another Pentagon aide, Glenn Flood. The small amount spent as intended created nine shelters in six states. Because DOD had used only $900,000 of the original appropriation, Flood explained, this year Congress appropriated just $500,000 — a far cry from the original $8 million which, although small by military standards, was significant enough to be men­tioned in the HUD report on home­lessness as evidence that “other Fed­eral Agencies have also acted to address the issue.”

But the DOD program is not the heavy artillery in the federal govern­ment’s order of battle for the homeless. Over the past three years, Con­gress has allocated a total of $210 million to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to pro­vide food and shelter to the homeless. These funds have in turn been distrib­uted through agencies such as United Way and the Salvation Army. The money is spent primarily on cots, blankets and food. This distribution process is the administration’s show­piece aid effort, but FEMA itself has no desire to see the program become a permanent fixture, and has neglected each year to ask Congress to renew the appropriation. So far, no funds have been formally approved to continue the food and shelter program in fiscal 1986.

Indicative of the FEMA program’s makeshift nature and cosmetic intent is the fact that the appropriations have held steady at about $70 million a year over the past three years, de­spite documented growth in the num­bers of homeless. Concern about the size of the deficit is ostensibly what has kept the funding unchanged, but the allocation process itself is arbi­trary. “We determine funds by previ­ous funding amounts rather than by statistics of need, which may or may not be accurate,” said Paul Thomp­son, a staff assistant to the HUD ap­propriations subcommittee of the House.

Given the dubious accuracy of HUD’s statistics, that might seem rea­sonable. Even the House appropriations subcommittee felt compelled to ask for a second opinion on the HUD report’s conclusions and ordered FEMA to prepare its own study last March. FEMA reported back that homelessness had increased by 16 per cent over the previous year. In Sep­tember the same congressional sub­committee that had authorized the re­port ignored FEMA’s conclusions, blindly allocating the same sum as in years past.

Since Reagan took office, his admin­istration has drastically cut the Sec­tion-8 federally subsidized low-income housing program. At its peak Section­-8 supplied $3.2 billion a year to New York State, providing rent subsidies to 47,000 low-income families. The present level of funding is sufficient for only 8000 families — a cut of over three-quarters in the number of fam­ilies aided. Other federal cuts include $5.2 billion from child nutrition pro­grams, $4.6 billion from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, $1.8 billion from housing as­sistance programs, and $6.8 billion from the food stamp program. With the decrease in federal funding for these programs, the states have been hard-pressed to pick up the slack. Ac­cording to HUD spokesperson Peter Centenari, “that’s what the Reagan administration bas been trying to do all along — to drive all of this back to the state and local level.” — Ellen McGarrahan

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Backstage at the Oscars: “Raging Bull” and Raging Bull

Backstage at the Oscars: ‘Raging Bull’ and Raging Bull 
April 8, 1981

Early spring, they descend upon Hollywood like snow in Tibet: producers with horror films to hustle to the studios, emaciated writers with screenplays to peddle to the pro­ducers, press agents, foreign press, unemployed actors, fans from all over the globe who want to wallow in the glamour of it all, and the Oscar nominees. The lucky ones stay at the Chateau Marmont, which is as close to civilization as you can get in a town where nothing’s close to civilization. From a Chateau window, you can see the Yoga Center on Sunset Boulevard, the Liquor Locker, Schwab’s Drug Store of Lana Turner fame, and a mammoth billboard advertising The Final Conflict.

John Hurt of The Elephant Man is registered at the Chateau, as is the Raging Bull contingent. Robert De Niro is a recluse in the penthouse, Joe Pesci occupies a fifth-floor suite, and Martin Scorsese has rented a bungalow near the pool as an office where he auditions actors for The King of Comedy (De Niro and Jerry Lewis will star).

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Tradition has it that at 5 p.m., on Oscar night, while the sun is still shining on the Freeway, the lucky ones descend the Marmont’s carpeted staircase in thousand­-dollar tuxes and evening gowns. They lean against rococo balustrades in the lobby making light conversation while chewing their fingernails to the cuticles. An uniden­tified idiot bangs out “Hooray for Holly­wood” on the Baldwin. Limousines arrive. And in a puff, the nominees are off to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion where their fates are revealed on national television.

“After they leave, we have the quietest night of the year,” says Marmont manager Sam Heigman. “But when they return at midnight, the switchboard lights up like a Christmas tree:”

•••

It is three days before the ceremony. Joe Pesci, a short, fluffy-haired New York actor who’s been nominated for supporting De Niro in Raging Bull, is quietly chewing his nails while seated on a piece of Moorish sectional in his Chateau suite. Although Pesci’s onscreen performance is full of sound and fury, offscreen he’s shy and reticent. He says he was signed for Bull after he had given up acting. He was working in a restaurant when old pal Rob­ert De Niro told him he thought he was the right guy to play his brother in the movie.

