|The 50th Anniversary Special: An Introduction|
|Hentoff: In Praise of Personal Journalism
I arrived at The Village Voice in 1958 in urgent need of a wide-ranging forum because for years I had been typed by editors as only knowing about jazz.
|Murphy: Buying and Selling the ‘Voice’
Crusading and independent journalistic beacon that it is, The Village Voice seems like the kind of intransigent social rebel that simply, absolutely can’t be bought.
|Solomon: The ‘Voice’ and Queer Revolution
The Voice wasn’t born gay. But its queerness was certainly overdetermined.
|Feingold Grows Up With Downtown Theater
The theater—the Downtown one, the only one that really means anything in New York’s cultural life—was born at roughly the same time as The Village Voice, and the two grew up together, two reckless runaway kids nurtured by the all-embracing foster mother, Manhattan.
|Christgau: ‘Voice’ Invents Rock Criticism
I wanted to shout how crucial Voice music writing was from the git, but evidence was lacking.
|Willis Decodes the Women’s Movement
In 1972, Karen Durbin showed some passages from her journal to a friend who was writing a book about the counter-culture and wanted to quote her on living in the age of radical feminism.
|Tate: Black Journalism in the ‘Voice’
I began reading the Voice because of Stanley Crouch, who in 1977 was the epicenter of frontline jazz criticism in America at the most auspicious moment in the music’s progression since the early 1960s.
|Hoberman’s Love Affair With ‘Voice’ Film Pages
Not exactly trekking to the one-room schoolhouse six miles across the tundra but a schlep nonetheless for the Teenage Me to find the one newsstand in Flushing (and later, Binghamton, New York) that carried The Village Voice.
|Musto Rides the Wave of Club Culture
By the mid ’80s, the Big Apple had lost most of its shine, but I was still living large and loving it as a free-drink-ticket-holding, drag-queen-worshipping denizen of any nocturnal den available.
|Barrett: ‘Voice’ Tradition of City Muckraking
There’s something symmetrical about the conviction of yet another boss of the Brooklyn Democratic party and the nearly simultaneous celebration of the Voice‘s 50th anniversary.
October 21, 1981
A local wit once told me that New Haven was the American capital of two isms; literary criticism and transvestism. As a Yale grad student, I saw daily proof of the first, but the second was a puzzle. America’s top transvestites, I was told, flocked to New Haven to stay at a certain motor inn and eat at a certain diner. Why, then, hadn’t I ever seen any?
“That’s easy,” my witty friend replied. “If you’re a really successful transvestite, of course you don’t look like one.”
The same might be said of literary critics: the better they are, the less they look like themselves. The finest critics of the past—Dryden, Johnson, Coleridge, Arnold, Eliot—demand to be read as artists; their commentary comes detached from, and sometimes even overwhelms, the “creative” work it comments on. No one complains: those great men wrote plays and poems as well as criticism, and besides they’re dead. But how do you respond to a crew of hard-core academics who flaunt their criticism as if it were creation?
If you’re a run-of-the-mill lit. professor, teaching remedial English in a one-horse burg like Oshkosh or New York City, you mutter something nasty about New Haven. Not since the early ’50s has the mention of that unprepossessing town (or its principal university) evoked such knee-jerk outrage from academic critics who have the good fortune to be employed elsewhere. Thirty years ago the tsk-tsks went to Cleanth Brooks, W.K. Wimsatt, and the other avatars of New Criticism. They wrote unconventional, unsettling books; they wrote them with, for, and about each other; and they revolutionized the reading and teaching of literature all over America.
Now in the hinterlands it’s fashionable to deplore a new gang of Yalies who are shaking up academe with an even more profound revolution than their precursors’. Next time you meet a provincial lit. professor, try dropping the name of Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey Hartman, Paul De Man, or Harold Bloom. Chances are his eyebrows will rise, the corners of his mouth will turn down, and he’ll ask something judicious about the “value” of what they do.
Yale’s new Gang of Four has no label. They’re certainly not structuralists; structuralism is as passé as hydropathy. They’re no semioticians; they leave that to the purple-haired ephebes at Semiotext(e). Derrida and De man are often called deconstructionists, because Derrida devised deconstruction and De Man deconstructed him almost at once. But deconstruction is big in Oshkosh now; the avant-garde has moved on into nameless territory. And Bloom, as always, like the cheese at the end of the nursery rhyme, stands alone.
Strictly speaking, Derrida isn’t a literary critic, nor does he belong to Yale. He’s a philosopher, and his home is the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, where he teaches the history of his proper discipline. But for several years he’s been traveling to New Haven to offer seminars, and from the American point of view he’s indelibly tarred with the Old Blue brush.
If any single person deserves credit (or blame) for having instigated the current shake-up in American literary criticism, it’s Jacques Derrida. His influence has been slow to catch on here, thanks to long delays in translation, but it’s already widespread and growing. Next month the University of Chicago Press will add Dissemination (tentative price, $22.50) to the shelf of Derrida in English, completing the splendid triad of books that a decade ago announced to the world of philosophy that Heidegger had a successor.
Published in French in 1972, Dissemination rounds off the critique of “logocentrism” begun in 1967 with Of Grammatology (Johns Hopkins, $24.50, $6.95 paper) and Writing and Difference (University of Chicago, $20, $6.95 paper). Its three large essays—on Plato, Mallarme, and Phillippe Sollers—supplement Derrida’s earlier deconstructions of Rousseau, Freud, Artaud, and others by showing that, from classical Greece to the present moment, Western philosophy and literature have been centered on the logos—the self-present plenitude of the living, speaking voice.
Speech came first, and writing—dead, different, poisonous writing—followed after; so runs the tale of logocentrism. Deconstruction, as Derrida performed it, plots this tale through any text—finding the belated, external thing always already there at the center, unveiling a trace of the necessary supplement at the heart of original fullness. Any text: Derrida treats literature as philosophy and philosophy as literature. The deconstructor knows no discipline, adheres to no genre; he stands simultaneously inside and outside them all. He is constantly, as the computer scientists say, jumping out of the system, even when that system is the text that he himself constructs.
Derrida’s early work resists this lust in his technique, but his more recent books have aggressively surrendered to it. There is already a trace of his now-past future in Dissemination‘s “Outside the Book,” prefaces about prefaces; but deconstruction here still looks like a method, something you could learn or at least ape. In 1974, in his probably untranslatable Glas, Derrida jumped out of that system for good. Since then, he’s been dancing.
Glas is the Finnegans Wake of what, for want of a better term, has to be called criticism; it combines literature, philosophy, autobiography, and a heavy dose of Space Invaders. The “book” is “about” Genet and Hegel, but its two-columned, multi-type-faced, polyglot pages not only refuse translation and proper naming; they also can’t be read—not, at least, in the usual sense of “reading,” another deconstructible system.
But Glas can be criticized, which Geoffrey Hartman has done in his latest book, Saving the Text: Literature/Derrida/Philosophy (Johns Hopkins, $12.95). Like Derrida, Hartman has grown fecund in the heady air of post-deconstruction. Just last year he gave us Criticism in the Wilderness: The Study of Literature Today (Yale, $18), where he coolly stepped outside the Anglo-American tradition of criticism, which he called “sublimated chatter.” In Saving the Text he still interprets, still explicates, but the sportiveness of his subject-text leads him to something like play—toying with dualisms, letting them flip unexpectedly into each other.