Pesci’s not sure about the mechanics behind his nomination. “No one said any­thing directly, but I think it started when Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times had some good things to say about my performance. After that, United Ar­tists took out ads every few days in the Hollywood Reporter.”

How did he find out he was nominated? “I just heard it on the radio while I was driving my car,” he says. “Then a couple of days later, I got a telegram from Marty Scorsese wishing me congratulations.”

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Supporting Oscar nominations can be death to actors. It’s known as the Mercedes McCambridge syndrome; instead of being a step up, it’s a step to nowhere. Pesci received a few offers after his nomination but most were for roles in television films. He wasn’t interested. Before Raging Bull, he would have taken commercials, but tel­evision, he feels, is 10 steps backwards. He’d rather wait until another good film part comes along.

Three weeks ago, Pesci came to Califor­nia to see a friend, get some sun, play golf, and just hang out. Then United Artists moved him into the Chateau Marmont. They’re paying his rent for a week, but he’s reluctant to talk up the picture. He especially doesn’t like the idea of hyping Rag­ing Bull on TV.

“I’m not an excitable person,” he says between short telephone conversations with Scorsese and De Niro. “I can’t be doing flips for six months because I’m nominated. I grew up with the Oscars and I’m proud to be honored, but I still can’t help feeling that they made a big mistake.”

Was Pesci preparing himself for the emotional trauma of Oscar night? Yes. By not thinking about it. Should he win, he says, “I’ll not make a speech. If I did, I’d have to think of a lot of nice things to say to a lot of nice people. What I’ll probably do is talk to the actors who never receive recognition and say something inspirational to them. I’d like to say it without being dramatic.”

Joe Pesci lost to Timothy Hutton, who won for Ordinary People. He didn’t have a chance not to be dramatic.

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•••

No one is busier, glitzier, sillier, stodgier, or more sincere than Miss Rona. She is the Ed Koch of tinseltown, the populist, the moralist, the kid to kid. She is phony. She is real. She is Hollywood.

“Now, Carol,” asked Miss Rena on TV the morning after Carol Burnett won her libel suit against the National Enquirer. “Was there ever any time when the suit affected your relationship with your hus­band?”

“No, Rona,” answered Miss Carol, even ­more sincerely. “Joe has always been very supportive.”

Burnett’s victory has divided Hollywood. Drugstore cowboys at Schwab’s feel the jurors were predisposed to hate the ­Enquirer, If you live in Hollywood, you’ve got to be. Perhaps the Enquirer was punished far too severely, but to quote director Arthur Hiller (he’s making Making Love at Fox), “They’ve unfairly maligned so many celebrities, I’m glad Burnett responded and got her million-six.”

Yet one can’t help wondering if there is a correlation between Burnett’s suit during this Reagan conservative period and the innumerable lawsuits instituted against Confidential magazine during the McCarthy era. Ten celebrity suits are pending against the Enquirer. The L.A. Times reports “there may be an even more determined effort by the tabloid to defend itself against them.”

Burnett’s victory knocked Oscar out of the news, the weekend before the telecast. It was the talk of Hollywood.

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•••

So much tension, so much excitement, so much activity during Oscar week. Visiting here is like spending a day at the Club Baths. United Artists invites the press to meet its “new star in town,” Mrs. Frisby, the animated rat heroine of a feature-length fantasy now in production. MGM opens its Culver City gates to journalists and and sneaks scenes from Pennies from Heaven (Christopher Walken doing a bump-and-grind strip, Bernadette Peters shaking her ninotchkas in Steve Martin’s  face, Steve Martin dancing incredibly well for a comedian), followed by a luncheon on a sound stage (lox, shrimp, strawberries, cheesecake, and columnist Aaron Gold), followed by a set visit (Herbert Ross directing Steve and Bernadette in a replica of Fred and Ginger’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance number)”.

Filmex is about to open with Atlantic City, the American Film Market at the Westwood Marquis Hotel has been run­ning for a week, and the Publicists Guild gives a luncheon at the Beverly Hilton (chicken fried in canned pineapple, broc­coli spears, publicist Renee Furst) at which Mary Crosby, Ron Howard, John House­man, Natalie Wood, and Linda Purl present “showmanship” awards. Goldie Hawn gets one as “the motion picture showman of the year,” a sexist title to numb Goldie’s feminist consciousness. Accumulating pre-Oscar awards has an effect on Academy voters, but no one expects Goldie to win for Private Benjamin. And she doesn’t.