Criticism in the Wilderness was dedicated to Hartman’s students, but Saving the Text is “For the Subject”—Derrida, of course, with whom Hartman has been known to have lunch, but also the capitalized Subject, the object of subjection. He plays with Derrida’s subjects as well as with his own, and he’s obviously been lunching with Harold Bloom, too, since he comments on Bloomian favorites like Gershon Scholem, kabbalism, and Bloom himself. As the Yale critics advance they join hands, enriching each other mightily but also turning rather coyly intramural.
There’s no coyness about Paul De Man, however. Germanically meticulous and icy, De Man is the outsider even within the dancing circle. He’s the tester of truth, the rigorous tribunal, and an uncommonly unprolific writer, having produced only two books in the last decade. Already in 1971, in Blindness and Insight, he has digested deconstruction and metacriticized it, turning the avant-garde back upon itself at a time when the avant-garde had barely gotten started. Two years ago, in Allegories of Reading (Yale, $22.50), he confirmed his place with Nietzsche and Derrida among the “Archie Debunkers” of Western thought.
That phrase is a rare playful stroke from De man. His dense, formidable deconstructions of Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke and Proust are uncompromising in their purity as well as their demands; in his unamiable way, De Man is the most radical of his bunch. Harold Bloom calls him the “prince of deconstructors,” confessing that of all critical theorists (After Nietzsche) Dem Na “troubles and wounds” hi most. This may be because, as Bloom says, De Man sees in all authentic poetry and criticism a rehearsal for “the random, meaningless act of death.” But it may also be because the troubled, wounded persona of Bloom the creative critic requires the figure of De Man to give it pain.
I’ve been quoting from Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism (Oxford, January, $19.95), the latest in the almost yearly succession of books (everything from a science-fiction romance to a study of Wallace Stevens) that Bloom has been cranking out since The Anxiety of Influence (Oxford, $12.95, $4.95 paper) in 1973. Agon returns to that book and its next successors, A Map of Misreading (Oxford, $14.95, $4.95 paperback) and Kabbalah and Criticism (Continuum, $6.95, 1975), supplementing and revising them. Bloom is now, like Freud, his own most important precursor. Everyone makes him anxious, especially his colleagues at Yale, but in this book, at last, his worst anxiety is inspired by himself.
Bloom belongs to no school and doesn’t care (so he says) if he founds one. He’s his own Yale department, and though he drops the names of all his fellow Yalies in a cordial, clubby way, he does so only to set himself apart from them. Bloom practices what he calls Antithetical Criticism, an intellectual bouillabaisse mixing Freud, Gnosticism, classical rhetoric, American patriotism, and emphatic Jewishness. To read him is a vertiginous, invigorating experience, but it’s doubtful that it “teaches” you anything—except how to cavort with the mind of Harold Bloom.
There’s the rub. Hinterlanders resent the New Haven avant-garde for its frank cliquishness and air of privilege, but the most common argument voiced against it is a practical one. The four critics I’ve discussed here share more than a place of employment: their pugnaciously playful manner, their unabashed difficulty, their refusal to don the old critic’s mask of servant to creative originality—all these outrages strip them of the “usefulness” and “value” than American academic criticism has pretended to throughout the 20
th century. If you can’t use a critic, what can you do with him?
You can dance with him, as I’ve suggested, but if the new Yale critics teach any lesson it’s that you’d better not let them lead. Home-grown “structuralists” used to glut academic journals and conferences; today they’ve been replaced by flat-footed deconstructors a la Derrida and weak misreaders who strain to seem as strong as Bloom. This is distasteful, but time will probably cure it. Meanwhile, the ethical implications (if there are any) in the work of Yale’s newest critics go unexplored by them and unrecognized in the provinces. We’re left, perhaps forever, with the outrageous fact that these writers offer pleasure—rare and special, arcane and strenuous, but pleasure even so.
Who’d have ever thought that professors would do that?
September 11, 2001
I emerged from the Chambers Street subway stop at 9 this morning into a crowd gaping up at the World Trade Center moments after its top floors had burst into flames. Some people were crying, a few women crossed themselves, but mostly people were exchanging stories in that almost affable New York-in-a-crisis way, collecting the tales that they would later tell their friends and maybe someday their grandchildren. Until the second blast. As soon as we heard the muffled boom and saw flames kick along the walls of the tower, we knew in our bellies that America was changed forever. I wanted to throw up.
A panicky mob ran screaming up the street, some stopping two blocks north to gape some more. Theories started flying: “Terrorists,” though few could say which kind for what cause. Sirens howled and quickly the streets became eerily empty of traffic. We could see some small figures—something orange, something flapping white—hanging off the building. Could they be people? The crowd let out a high-pitched primal squeal. I got the hell out of there.
I headed east in a nauseous daze—due for jury duty at state supreme court on Centre Street, propelled by one of those defense-mechanism impulses that makes you focus on the thing that is absolutely beside the point. I turned onto Duane Street, soon finding myself passing the Javits Federal Building. I started to run. It might blow any minute, I thought.
I spent much of this August in Israel and the occupied territories. I was there during the weeks the Sbarro pizza restaurant in Jerusalem was blown up by a suicide bomber, and left Haifa only a day before the bombing at a restaurant there. Though I witnessed during my travels through the West Bank and Gaza how those areas were the ones literally under siege, I began to understand the depth of Israeli fear. I lived in perpetual anxiety: sitting in a cafe, going to the grocery store, standing in any crowded area. Every time I boarded a bus I felt my heartbeat speed up. I never felt so relieved to return home from abroad as I did two weeks ago. At last I could drop the guard, leave the panic behind.
Or so I thought. Jury duty was over: The court was closing. So I began the citizens’ march up Centre Street, merging with the throngs sent home. Cops waved us away from subway entrances and told us to keep walking.
I fell in with a group of young women, administrative assistants at 2 World Trade Center. One was still crying. She was about to enter the World Trade Center when the first plane hit. “Arms, legs. Parts of people. They were falling on my head,” she said. Her friend put an arm around her, saying only “shhh,” and the whole block went silent for a moment. The third friend tried frantically to get a cell-phone signal. A secretary to three vice presidents at a Wall Street firm that opens at 9, she typically starts work at 8:30. “I have to get their days prepared,” she said, shaken yet proud, almost as if she expected to be there again tomorrow. “My subway was late today and for some reason, for once as the train slowed down and waited, I didn’t get mad,” she marveled.
Her calls wouldn’t go through. Neither would anyone else’s. Block-long lines formed at payphones as WTC workers tried to contact loved ones to let them know they were okay.
As we trudged along—strangers talking like old friends, people who managed to find cabs and offering to share them—I flashed on the grammar-school drills I went through in the ’60s. The Cold War came to my Midwestern suburban school in the form of duck-and-cover exercises and, once a year, a practice evacuation. We were let out of school early and had to walk all the way home, filing out in neat lines and heading into the streets, kids peeling off as we came to their neighborhoods.
A real war has come to these shores now, bringing massive violence into America for the first time. The terrible human casualties of today’s attacks haven’t even begun to be counted yet. Some of the intangible ones to come are obvious—the First Amendment, for starters. The altered city skyline is only the most visible manifestation of the size of the change.
I finally got my turn at the phone. There were three anxious messages on my answering machine: One from my partner. And two from friends in Israel.
Photos of the Attack
September 18, 1957
On the Road
A novel by Jack Kerouac
Viking Press, $3.95
As you have no doubt already gathered by now, the public emergence of Jack Kerouac from the hipsters’ underground into American literature is upon us, and is going to be THE big thing for quite a while. (Another of his books is being published by Grove Press later this season. The author of “On the Road” was on “Nightbeat” last week (looking and sounding remarkably like the late James Dean, incidentally), people are already leafing curiously through it in bookstores, toting it around the Village, hugging it under their arm as they ride the subway to work. I understand that, despite the complete and incomprehensible lack of publisher’s advertising so far, the first printing sold out a week after publication.
Some of us knew Kerouac’s work before this—pieces of “On the Road” had appeared in New World Writing, New Directions, and the Paris Review, and another novel, “The Town and the City,” was published in 1950. “On the Road” itself was written almost a decade ago; Malcolm Cowley was touting it as far back as 1951 or so, in his book, “The Literary Situation.” But now at last the news is out for good: Kerouac is not just a writer, not just a talent, but a
voice, as Hemingway, Henry Miller, the early Gide were and are to those who are disposed to listen.Kerouac has taken the way he and his friends lived and felt about life in the years 1947-1950 and written a lusty, noisily lyrical, exuberantly overwritten book about it all. But more important than that, he offers a belief, a rallying point for the elusive spirit of the rebellions of these times, that silent scornful sit-down strike of the disaffiliated which has been the nearest thing to a real movement among the young since the end of World War II. “On the Road” is as crucial to the social history of the past 10 years in America as “The Lonely Crowd.”
The phrase “beat generation,” coined by Kerouac, can be very misleading, though. John Wingate asked him on “Nightbeat” what it was all about, and Kerouac merely replied: “I feel beat, don’t you?” But that’s only part of it. The ugliness of American life appears on every page of “On the Road” but does not fill it. In telling the story of a bunch of young guys running like demented ants over the map of America, from New York to Denver, to San Francisco, to New Orleans, to Mexico, there are also adventures, kicks, discoveries—in a word, joy. In the midst of hung-upness there is ecstasy; in the midst of chaotic experience, a reverential order. Beneath the beatness of the surface of everything, Kerouac, like Henry Miller in “Tropic of Cancer,’ finds beatitude.
At least this is what Sal Paradise, the narrator of “On the Road,” finds for himself. The most unforgettable character in the book, Dean Moriarty (its real hero), does not. In him the hunger for life, for digging everything spells his destruction: the chaos of his marraiges, fo his adventures, of his perpetual appetite for motion, is too much to control. The arch-hipster of them all, he is at once saint and victim—and ultimately self-crucified.
February 18, 1992
FUNNY MR. BILL
Sixteen and time to pay off i get this job in a piss factory inspecting pipe. forty hours thirty-six dollars a week but it’s a paycheck, jack. -Patti Smith
Up close, Bill Clinton looks like he’s covered in fresh fetal tissue. His skin is virtually poreless. The high, ample hair (a premium commodity in this race of semi-skinheads), the trim, pneumatic body, the tasteful but not unduly elegant suit, everything has been processed into movie star perfection. He could be a retired sports figure like Bruce Jenner, endorsing a home treadmill. Something in the grooming suggests one of those miniature species bred to win show ribbons, a Shetland pony or toy terrier.
Here amid the authentic wood-grain paneling of the Henry J. Sweeney American Legion Post #2 on Maple Street, in Manchester, a large and not unduly elegant crowd of Clinton people has wedged itself between the floor-level microphone and the cash bar. Someone, I’m not sure who, introduces Legion Post Commander Tom Murphy, “who is gonna do the pleasure of introducing Governor Clinton.”
The locutions are pure Main Street New Hampshire. Regarding the candidate, Murphy says, “I have read much of what he stands for and espouses to.” “It’s my distinguished pleasure to honor and introduce to you”—and perhaps he really does say—”the next president of the United States,” though the ante here is simply getting the numbers back to where they were before Gennifer Flowers. The will to believe is palpable in the room, if hardly overwhelming. There’s a certain mild electric tension skimming off the synthetic fabrics and plastic cocktail glasses, roughly the voltage of the joy buzzer.
This is a grown-up crowd. There are infants and small kids and grandmothered swaddled in bright ski parkas and knitted beanies, but the main energy emits from men and women of a certain age who buy their clothes out of state and are no strangers to the cash bar of Henry J. Sweeney American Legion Post #2. I mean that, as Nixon would say, in the best sense of cash bar. Here you have your conservative machine Democrats (what used to be called savings and loan Democrats), mingling with plumbing contractors and Goodyear franchise managers and district assemby-persons, the types that strike all sorts of sweet little deals in places like this on a normal weekday, many 100 per cent behind the candidate but ready to switch horses if the numbers today and tomorrow and next week don’t play out as expected.
Clinton doesn’t wait on too much fanfare. This is an earnest, flesh-pressing, I’m-not-there-yet-and-I-need-each-and-every-one-of-you speech. The point of the exercise is to find a credible way of projecting “concern” that these people are “hurting” Bush’s euphemism for broke. What’s Clinton’s campaign all about? Three words: “fairness, responsibilitiy, and unity.” Where do Republicans make their mistake? Well, for one thing, “most poor people get up in the morning and work” and therefore deserve government help. But let’s not slip into socialism. This guy wants “to make more millionaires than Reagan and Bush, but the old-fashioned way.” Empower those local governments. Crack down on corporations moving jobs out of the country. And let’s have boot camps, military style, for some of our less hardened, first-time-felony criminals. While we’re at it, let’s enforce child support.
The platitudinous verbal droppings, more like noises one makes to stimular horses than actual thoughts, also resemble bromides from a soothing commercial for Preparation H: the proctologist, on close examination, has ruled against radical surgery in favor of something smooth and greasy and easy to dissolve in the collective rectum. In case anybody thought he was some woolly-haired tax-and-spend liberal, Funny Mister Bill throws in enough hard talk about welfare recipients and crime to make you forget he’s a Democrat. For this particular crowd, he’s already demonstrated his Americanism by letting a lobotomized Death Row inmate go to his end by lethal injection—one of the three hideously bungled, “painless” executions the same week in America. And if a fair number of conservatives, even New Hampshire conservatives, wince at the stark realtities of capital punishment, quite a few think it ought to be as painful as possible.
If Clinton cares jackshit about anything besides getting elected, it doesn’t show on that eerily symmetrical face, a visage of pure incipience: soon-to-be-jowly and exophthalmic, a fraction past really sexy, but warmingly cocky, clear-eyed, with an honorary, twinkling pinch of humility. The accent has just enough grain, enough slow roll in it for people to recognize Good Old Boy with decent values and bootstraps pulled all the way up. His ideas are so lacking in genuine nuance or arresting detail that he might very well pass, if not now then later, as the statistically ideal mediocrity New Hampshire often favors, when it isn’t workshipping some pathologically unpleasant, penny-ante fixer like John Sununu. Apart from bland-as-buckwheat officials with no fixed opinions on anything, the Granite State likes pissy, preening patently empty wastebaskets a’ la Sununu to push its citizens around from time to time, exploiting them in sadistically unprofitable ways.
There is real social masochism in New Hampshire among the blue-collar immigrant stock of the southland. (“Southland” is my own term for south of Concord, east of Keane, not a New Hampshire term.) Those for whom “Live Free or Die” havs traditionally meant dropping out of 10
th grade and heading straight for Klev Bros. and Jody shoe shops, Raytheon, or the mills, feel such depths of cultural inferiority that truly abusive public figures often resonate more winningly with them than reformers and do-gooders. And that’s the target constituency, despite today’s preponderance of the class three notches above trash. New Hamshirites respect cunning over noble intentions. The Bavarians of New England have never cottoned to obligatory self-improvement or any too-reachy sense of community, since these concepts involve sales tax and the dreaded welfare, which would bring hordes of shiftless coloreds swarming over the border from Massachusetts. New Hampshire makes its money on state liquor stores and highway tolls. Not coincidentally, the state has ranked, for decades, 50th in the nation in support of higher education.