Academy voters are desensitized and lobotomized by trade paper ads: Oscar winners are judged less by the the amount of money a studio will spend to plug what it’s pushing. Warner Bros. can take out approximately 20 Hollywood Reporter ads between Christmas and Oscar night lauding Goldie for Private Benjamin (the ads undoubtedly helped her get a nomination), but Universal will top them with 30 hailing Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter (an entirely new Oscar ad campaign was mounted). Major consideration is a studio’s investment in future projects for the nominee. Sissy is currently looping Raggedy Man for Uni­versal, which the studio feels could be as big as Coal Miner’s Daughter.

If an actor doesn’t play ball with the studio, he’s forgotten at Oscar time. Barry Miller got the best reviews for Fame and should have been pushed for a supporting nomination. He bad-mouthed the film. MGM didn’t hype Miller in any of Fame‘s innumerable trade paper ads; Two years ago, Paramount took out a paltry three Hollywood Reporter ads promoting Susan Sarandon in King of the Gypsies. Susan felt she was shafted: this was her finest moment. However Paramount was pushing co-star Eric Roberts as their Trav­olta of the future. Susan bought a couple of ads with her own money. Neither she nor Roberts was nominated, and Roberts’s movie career came to a standstill. (Ironically, his first film since King of the Gypsies is Raggedy Man, and the word is that he’s excellent.)

At the Publicists Guild luncheon, a Universal executive explains that “it’s all up to the gods. We can only push a little.” He thinks the Academy voters might choose Eva Le Gallienne for Resurrection because she’s old and she’s got lines like “If we could only love each other the way we say we do.” If, by some fluke, Ellen Burstyn wins for Resurrection (she doesn’t) her Oscar would bring the crowds in. Moviegoers adore Resurrection, he says, but the problem all along has been getting them to see it.

“Whatever it’s worth, whatever the cynicism, Oscar symbolizes the mystique and glamour of Hollywood,” proclaims Camille Lane, Universal’s advertising di­rector. “For those of us in the business, it is our one reaffirming moment of glory.”

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•••

Oscar means different things to dif­ferent people. To the owner of the Blue Parrot in West Hollywood, it’s renting a six-foot screen and listening to customers wonder if Angie had a face lift and why Sissy doesn’t get a good hairdresser. To the display designer at Ah Men on Santa Monica Boulevard, it’s a window with a Raging Bull poster and a mannequin in red boxer shorts. To Swifty Lazar, it’s hosting yet another star-studded bash up­stairs at the Bistro. To William Morris super agent Joan Hyler, “Oscar night is not just another business evening, but a rit­ual.”

This is Hyler’s second Oscar night. In 1975, she sat next to a nominee “who was drunker than anybody I’ve ever seen. I spent the entire evening worrying whether he’d throw up on my new Halston.”

Hyler’s date this year is client Peter O’Toole, nominated for The Stunt Man. She believes that a nomination separates  an actor from his peers. It’s prestigious, of course, but you can also up a performer’s price: With some actors, like De Niro and Robert DuVall, a nomination will Solidify what they’re already earning. Mary Steen­burgen’s worth should be affected because she’s new and young and on the brink of becoming a major movie star.

“For Peter O’Toole, the nomination makes Hollywood happy to have him back again. Peter’s been gone too long: he has an enormous talent. Unfortunately, you’ve got to keep reminding them. Hollywood’s a town with a very short memory,” says Hyler, whose clients include Patti Davis. The president’s daughter has done a very effective reading for a part in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, and is supposed to be in the audience at the Oscar show.

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•••

Monday morning, March 30, the day the Oscars are scheduled. The Tuxedo Center on Sunset Boulevard resembles Mamie Stover’s whorehouse in Guam during World War IL Male customers line up outside. They all look anxious. Inside, they’re measured. They fork out $50 for a day’s tuxedo rental. The price includes studs.

At the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the bleachers are filled. The broadcast is still eight hours away. Fans are young. Many have brought sleeping bags, blankets, food, and portable television sets. Greg Aiken., 21, from Del Mar, arrived 36 hours ago and has been sleeping on a bench and using bathroom facilities at a nearby service sta­tion. Seven women from San Diego arrived the afternoon before and waited outside the stage door to see the stars come in to rehearse. Sissy Spacek was real nice. Donald Sutherland wore red shoes. Peter O’Toole looked tired and worn. Lily Tomlin signed autographs. Diana Ross was rude, Angie Dickinson asked, “Are you from the Enquirer?”, Robert Redford rushed in with his head down. “You can bet we won’t ski at his lodge,” says the den mother of the San Diego group, “and we’ll remember his behavior when we see his movies.”