Aside from the daily dose of social Darwinism provided by the Manchester Union Leader, New Hampshire’s only statewide daily newspaper, the paradigm of Ignorance in defense of intolerance is no vice has been held in place for decades by the Catholic Church, though the south is full of Catholics who stopped attending mass after Vatican II, when the transubstantial rites of cannibalism switched from Latin to English. (One woman in Derry told me the secularization of the mass was an egregious example of “coddling the young,” like the local Rock the Vote registration drive, which unsuccessfully tried to force the Supervisor of the Checklist to register students at the local high school instead of at the town hall. When the Democratic candidates moan about “the first generation of Americans to do worse than their parents,” they’re waving a blank rhetorical flag. Among working-class parents in this neck of the woods, what was good enough for them is good enough for their brats, and if their brats do a little worse, boo hoo.)
Resentment is running high at the Henry J. Sweeney American Legion Post #2. One woman in a beige parka steps up to the microphone to denounce the State of the Union address, specifically the Marie Antoinette capital gains passage about Puritans lying awake at night, obsessed with the idea that somebody somewhere might be having a good time. (Our Halcion-sedated chief executive should’ve recognized Peggy Noonan’s winsome hen tracks as relics of the good old days, when people without trust funds didn’t realize they were “hurting.”)
It takes a member of the press corps, the
Voice‘s Alisa Solomon, to mention the A-word: for this bunch, apparently, “health care” doesn’t necessarily extend to the politically charged issue of AIDS. Or perhaps it does, but they’d really rather not discuss it. Clinton exudes a pat, uninterested answer about more money for research et cetera, adding that “President Bush has only mentioned the word AIDS about three times since he’s been president,” Alisa later notes that this is the first time Clinton has mentioned it at all.
She’s real Catholic, see. she fingers her cross and says there’s one reason…you do it my way or I push your face in. We knee you in the john if you don’t get off your mustang, sally. – Patti Smith
The Buchanan crowd is something else again. The palace Theatre, a porn movie house throughout my teens and later boarded up like most Manchester businesses off Elm Street, has reopened as a legitimate theater. And a grand-looking place it is, with raked seats and ormulu sconces and delicate chandeliers, like a vintage Keith Circuit vaudeville hall.
There is one black man in the cream white audience, wearing a tight black suit, applauding feverishly, a true believer who will gladly salt himself when they throw him into the stew pot, as long as he can be the last one in. Onstage, former Manchester mayor Bob Shaw lectures us about “a little tea party we threw down in Boston a few years ago,: flanked by another local hack, the city chairman of Buchanan for President. While the candidate speaks, these two mavens perch on folding chairs nearby, in badly tailored gray suits, one porcine gangling, and rabid looking, the other scrunched up like some demented antique dealer with dreams of world domination, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, cackling and stomping their feet. A tableau of jolly idiocy. Potent ecstasy from the audience of functional dipsomaniacs and blue rinse jobs with ropes of synthetic pearls and minks women circa 1970. LaRouche defectors, Chamber of Commerce ghouls, and assorted bits of space debris. An extremely fat man with inflamed pimples rocks in his seat behind me, muttering “Right on!” every time Pat scores some soaring polemical eureka.
The thrust of The Speech is that America has to be Number One. Not simply Number One in standard of living and capitalization and investments and technology and aircraft construction and care sales, but Number One in unbridled odiousness. The tautological form of the Speech presents a self-evident case that the U.S. is not simply part of the world, but superior to everything in it. Like anyone else from Rockinghand and Hillsborough counties, I am able to instantly translate The Speech from its slightly euphemistic idioms into plain English:
We must show these sordid fuckers, the Japs, that we are better than they are because, goddam it, we’re Americans, We’re white, we’re the greatest nation the world has ever known, and we invented everything. Flat screens and chips and VCRs and semiconductors and the Waring blender. And it’s all being taken away from us by a bunch of satanic Nips and totalitarian wetbacks who’ve titled the playing field by Christ a level playing isn’t the point anyway, we’ve got to win!
The Europeans—whose gene stock, granted, is the only one worth preserving, are evilly attempting to wrest Boeing and Burger King from America’s grasp. Race filth from Taiwan is gobbling up McDonnell Douglas. My god, the bastards will be seizing control of Disneyland unless this belligerent turd at the podium with his socks falling down isn’t listened to, and then the residents of Manchester, New Hampshire can kiss the eternal glory of being an American goodbye. Poor little Mickey Mouse is gonna wind up a squalid, syphilitic frog, or a sex-crazed wop, or a stinking guinea, or a bloody wog, or, god help the little rodent, a flaming African jigaboo.
“I’ve heard about parts of New Hampshire emptying out, the way you used to read about it in the Dust Bowl…eight years of Reagan, whatever good things he did have been wiped out in these three years…the World Bank in the last three years has given $3.5 billion dollars to communist China…at zero interest…those loans are guaranteed by you…the Export Import Bank is helping American businesses locate a new paper mill in Mexico…has anybody been up to the James River Paper Mill in Berlin? I was up there yesterday…they’re holding on…they don’t know what’s going to happen…they’re responsible for 20 per cent of the economy of the North Country…what are we doing financing paper mills in Mexico when paper mills in New Hampshire are teetering on the brink of going under? [Thunderous applause.] We were the world’s leaders in textiles. Number one in steel. These industries are going, going, some of them are gone…I’ve been up in the North Country of your home state…Mr. Bush just had a new guest visiting him, Lee Pong I think is how you pronounce his name…he’s the fellow who ordered the tanks in Tiananmen Square…that Chinese communist regime is right now selling missile technology…to our enemies in Tehran…they dumped all their sweater products in the United States and killed Pandora Mills….”
Never mind that most of New Hampshire has always been thinly populated. Never mind that the former Brown Co. Mills have been in decline for 30 years—in steeper decline since their purchase, in 1980, by the Virginia-based James River Corporation, which failed to refurbish the industrial plant when the capital was there. That the population of Berlin has been dropping steadily since 1960—precipitously so since the departure of the Converse Shoe Company in 1979. Or that absolutely nobody in New Hampshire refers to Coos County as the wasteland near the Canadian border as “the North Country.”
As if happens, Pandora Mills was not ruined by Chinese sweaters being dumped on the American Market. Pandora Mills was ruined by a leveraged buyout of its clothing division following the company’s 1983 acquisition by Gulf + Western, as the former president of Pandora Knitwear, May Gruber, informs me after the Palace Theatre loathe-in has dispersed into the gelid evening, trailing acrid vapors of Nissan and Honda exhaust. Admit nothing, blame everybody, be bitter—this could easily be Pat Buchanan’s campaign slogan, as well as the state motto.
Perhaps the sorriest aspect of Buchanan’s campaign is the obligation most mainstream journalists feel to declare this raging boor “interesting,” mainly because customarily feeds at the same trough they do. Yes, he will get 30 per cent of New Hampshire Republican vote, and so would Adolph Hitler or General Franco. I’m from here, and I’ve seen this movie before. Buchanan is scary, yes, but so is the more congenial, saner fringe candidate, Charles Woods, an air crash survivor whose reconstructed face at least confronts us with the useful paradox that appearances, which all philosophy since Plato shows us to be false, absolutely dictate the selection ruler sin a televised “democracy.” By contrast, Buchanan is, tediously, exactly what he looks like: a bigoted mick whose pathology runs to fag-bashing and other symptoms of sexual hysteria.