It’s an innocent, good-spirited, picnic­ — more Woodstock than Day of the Locust. Several fans carry posters: “We love you Jane Fonda.” “Hooray for Sissy.” “Why isn’t Madeline Kahn nominated?” whines a bobby-soxer. “Because she doesn’t de­serve to be,” snaps a teeny-bopper.

Everyone has an opinion.

Back at Schwab’s the visiting reporter asks Barbara the cashier if the drugstore’s gone Oscar crazy today.

“No, it’s gone Ronald Reagan crazy.” Has he decided to appear in person instead of on film? “No. He was shot in Washington an hour ago.”

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•••

Televisions blare from every room in the Chateau Marmont. Reagan’s in surgery. Jim Brady’s near death. Maureen Reagan is furious. Michael Reagan is sad­dened. Dan Rather’s in tears. The coun­try’s gone crazy. The world’s about to col­lapse. Again.

The telephone rings: Joan Hyler’s sec­retary to say they’ve just gotten word from the Academy that the Oscars have been postponed until tomorrow. Marilyn Beck goes on ABC News to explain that the Oscar ball scheduled for the Beverly Hilton will now conflict with the closing night banquet of the American Film Mar­ket on Tuesday — caterers and florists are facing a major dilemma, and beauticians in Beverly Hills are going crazy. Later, a press agent, who’s scheduled a private par­ty for 50, phones complaining that he can’t fit all that quiche into his freezer so he’s giving a Reagan-watch party instead. A publicist from United Artists calls explain­ing that he’s having a terrible time rescheduling limousines: At the Chateau’s front desk, the manager cries, “I’m in trou­ble. I won’t have rooms for tomorrow.” An actor in the lobby (not nominated) won­ders if the assassination attempt is con­sidered an Act of God and if Tuxedo Cen­ter will charge him another day’s rental.

Oscar nominee Mary Steenburgen calls, too. She’s feeling “real disturbed.” Mary and her husband, Malcolm McDowell, have decided to watch television and eat in. “I’m glad they cancelled the show,” she says. ”It’s inappropriate that performers receive awards tonight. Right now, I feel a great deal of rage about the lack of gun control in this country. Like everybody else, I’m feeling real sad.”

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•••

Tuesday. The themes of politics, assassination, celebrity, and movies have never been more dramatically visible than backstage on Oscar night. A block away from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a bomb squad truck blares its way toward the arena. Security has been stepped up. Usually 200 guards are on duty. This year, 350 policemen, sheriff’s deputies, and private plainclothesmen patrol inside and outside the hall. Many actors bring along their own bodyguards. Richard Pryor is always within thumb’s reach of his Man Mountain Dean.

An hour before the show, word filters to the press about John Hinckley’s letters to Jodie Foster, including the final one, not mailed, confessing his unrequited love and stating, “There is a definite possibility that I will be killed in my attempt to get Reagan.” The immediate reaction is life imitates art: Taxi Driver with Hinckley playing De Niro, minus Marty Scorsese’s direction. Especially in Hollywood, this sort of news upstages the Oscars.

Each year, before the Oscar show, Daily Variety columnist Army Archerd greets celebrity arrivals and pulls them up to a makeshift stage below the bleachers. He exchanges small talk with heavy-duty nominees as well as stars of yesterday like Cesar Romero and Gale Sondergaard. They wave at the fans (Angie Dickinson: “Thank you for being so patient”) and the fans, in turn, wave back and scream their approval. Hawn, Burstyn, Spacek, Moore, Duvall, Redford, but no De Niro or Scorsese. Would they attend? As it turned out, they either arrived hours early, or sneaked in a side door.

From the sidelines, one gathers that Oscar is an affair for those giving and getting awards, their families, Los Angeles society matrons, and studio executives. It is not an all-out industry celebration. Stars in disfavor this year, such as Barbra Streisand, Raquel Welch, and Al Pacino, stay away. Actors in TV series appear by the limousine-load. Bleacher babies know their faces and their TV names, but don’t know their real names

At 7 p.m., the press is allowed to enter the backstage area. We hear Reagan’s vid­eotape welcoming speech, while 200 of us wait patiently for a lone elevator that holds 10. The press room is Kafka interpreted by Bobby Short: men in tails and women in silken gowns beat out copy on 50-year-old Remingtons in uninterrupted rows of For­mica tables. Four 19-inch TV sets telecast the show, and a public relations woman keeps track of winners on a huge scoreboard, the way Nathan Detroit did in Guys and Dolls. In the TV media room, Miss Rona occupies a front row space (to Jack Lemmon: “Do you have any advice to give Timothy Hutton?” “Make Rona hap­py,” says Mary Tyler Moore to Lemmon. “Give Tim some advice”). In the photogra­pher’s room, Ron Gallela leads a brigade of accredited paparazzi (free-lancers are treated like dirt and kept the same dis­tance as the fans) all bringing their own unique vision to the very same photo­graphs.