And what of these bullying, cowardly people, stewing in the bilious sweats of their own zeal, bursting into rapturous applause—the heartiest applause of the evening—when Buchanan sneers that AIDS is “still a disease of homosexuals and drug addicts,” or vows to rid the NEA of every piece of “scandalous, filthy or antireligious art”? What about these jumped-up hillbillies, frothing at the dentures to beat up on people with AIDS, single mothers on public assistance, the homeless, anybody weaker than they? Who regard themselves as the only true victims of history, as “hurting,” just because the world is larger than they are, more complex than the country they live in, and not, for the most part, white?
It’s standard among the Buchanan set to begrudge any minority the status of victim, to bewail “reverse discrimination” in any attempt at social reparation, so it’s no surprise that the Union Leader, Buchanan’s principal endorser in the state, has taken up several of Pat’s pet peeves. In a January 30 editorial, staffer Leonard Larsen attacks “the annual guilt trip over Hiroshima” and complains that “the popular media history…will probably define World War II in just two events.” And guess what the other one is.
“…So that wasn’t a war we were in. There was the Holocaust and everything else was incidental. The revisionists would make it a fact.”
I should stress that the Union Leader is perfectly capable of going much further than this, of denying that the Holocaust even happened one week, and using the same fictional Holocaust the next week to attack Louis Farrakhan or some other anti-Semite of color, depending on which minority its editrix, Mrs. Nacky Scripps Gallowhur Loeb, widow of the odious William, feels like bashing when she staggers out of bed in the morning.
On the other matters, too, the paper has the mercurial temper of a pit viper. It detests Jimmy Hoffa until Jimmy Hoffa became the enemy of Robert Kennedy, and then ran a decade of editorials lauding Hoffa as the savior of organized labor. (The paper threatened to withhold its endorsement of Richard Nixon in ’72 unless Tricky Dick sprung Hoffa from the federal penitentiary; Nixon grudgingly obliged.) It devoted eight years of deifying editorials to then governor John Sununu and his albatross reactor in Seabrook, yet currently refers to him as Bush’s “pimp,” because Sununu refuses to endorse Buchanan. Like the Stalinist-era Pravda, the Union Leader never simply changes its mind; it “discovers” a pattern of ideological error or flawed character in its former allies, admits to having been “duped,” and busily retracts every positive thing it’s printed about the latest charlatan. In all of this the paper represents itself as a virgin schoolmarm violated and betrayed by her most trusted pupil, an act so long in the tooth that even its subscribers can’t read the Union Leader with a straight face.
Back to Buchanan. During Q&A, only two people, May Gruber—who does not raise the issue of Pandora Mills but instead suggests that Jesse Helms’s interference with the NEA amounts to governmental censorship—and a young woman from Merrimack, who describes Buchanan’s position on AIDS as ignorant, challenge the candidate on any of his obvious whoppers. Given the general altitude of Pat’s fans, this takes more guts and conviction than the windbag on stage ever possessed in his life. I’d like to think that these two intelligent, humane voices insert just enough dissonance to sully an orgy of ugly feelings, or at least plant a few suspicions that the Wizard of Oz cannot really give the Scarecrow a functioning brain.
On the way out of the theater, an obsessed, elderly, goofily dressed John Bircher strikes up a monologue aimed at the Voice photographer, who happens to be African American. The man carries a bundle of literature charting a vast, ongoing conspiracy by the Trilateral Commission and David Rockefeller: “I’ve had this crap up to here. This country’s gonna go right down the goddam tubes. Someday you’re gonna have United Nations troops in here. George Wallace got 10 million votes, he said we’re fed up with this crap, what happened? Boom. John Kennedy tried to buck these guys, what happened? Boom. Robert Kennedy, right? Martin Luther King was so exposed he was no longer any use to these people, what happened? Bang!” Like flies to a steaming pile of ordure, the weird creatures of eternal night drew close to the flame that is Pat Buchanan. Meanwhile, some workers roll out the set, a temple0like construction of plastic milk crates, for the Palace Theatre’s current production, The Tempest.
FADE TO BROWN
I look down at sweet Theresa’s convent, all those nurses, all those nuns…to me you know they look pretty damn free down there– Patti Smith
In a large auditorium with level seats, pale olive walls, dark neo-Georgian olive trim, festooned with many portraits in gilded frames of men who resemble Alastair Cooke, a number of dewlapped, earnest preppies and environmentally conscious residents of Exeter and nearby towns have gathered at Phillips Exeter Academy to experience Jerry Brown.
Our in the hall, volunteers are stacking Jerry’s videotape and piles of Jerry’s literature. As I write this, I keep hearing Sandra Bernhard’s dialogue from The King of Comedy echoing through my head. Jerry.
Jerry Brown has enough sense of humor to joke about the space cadet rap he’s getting in the press. Just enough. Perhaps infected by the sober and enlightened atmosphere of this great hall, where countless maiden blowjobs began as humid, hungering glances across rows of brilliantined schoolboy hairdos, Jerry strikes a serious yet scrappily boyish note. He reminds us that he is the only candidate with a classical education, schooled in Greek and Latin. For three years he toiled and thought and really examined himself and who he really was in the silence of a Jesuit seminary. He traveled to Japan and knows the Japanese, knows the culture and what makes it tick. After that, Jerry spent three months in Calcutta, working with Mother Teresa in her Home for the Dying, eager to see what human caring, human compassion, even in the absence of a mutual language, could do amid so much suffering and dying.
And that isn’t all. If I were to write down everything Jerry Brown has done, or even just about everything Jerry Brown says he’s done, you would still be reading this next Tuesday. Jerry’s introduction of renewable energy technologies in California alone would cover many pages, as would his hands-on approach with the state legislature in Sacramento, where he moved in to a small apartment right across from the statehouse instead of taking residence in the ugly expensive mansion built for the Reagans. Did I tell you what Jerry did about the dead-end warfare system in California? How Jerry actually lessened crime? The magnificent windmills and other devices that have made PG&E, thanks to Jerry, the most cost-effective and profitable gas and electric utility in the U.S. of A.? No? Sandra, would you please sing “Come Rain or Come Shine” just one more time?
As I listen to Jerry, something keeps irritating me. At first I believe it is the memory of a large crow I once saw bisected by one of Jerry’s power-generating windmills outside San Luis Obispo while driving from L.A. to San Francisco. Then I realized it is a small child in a pink padded windbreaker seated beside me who is playing with a Nintendo Game Boy as Jerry speaks.
Just behind me, several young men who had been discussing, avidly, the various clues on Beatles albums pointing to the death of Paul McCartney (for example, on the Sgt. Pepper lyric sheet, John Lennon’s finger seems to rest against the line, “…at five o’clock as the day begins…” –possibly the exact time of Paul’s demise) have stopped talking about that and are listening to Jerry with what seems, when I look at them, like respectful skepticism. Good day sunshine.
Jerry wants to take the system back form the politicians and the corporations and put it in the hands of the people, and that’s why he isn’t accepted more than $100 from each individual to run his campaign. We can cleanse this system of corruption and provide health care for every American and cure the rot of our inner cities with a few simple techniques. All right, I’m sorry, I don’t remember what they are, but Jerry knows them, and if you elect Jerry, he’ll tell you himself. Or at least you should take a copy of his videotape. But if you do, be prepared to pass it on to five other people. This is how a grassroots movement gets started.
Jerry is wearing a white turtleneck and a blue denim jacket with brown leather strips on the collar and baggy black corduroy trousers. Jerry has a large bald spot and strangely mottled skin, red in the wrong places, and just between you and me, there is something a little delusional about Jerry, even though I know he really was the governor of California at one time.
In all fairness to the candidate, he only sounds this way because America has evolved so far from the notion of direct rule that even people who agree with Jerry understand he has no chance of being elected. One thinks of direct rule in connection with local rather than national politics. Brown does have a constituency in New Hampshire, as would any ecology-minded consumer advocate, because local communities have seen what can be accomplished by write-in drives, petitions, and town meetings. This I, paradoxically, partly thanks the William Loeb and the politicians he supported over the years.
Loeb, by the way, never resided in New Hampshire. For decades he occupied an 80-acre high-security compound in Pride’s Crossing, Massachusetts, furtively darting back and forth across the border, it is said, in order to avoid subpoenas. In league with a succession of vacuous New Hampshire governors, Loeb sponsored uncountable schemes to wreck the environment in the interest of various contractors, developers, and high-tech corporations. Sununu’s Seabrook nuclear reactor was only the most recent venture to mobilize conservation groups throughout the state.
Before Seabrook, there was Durham Point. In 1973, Governor Meldrim Thomson Jr. (now an occasional columnist for the Union Leader) announced his vision that New Hampshire needed an oil refinery. No one had perceived this need before, but because of his campaign pledge of no new taxes, Thomson had to find money somewhere for deteriorating state services. At the same time, employees of Aristotle Onassis’s Olympic Oil Co., posing as real estate agents, began buying options on 3000 acres of shorefront in Portsmouth, Rye, and Durham, under various guises: the establishment of bird sanctuaries and hunting preserves, retirement homes, etc. The biggest chunk of optioned land was at Durham Point. Onassis also optioned parts of the Isles of Shoals, a little archipelago 10 miles off the coast.
In November 1973, Thomson announced the Olympic Oil would install a $600 million refinery at Durham Point. Supertankers would offload at the Isles of Shoals, where the oil would be pumped into Portsmouth via underwater pipe, then shunted to Durham Point through another pipeline. Onassis himself would visit the state on December 19. Loeb’s front-page editorial announced, “WELCOME To the Two Big O’s—Oil and Onassis!”
Appalled property owners in the quiet university town of Durham quickly joined forces with environmentalists to block Durham Point, as the Union Leader devoted reams of fawning newsprint to Onassis, whom it characterized as “Santa Claus.” According to Loeb biographer Kevin Cash, the Durham Point project would have been “the largest single-unit oil refinery ever built.” It also would have transformed the countryside around the University of New Hampshire into a moonscape.
The project met its toxic avenger in the form of Mrs. Thomas Dudley, the town of Durham’s representative to the state’s General Court. (Mrs. Dudley, therefore Dudley Dudley. She was a descendent of Joseph Dudley, who was governor of Massachusetts and New Hampshire between 1723 and 1728.) A Mrs. Nancy Sandberg, also of Durham, organized Save Our Shores, which opposed Olympic Oil with legal services to optioned property owners, a speakers’ bureau, bumper stickers, et cetera.
Mrs. Dudley cast the Durham Point issue in terms of home rule. This had immense popular appeal. Town meetings throughout the Seacoast area rezoned the target properties to exclude the refinery, while House Bill 34, intended to override the local ordinances, wnet down to defeat 109 to 233. Onassis returned to Skorpios and Maria Callas. Cash speculates that Loeb never fully recovered from the rejection of Durham Point by New Hampshire voters.
Now it seems, some kind of attitude shift is taking its gradual course in the state—very gradual, if you compare with the mall and condo boom of the Reagan years, when developers and retail chains could contrive, swept through southern New Hampshire like shit through a cane brake, transforming a landscape of harsh, bucolic beauty into one of unparalleled hideousness. Steady migrations of “Massachusetts people into the southland have brought with them, unexpectedly, a burgeoning circulation of the liberal Boston Globe. This, combined with a generous cable range, has eroded the Loeb information monopoly. Even if people generally don’t like black and gays and other menacing elements, now they hear about them all the time.
When I was young, the hotel cocktail lounge beside the bus station was the only place you could go for a little company, and the truck drivers from Laconia and a similar-looking woman with a crewcut. There is an ACT UP chapter in Manchester now, a network of out gays if not a whole community.
There is still no alternative statewide paper in which to rebut insane accusations and slander that appear in the Union Leader, but the influx of new s from CNN and other sources has miniaturized the paper’s impact. Simply to say marginally competitive with the Maine cable channels and the Globe, the Union Leader and WMUR-Manchester have to report the unpleasant minority news that used to suppress, even if the paper’s editorials—mainly crayoned by geriatric Loeb protégé James J. Finnegan—continue to sound like bulletins from a psychiatric ward.
But the era when William Loeb’s campaigns against local college presidents could hound them out of the state—for allowing gay organizations on campus, or sponsoring “Communist” lectures, as happened with Loeb’s untiring persecution of Thomas Bonner at UNH from 1971-1974—is over.
NOWHERE TO RUN, NOWHERE TO HIDE
I drive to Keene one bleary morning with a Martha and the Vandellas tape blasting in the car, up Route 3 to Pinardville, down 101 to Milford, Milford to Peterborough. Just before Dublin the Tsongas signs start appearing on the trees and fence posts and mailboxes, I wake up feeling sorry I met you, and hoping soon, that I’ll forget you, when I look in the mirror to comb my hair—
Well Tsongas has very thinning hair, but this is the least of his problems. In a tiny conference room at
The Keene Sentinel, surrounded by a restrained crowd of at least 10 people, the candidate is defending his record in Massachusetts, not that anyone is attacking it, and expounding a fairly conservative philosophy of government, conservative but compassionate, and I know he can’t help his face but it’s full of little moues and funny tics and because I arrive late I am practically sitting in a large potted plant just outside the conference room hoping he will raise his voice above a steady drone. Paul Tsongas looks like somebody who could do a fairly credible Lamont Cranston imitation if he really let his hair down, such as it is, but this morning he’s stuck on a tone of infinite reasonableness and gentle self-mockery.
“Look,” he says after a half hour, “I’m a Greek from Massachusetts who’s had cancer, so I’ve got to either be really serious about what I’m doing or else I’m crazy.”
This is followed by an unfortunate moment of silence. Note to press corps: if you find yourself in Keene next week, Lindy’s Diner has terrific oyster stew.
A LA RECHERCHE DU DEBRA WINGER
Floor bass slides up to me and says hey, sister…you’re screwing up the quota, you’re doing your piece work too fast, now you get off your mustang, Sally, you aint going nowhere – Patti Smith
There was bound to come a nadir, a point below which the tedium of the campaign trail could not dip without degenerating into chaos. I am a student of chaos, absurdity, and life’s little ironies. Moved to tears one morning by a CNN report on unemployed factory workers in West Virginia, I then bring my cousin Kathy some lunch my mother’s prepared; Kathy has just opened a tax accounting service in town, having left her job at a law firm that lost its major corporate client. Kathy is one of the least neurotic, most industrious people I have ever known. I tell her all about these poor laid-off steelworkers.
“Well,” she says, “remember when we were kids in the ’60s? And all we wanted was to do something in life where we wouldn’t have to work in a factory?”
Of course she’s right. It’s possible to listen to these visiting politicians jaw on about restoring New Hampshire’s industrial base without remembering the sheer meaningless misery most of our relatives endured, day in, day out, some for twenty or thirty years, gluing on shoe soles or soldering circuit boards, an unending pointlessness for which no amount of quarterly raises and benefits packages could ever compensate. The idea that 40 to 60 hours a week of monotony was good enough for us, for our class of people, was sufficiently appalling to propel us both into college and out of town.
But we came from that factory world, a little more directly than most of the people we know, which is why Kathy and I , in our different styles, have nothing but contempt for New Hampshire yuppies. And why, I suppose, the Conservation Center in Concord, a perfectly benign, tree-rescuing operation in a solar-heated, light and airy facility of dressed knotty pine, activates my class hatred in a way that Phillips Exeter Academy doesn’t. I know I’m as smart as any given graduate of Phillips Exeter, but I will never be rich enough to spend all day worrying about acid rain and printing brochures about it on recycled paper.