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Had God given each journalist four eyes and ears, we’d watch the Oscars on the monitor screens at the same time we photograph or interview an entirely dif­ferent set of celebrities. Instead, we have to be selective. Nastassia Kinski and Sigourney Weaver in person gorgeously win out over the best short subject presen­tation on the tube.

Only award winners and presenters make the backstage rounds. Losers are spared the embarrassment. Sissy Spacek is the only star to make two backstage ap­pearances, having doled out an award for art direction, then winning one herself for best actress. Sissy says she’s relieved the awards are over: she isn’t in a celebratory mood.

Because there is so much glamour and power to select from, lesser award winners are ignored completely while their pres­enters are lauded and interviewed to death. Lily Tomlin appears in the press room with the winner of Special Optical Effects, but he might as well have been the incredible shrinking woman in the kitchen sink. Lily wonders why the Academy hadn’t junked the Reagan tape. “They should have made a new one from his hospital bed. That would have been an unqualified up for the people.”

Some reporters hog the stars. Radie Harris of the Hollywood Reporter hugs Tomlin. Peter O’Toole kisses Radie. Shirley Eder of the Detroit Free Press asks Lesley-Anne Down if she can check out the label on the inside of her dress — and does. Will Tusher of Variety yells, “It isn’t fair for others if the stars only talk to their friends in the media,” which prompts an­other journalist to yell, “They should only talk to their friends.” (Tusher is the most persistent interviewer, and asks the most inane questions. Radie and Shirley want to kill him.)

How each celebrity is treated depends on how he is perceived by the press. Mary Steenburgen, overjoyed with her support­ing award for Melvin and Howard, is met with affection. Diana Ross with goggle­-eyed awe. Lillian Gish with respect.

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Best screenplay winner Bo (Melvin and Howard) Goldman is chatting with the press when suddenly someone says, “Hold it.” Twenty newsmen turn their backs on Goldman to watch Robert Redford deliver his acceptance speech for best director (Ordinary People). They never get back to Goldman.

Redford generates a feeling of being either above it or below it all and is not a favorite in the press room. He exudes in­telligence, but his answers to questions are vague. He insists he’d never act in and direct the same film. He derides Holly­wood for “the current trend toward pyrotechnics,” and says he wants to make more intimate films which deal with emo­tions and social conditions.

There’s something about Redford — the blondness, the coolness, the good looks, everything that’s been written about before — that must be as awkward for him as it is for the person dealing with him. He makes you feel a little grubby. No one asks him to speak out about the assassination attempt or comment on Johnny Carson’s crack about Fort Apache, Charlie Chan, and Cruising (“It was a bad year if you were a gay Chinese from the Bronx”), or about Carson’s comments on Reagan’s cuts in arts funding or about the Burnett National Enquirer decision. So you talk direction and Ordinary People.

On the other hand, Robert De Niro is painfully shy. He rarely gives interviews. The press — at least, in New York — respects him and leaves him alone. Redford directed Ordinary People but De Niro is ordinary people, and what should have been one of the most gratifying evenings of his life turns into a nightmare.

When he accepts his Oscar for Raging Bull, De Niro concludes his speech by ac­knowledging “the terrible things that hap­pened in the world.” Then he takes a deep breath, clutches his trophy, and makes the backstage rounds. In the photo room, Ron Gallela asks him to hold a photograph of himself as Jake La Motta close to his face. This is not De Niro’s style, but he com­plies, with embarrassment. He enters the print media room as Sissy Spacek is being interviewed, and, as inconspicuously as possible listens to ebullient Sissy dispense quotes like “I’ve had the longest adolescence known to man or beast.”

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Then he faces the firing squad. Because of his distance with newsmen, there is no “hi, Bob, kiss, kiss, congratulations, kid­do.” Formalities are dispensed with in­stantly. The topic is assassination.

Somebody asks him to comment on the reports that Hinckley had used De Niro’s part in Taxi Driver as a model for his one­way relationship with Jodie Foster.

“That’s a whole different thing that happened,” he mutters. “It’s a loaded question.” De Niro’s eyes dart around the room, avoiding the eyes of journalists. The faint smile he had offered on arrival has disappeared. So has any semblance of joy. He looks terrified.