The gorgeous assistant press officer wants to know if I think they should move the podium for Senator Kerrey into the solarium from the observation deck. It is 17 degrees on the observation deck and everyone coming into the solarium shudders when they get a look at it, why on earth do we have to stand outside to hear him? Well, because of the photo op. on the observation deck you’ve got your panoramic view of a gazillion pine trees and the Route 93 access over the frozen Merrimack River and the dome of the statehouse like a little burnished bubble of junk jewelry, whereas inside you’ve just got all this knotty pine and several cases of brochures of the culture of Christmas trees and timber management areas and some wall diagrams of the facility and the membership desk. Plus this long knotty pint table where I’m writing this.
“If you get any wind it’s going to blow right into the microphone and you don’t hear a thing,” I tell the gorgeous assistant press officer, who doesn’t believe me.
“We’ve tested it,” he says. “You’ve got the good audibility everywhere except in that corner over there.”
I am about to say that Senator Kerrey is already low enough in the polls without making the press corps stand around in 17 degree weather when the press comes pouring into the solarium, and there’s actual excitement in the air, strange considering the candidate, a definite buzz, something’s up, something’s happened, SOMETHING HAS FINALLY HAPPENED, what can it be?
“The write-in Cuomo campaign has opened an office in Concord,”
Voice photographer Brian Palmer explains.
On the tail of this news, Kerrey’s arrival is indeed an anticlimax, his little speech on the observation deck a nonevent of numbing proportions, one of his aides tells me Kerrey’s numbers have climbed from 6 to 12. Wavering numbers, but the money’s coming in, he’s planning to hang in until Super Tuesday. Personally I would ditch the undertaker’s overcoat, change the tie, do a nice even rinse on the hair and try to get him to stop doing that thing with his mouth where he looks like he’s sucking a Fisherman’s Friend. I now see the wisdom of keeping the podium outside, since most of us would fall asleep if it were anywhere else. At least he doesn’t mention The Leg.
“He’s gotten more mileage out of that leg,” my aunt Beatrice complained when Kerrey’s commercial came on a few nights earlier. “And he can walk better than I can.”
RETURN TO PEYTON PLACE
En route to Berlin, I detour onto Route 140, a hardscrabble two-lane of disintegrating asphalt for a look at Gilmanton Iron works. As a child, my role models were Grace Metalious, Emma Peel, and Oscar Levant. Poor tragic Grace ripped the lid of Gilmanton Iron Works in her immortal Peyton Place, made a fortune on that and subsequent The Tight White Collar and
Return to Peyton Place, then drank herself into an early grave. It’s a New Hampshire kind of fate.
What I’ve forgotten is that Gilmanton Iron Works doesn’t have much lid to rip off, consisting as it does of a Corner Store and a Post Office. And no one in the Corner Store or the Post Office knows who Grace Metalious was. No one in the Corner Store or the Post Office has decided who to vote for in the primary, either.
“Are there still Iron Works, anyway?” I ask the woman at the Corner Store deli counter.
“There never were any Iron Works,” she says, “Not buildings. They used to take iron ore out of Crystal Lake and ship it off.”
Every afternoon like the last one, every afternoon like a rerun…yeah we may look the same, both sweating…but I got something to hid here called desire…and I will get out of here…and I will never return, no never return to burn out in this piss factory – Patti Smith
Berlin, late afternoon. Big, bruisy skies with long, gray clouds rolling through them. Shops on Main Street all offering clearance sales, 20 per cent off, 50 per cent off, going, going, gone. The only places to get a cup of coffee are the Woolworth’s lunch counter and the local pizza joint. It’s 11 degrees.
This is an incredibly bleak town, not really a city anymore. Snow piled everywhere, ice crunching underfoot, the streets almost empty. The Berlin Reporter, which has just gone from weekly to daily, reports an increase in headlice at local schools. “AIDS victim speaks to Berlin high students,” reads one headline. “Study finds shortness of breath among older mill workers.”
In LaVerdiere’s Super Drug Store, amid a pile of Waylon Jennings and Lawrence Welk tapes, I find an Ink Spots compendium I can play on the long drive home.
We always knew of the paper mills in what Pat Buchanan calls the North Country and we always called “up there”: grim clusters of silos and smokestacks, the Cascade Plant at Cascade Flats, the Burgess Plant a quarter mile up the Androscoggin River. The chemicals spreading out through the water, poisoning the Adroscoggin River, Tinker Brook, Pea Brook, Dead River, Peabody River, the dead trout, the cancer-riddled horned pout, the stillborn perch and smelts, the perpetual sulfur-and-boiled-cabbage stench wafted on the mountain winds, covering Gorham, blowing down to Randolph, on a clear day you could smell it all the way to Shelburne, a smell that stank like nothing else on earth, a smell like something crawled up inside you an died, filling everything, like water rising in a sinking ship.
In Harkin headquarters on Pleasant Street, a buxom volunteer in a harlequin sweater set tells a middle-aged man sitting against the wall: “You know he’s gotten over 50 awards from different disabled groups? Including Veterans with Disabilities? Because he wrote the Americans with Disabilities Act, you know. Which we’re all gonna need some day. With arthritis and so on.”
The man regards her coolly. He’s my age, he resents this. “Well, I hope not.”
By and large, an early middle age, late-ish thirtysomething, hyperthyroidal gathering. Working people, lots of beards, lots of mustaches, a number of Alan Alda types, turquoise down jackets, no pretensions in this place, everything ready-to-wear, maybe a certain Cambridge influence, the snack table covered with potato chips, ginger ale, pretzels, Ritz crackers, a jar of Cheez Whiz. Ratty green carpet. Looks like a furniture showroom.
Waiting and waiting and waiting for Harkin. I stand against the wall behind the chairs reserved for seniors and the disabled, with a clear view of the speaking area. It occurs to me not for the first time, that I could easily have assassinated any of the major candidates. But they seem to be doing a good job of it themselves. A camera crew glides through the place, interviewing people just out of work and people who are “just hanging on by a shoestring.” Times are tough. The James River Corporation hasn’t hired anyone in two years. Harkin’s almost here. Some aides are holding open the door. No, not yet, they’re still parking the car. Suddenly…something in the air…quite unpleasant…one of these senior citizens has farted…I move away from the chairs…the smell follows me…it’s even over here in the middle of the room…a thick, rich, bean supper fart…wait though, it’s everywhere…my god, it’s the James River Plant!
Yes, folks, just leave a door open on Pleasant Street and these factories that everybody wants to ram back into high gear have practically stunk out Harkin headquarters. Once the candidate’s inside, the door closes and the fart smell gradually dissipates, like a minor motif in a symphony of hot air. A distinguished-looking man, like your favorite high school civics teacher, carefully raked gray hair, a cracker-barrel face that belongs on a dollar bill, light blue shirt, burgundy V-necked sweater, olive gray slacks, a navy blazer—remember Jean Arthur playing a congresswoman in A Foreign Affair, swinging from the ceiling pipe in a Berlin (Germany) speakeasy, singing “Ioway, Ioway”? Harkin has that same wholesome, rolled-up-shirtsleeves quality, and his rap has the plainspoken, blocky style of Harry S. Truman, on whom Harkin’s modeled himself. Trailing just about everybody in the polls? Big Deal:
“I love history. ‘Course you know my favorite president was Truman. One night Truman was speaking to the young Democrats. And he was way down in the polls. Strom Thurmond had walked out with the Dixiecrats, Henry Wallace had walked out with the Progressives, Life magazine in that summer had run a picture of Dewey calling his President Dewey. One young Democrat yelled out, ‘Who’s gonna be the next president?’ Truman looked at him, he said ‘Young man, next January, there’s gonna be a Democrat in the White House, and you’re lookin’ at him.’ And that’s what I say to you. You’re lookin’ at him. ‘Cause we’re gonna win.”