“It’s a question I don’t want to be asked. It’s hard to answer something like that. It’s an assumption. It’s not what it is.”

But isn’t it’true that … but didn’t CBS report that … but didn’t Hinckley say that …

Piranha time.

De Niro mumbles “I said what I had to say when I accepted the award. You’re really all very nice, but I have to go.”

And De Niro goes. He bypasses the TV room. He is spared the obligatory emo­tional content questions by Miss Rona. He skips the Beverly Hilton ball and heads straight back to his penthouse at the Chateau Marmont.

At midnight, the Chateau’s switchboard lights up like a Christmas tree. De Niro isn’t taking calls.

Oscar night is over. ■
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Annals of the Age of Reagan: Missile Mess in Europe

True Story of the SS-20 and Pershing II

In the last few weeks, some of the larg­est demonstrations in the postwar history of Western Europe have surged through the streets of London, Brussels, Bonn, Rome, Milan, and Paris. With varying em­phasis, they have been directed against the growth of so-called “theater nuclear” weaponry — primarily the U.S.-made Pershing IIs and Cruise missiles to be deployed by NATO, and the SS-20 missile deployed by the Soviet Union. 

Western European fears are not hard to explain. The Reagan administration, rabid on the topic of the Russian threat, has escalated bellicose rhetoric to a level which quite simply terrifies people. Ensuing assertions by the administration that deployment of the new NATO missiles will go hand-in-hand with talks with the Rus­sians on reduction of these and the Soviet missiles seem either specious or ludicrous. 

Reaganite rationale for the Pershing IIs and the Cruise, following the line of the Carter administration — which promulgated the policy — is that something had to be done about the threat posed by the fearsome SS-20s, and that it was in fact Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of West Ger­many who asked for the new weapons in the first place. In a talk with U.S. journal­ists on October 29, Schmidt denied this, and said Carter had proposed the plan at the Guadeloupe summit in January 1979. 

Whatever the truth of Schmidt’s asser­tion, the proposed deployment of the new missiles threatens his own leadership and has posed enormous problems for NATO, confronted by a peace movement broader by far than the campaigns of the late 1950s. 

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Crisis at Nadiradze
Acres of newsprint in recent years have been covered with spine-shriveling ver­biage about the Soviet SS-20 medium­-range missiles, invoked by U.S. and Western European arms lobbies as the most conspicuous evidence of Soviet de­termination to Finlandize the continent from the Elbe River to the Bay of Biscay, and as a threat which had to be countered. 

But in all the high-minded discussion about the famous SS-20s and the NATO response to them, much essential data has been omitted. 

Arms debates, as conducted by politi­cians, strategists, and the press, invariably ignore an important point: weapons are made by people who want to make money out of them. And if these people have no weapons to make, they will be out of a job. 

Such was the grim prospect faced by at least some of the comrades at the Nadiradze Design Bureau in the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s, and by their op­posite numbers in the Martin Marietta Corporation in the United States. 

The Nadiradze Design Bureau has, for the last 20 years, been charged with the responsibility for constructing a solid­-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile for the Strategic Rocket Forces of the Soviet Union. Other bureaus in the Soviet Union, such as the Yangel and Cholomei, have been briskly turning out liquid-fueled ICBMs (the SS-11, 17, 18, 19), all of a type abandoned by the U.S. some 20 years ago. 

After herculean efforts, the Nadiradze Bureau finally managed to come up with a prototype for the SS-16 in the mid-’70s. It was not a success. Test-firings, monitored by the U.S., almost invariably went wrong, and the SS-16 never went into production. Glum faces in the comfortable dachas inhabited by Nadiradze bureaucrats and engineers — and in the adjacent dachas inhabited by the generals of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces, who had been promised up-to-date missiles of the sort flaunted by the Americans.

From this crisis emerged the SS-20, hailed by Nadiradze salesmen and by U.S. threat-inflaters as super-accurate and terrifyingly MIRVed with up to three warheads. In fact the SS-20 is our old friend, the SS-16, chopped down by a third. The Russians began to deploy it in the late 1970s across the breadth of the Soviet Union, aimed at both the Chinese and NATO hordes.

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…and at Martin Marietta
Meanwhile, in the early 1970s, a crisis rather similar to that afflicting the Nadiradze/Strategic Rocket Forces complex was brewing between the Martin Marietta Corporation, headquartered in Florida, and the U.S. Army. 

By 1970, Martin Marietta was in danger of losing its treasured status as a “prime contractor” for military aerospace items. A prime contractor makes complete systems — a plane, a missile, a ship — thus lording it over humbler accomplices making subsystems: parts. One of the corporation’s more successful recent products had been the Pershing I medium-range nuclear missile, contracted for by the U.S. Army and deployed in Europe. But the days of Pershing I production were ebbing. Martin Marietta was faced with the disaster of no follow-on contract, and the U.S. Army with the prospect of being without an up-to-date nuclear missile and losing the last vestiges of nuclear missile turf to the enemy — the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy. 

At the time, there were no plans in NATO to purchase a fresh range of nuclear missiles for deployment in Europe. NATO was amply equipped with nuclear bombs on planes, on the aforementioned Pershing I, and on Polaris submarines. Undeterred by the absence of a policy decision by the NATO powers (and certainly undisturbed by the SS-20 threat, which had yet to be invented by the Nadiradze Bureau), the U.S. Army funded the development of the Pershing II, which, it claimed, would have a longer range than its predecessor and unprecedented accuracy.

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A Blessed Threat
Development of the Pershing II went limping along, to the gratification of the army and Martin Marietta but unbeknownst to all but the most assiduous readers of U.S. military budget statements. No production contracts had been awarded. Then came salvation, with the news that the SS-20 was being deployed. Threatmongers, notably Richard Burt — then at the Institute for Strategic Studies, subsequently defense correspondent for The New York Times, and now a Haig deputy in the State De­partment — and Uwe Nerlich, a West Ger­man defense analyst, began to bewail a NATO “escalation gap” which supposedly had opened up, requiring the deployment of a fresh generation of missiles in Europe. 

Thus, in the face of the dreadful SS-20 threat, began the campaign for installation of Pershing II and Cruise missiles — every­one conveniently forgetting that in the ’60s the U.S. had withdrawn medium-range missiles capable of hitting the Soviet Un­ion from Europe in favor of missiles of equal prowess based on submarines cruis­ing in the North Atlantic and Mediter­ranean. 

The advantage of the Pershing II over the Pershing I is that it will be capable, if deployed, of hitting the Soviet Union — a fact not lost on the Soviets, who are less worried about the slow-moving and wildly inaccurate Cruise than the Pershing II, which can reach their territory in five min­utes. 

NATO proposes to deploy 108 Pershing IIs and 464 ground-launched Cruise mis­siles. The Soviets have about 259 SS-20s deployed in the Soviet Union. 

It goes without saying that both the Pershing II and SS-20 have far fewer technical capabilities than those usually pro­claimed on the printed page. Veterans of Pentagon procurement say that even by the usual relaxed standards, the tests of the Pershing II guidance system were “outrageously faked.” The SS-20, some­times called “highly mobile” but with the relative speed of movement of an oil rig, has also turned out to be much less ac­curate than claimed. 

Today, the collective lunges at self-preservation and profit of the Nadiradze Bureau and Martin Marietta have led to the rebirth of the disarmament lobby and a mass movement in Europe, and the corresponding derogation of NATO. 

The uproar has greatly benefited the Russians. For years, the Soviet Union has been trying to get forward-based tactical nuclear systems included in arms-limita­tion talks. For years, the U.S. has stoutly resisted. Now, under pressure from Western European allies, the U.S. may at last have to enter into serious limitation talks about these very systems. 

If the U.S. decides to abort such talks, the Russians come out ahead once again­ because European disarmament cam­paigns will continue with redoubled force. 

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From The Archives NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Washington, D.C.

Summits Past: When the Evil Empire Out-Charmed the Great Communicator

In November 1985, Ronald Reagan met Mikhail Gorbachev in Switzerland for a summit at which the two leaders hoped, among other things, to reduce the nuclear arsenals of both the United States and the Soviet Union. Voice correspondent A. Craig Copetas reported that Gorby “came to Geneva to field test the weaponry of public relations instead of the weaponry of war. He may not have met Reagan missile for missile, but he beat him badly press event for press event. The ultimate irony of the summit was that the Great Communicator was bested at his own game by a former Soviet agricultural minister.”

But even as the Communist leader was winning the PR stakes, the Soviet Union was tottering under its own paranoid ineptitude. Toward the end of an article that draws parallels between Reagan’s Star Wars defense initiative and the movie it was named after, Copetas points out that a nation that was already keeping its typewriters and copying machines under lock and key was also extremely wary of the burgeoning personal-computer revolution: “That’s the great irony of the Soviet Union, a country that yearns to give its people the tools necessary to compete with America yet remains frightened to allow them the personal freedom necessary for real growth.”

No one knows what KGB agent Vladimir Putin, assigned to a dreary post in East Germany, was up to at this time, but perhaps he was already fantasizing about using all that kompromat his agency had gathered on politicians, celebrities, and business moguls around the globe to blackmail his way to world domination. Whatever he was contemplating six years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, he clearly got over Russian qualms about utilizing computers.

 

 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES

“The Reagan Show” Treats the Gipper Like He’s the Movie Hero He Fancied Himself

Asked late in his presidency how his background in Hollywood might have proved useful in his last and longest public performance, that beaming septuagenarian Ronald Reagan replied, “There have been times in this office when I’ve wondered how you could do this job if you hadn’t been an actor.” As with many of the Gipper’s utterances, it’s no easy feat to tease out the difference between quip and thought, between crack screenwriting and true belief. The new archival doc The Reagan Show purports to examine the fabulistic photo-op that was the movie star’s administration, studying his White House’s attention to imagecraft.

In its sprightly opening minutes, Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill’s film stirs laughs and small insights: Witness the Gipper, at his Santa Barbara ranch, serving as something like the second-unit director of his own photo shoot. “I’ve got an idea for another picture,” he says, grinning goonily in his cowboy shirt — clearly he loves this shit. His brainstorm: Nancy, who already has expressed some distaste at being coerced into horseback riding for the cameras, will stand in front of a scrawny tree, protecting it from Reagan, who will pretend to be trying to hack at it with a chainsaw. She demurs, at first, until he reassures her — the chainsaw won’t be on.

Those tree photos — awkward, clownish, decidedly un-epochal — never penetrated the public consciousness. But his fleeting inspiration might be the most revealing moment in this doc’s reels of new and little-seen footage. Here is Reagan as child and mythmaker, as cosplay cowboy and presidential auteurist, his staging of a George Washington tree-chop scene duded up in John Ford drag but playing as B-movie comedy. If the American right were still pushing to put the Gipper on money, this might be the image to pick.

The Reagan Show offers other winning behind-the-scenes moments captured on White House cameras, from which the administration sourced its steady release of upbeat B-roll. We see Reagan record multiple takes of a campaign ad for his “friend” John Sununu, then running for governor in New Hampshire, but the president, to his mild exasperation, can’t make all those us and ns in the candidate’s name come out right. Reagan carps, “Why the hell is his name — ” before the footage cuts out and the next attempt begins, just as it might have on Dick Clark’s concurrent TV’s Bloopers & Practical Jokes. Another scene finds Reagan cracking a joke at one of those pardon-the-turkey Thanksgiving ceremonies; when it doesn’t land, he says, “I think maybe I came in too early,” as if he’s on set and everybody might let him keep trying until he gets it right.

President-as-performer is no fresh insight, of course. Working exclusively in collage mode, without present-day narration, Velez and Pettengill strive to link their footage to the now. In a vintage ABC This Week broadcast, Sam Donaldson warns of a day when presidents might first need to be TV stars, and it’s perhaps inevitable that we see Reagan vow to “make America great again.” That Trump, in his bad-cover-band way, seized this message is less an indictment of Reagan, “the TV president,” than it is of the Republican Party since 1988: Trump, a salesman, merely nicked effective copy from the last president the GOP base can admit lasting affection. Nothing in the film suggests persuasively that Reagan paved the way for Trump’s debasement of the party and the office. For all the pitilessness of his agenda, Reagan the salesman harked back to Knute Rockne, All-American while peddling a gleaming Tomorrowland; Trump only hearkens to an idea of Reagan, to talk radio’s most perverse Gipper fan fiction.

CNN produced the film, which means you can’t expect it to dig deep or advance an argument. After that lightly provocative start, The Reagan Show settles in to a narrative driven not by fresh archival finds but by TV news reports. It breathlessly recounts the history of the Reagan-Gorbachev summits, arranging the old footage for narrative suspense, not revelation. At times an idea threatens to form up — the filmmakers seem to want to suggest that Reagan’s actorly craft proved instrumental to negotiations with the Soviets — but the video history lesson barrels right over it. I appreciate that the film reminds the world that conservative hardliners opposed Reagan and Gorbachev’s disarmament treaty, but The Reagan Show milks the treaty’s last-minute Senate ratification for climactic drama, not letting on that the vote was never truly in doubt. (The final tally: 93 for, 5 against.)

The president himself might have appreciated how the final reel here plays out. Asked at the height of the Iran-Contra scandal if his administration was washed up, Reagan promised that he planned to observe advice he’d picked up in Hollywood: “Save something for the third act.” Rather than reveal a showman, The Reagan Show in the end imitates one.

 

The Reagan Show
Directed by Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill
Gravitas Ventures
Opens June 30, Metrograph