“I sense a hunger to turn away from the legacy of the Reagan-Bush Administration. Those policies that have made the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, made the middle class pay the freight both ways. Those policies that have cost your jobs, exporting them out of this country…young people can’t get a college education, don’t know where they’re gonna get the money…
“If you’re a junk bond dealer, a corporate trader, best of times. If you’re a corporate CEO with a golden parachute, best of times. But if you’re a working class person, lost your job, no job training, don’t know what to do? Worst of times. If you’re a family, unemployed, you don’t know how you’re gonna pay your health care bill? An elderly person? Worst of times.
There is nothing to argue with in Harkin’s broad-bush portrait of America today, though his vignettes about what is wrong are more than a little stale by this time. Free trade is a two-way street. Jobs. Tell Japan to open its doors. Level playing field. Reciprocity. If I ever go to Japan, I won’t be taking the three top auto executives. They can’t even figure out to put the steering wheel on the right-hand side. Bring the money home, invest it here. Rebuild our infrastructure.
Tell you the truth, this guy is a little too calculatedly down-home for my taste. Okay, they’ve got an answer for everything, but the tone…this picture of America as a land of happy workers, raring to go to pitch in…the way everything is us versus them…and the way everybody’s complaints feed directly into his argument about minority issues, racial divisions…of course, none of the others have, either, except in code. You go to White America, you talk the White America talk.
“WHAT ABOUT THE DRUGS?”
This question punctures the rhapsodic upswing that was supposed to conclude Harkin’s speech, and the candidate is clearly irritated, but game:
We’ve gotta beef up our coast guard. Anyway, who was it that put Manuel Noriega on the CIA payroll? George-Herbert-Hoover-Bush!” And he goes on. Rather alarmingly. If I understand him correctly, Harkin has no qualms about sending the Marines into South America. With its permission, of course.
“Mr. Harkin,” a boozy-sounding woman in the back pipes up, “why should be send billions of dollars to Russia, when they have always been our enemy? And Poland, and Yugoslavia, and all those countries, instead of keeping the money in this country?”
Before Harkin can open his mouth—well it’s already open, but before he can say anything—a large, craggy old man with a face like Lionel Stander chimes in:
“Ten billion going to Israel to put these guys to work on the Golden Heights for Russian immigrants! What the hell is this? Everybody afraid of the Jews?”
“Now sometimes you—” Harkin begins, but the man is implacable.
“I’m not a bigot, I’m not—but on the other hand, they’re human beings, but we’re human beings, looking for jobs too.
“That’s why you need to make sure that they are investing back in this country, that’s exactly what I’ve been telling you.”
The woman from earlier is also implacable:
“What I feel, you go into a store, and myself, I buy U.S. made. Made in the U.S.A.”
“You bet,” Harkin panders.
“If it’s made in U.S.A. we keep our people working, right?”
“That’s right,” he says.
“But what you see in most of the stores is Made in China. Made in Taiwan, all that. What’s the point of these countries—and if those articles were not on the shelves, people would buy U.S. made. It wouldn’t be there. So you pay a dollar more for the product. But our people don’t work for nothing, they don’t live 12 in one apartment. We have a nice way of living. And we wanna keep it that way. And I don’t want to support the Russians, believe me.”
Harkins talks about a bill he’s introducing, instructing U.S. representatives to the IMF and the World Bank to vote against any loan to any country that spends more on its military than on its health and education. This sounds nice, until you consider that the U.S. itself wouldn’t qualify for such a loan, though most other countries in the world would.
“They never pay it back. Did they ever pay it back?” the woman screeches.
“There’s one country that have paid back every loan.”
“Well, the Jews, they have more money than everybody in the world!”
Harkin quickly takes a question form another part of the room. For me, anyway, he has just collapsed into nonexistence. I suppose one can, in these bankrupt times, in a state where the only major paper once ran an editorial entitled “Kissinger the Kike?” expect a little Jew-baiting on the campaign trail. But I cannot imagine Mario Cuomo or Jay Rockefeller letting such remarks just sit there in the room, just to grub a couple of votes. Not in a million years.
On November 7, 1960, John F. Kennedy stood in Victory Park in Manchester, directly across from the Manchester
Union Leader offices, and said:
“I believe there is probably a more irresponsible newspaper than that one right over there somewhere in the United States, but I’ve been through 40 states and I haven’t found it yet.”
The kind of ignorant sentiments sounded at Harkin’s Berlin headquarters can be heard throughout the state of New Hampshire, and even if they originated generations before Loeb’s acquisition of the Union Leader, the paper has fueled them for decades. As a result, bigotry has been institutionalized among the less-educated, who believe their lives have been ruined by the Jews, the blacks, the Japanese, the communists, or invaders from Massachusetts, rather than by bad choices, bad leaders, and a refusal to learn from the larger world. The candidates certainly know this coming in, and at the risk of sounding idealistic, I think any presidential candidate stumping through this backward but maybe not entirely hopeless state has some moral duty to offer a corrective example, to show some high-mindedness, instead of just promising jobs and money and material aggrandizement.
During the years of artificial plenty, New Hampshire was happy to sell off the intangible wealth of livably scaled towns, forests, and wide-open spaces for a quick buck, three or four extra K-marts within driving distance, and an idiotic abundance of worthless consumer goods. Now that people have to live in the debris, their fields and meadows long vanished under now-vacant malls and abandoned tract developments, they might reflect that this all happened once before, when the great Amoskeag Mills shut down earlier in this century, and that history has repeated itself as farce instead of tragedy. Of course people are “hurting”—you usually do hurt after shooting yourself in the foot. And instead of yacking about wake-up calls and level playing fields and “sending a message” to the rest of the planet that America intends to remain a vicious mongoloid among nations, first in everything but human reason, any candidate worth voting for, however hard the times, ought to offer people an appeal to their better natures, as well as to the part that eats. Nobody did.
April 16, 2002
On January 16, with just two weeks to go until his last day on the job, Russell Harding, president of the New York City Housing Development Corporation—a small but powerful city agency—picked up the phone and called the corporation’s travel agent.
He booked a $10,700 trip that would take him to Singapore, Thailand, and Bali. Through the agent, Altours International, he also ordered a pre-paid, open ticket for $7500, destination unnamed.
Unlike other departing aides to the administration of former mayor Rudy Giuliani who may have been planning post-employment vacations, Harding ordered the bill sent to his agency for payment. That same day, the travel agent faxed an invoice for the trips to HDC, where an official vendor-payment request was immediately prepared. Six days later, on January 22, Senior Vice President Luke Cusack, a close friend who was hired for his job by Harding, signed off on it. A check for the full amount was promptly issued and the invoice stamped “Paid.”
Harding, the son of one of the state’s most powerful political figures, Liberal Party boss Ray Harding, resigned as scheduled on February 1. But records released in the wake of his departure show the planned Southeast Asia trip was just the cap on a virtual nonstop, three-and-a-half-year spending spree during which Harding and Cusack traveled literally around the world at city expense.
Records show that after Harding was appointed by Giuliani in 1998, he and Cusack racked up more than $250,000 in travel, dining, and entertainment expenses—ranging from $1000 dinners at the Four Seasons to a Hong Kong junket. Even Harding’s morning bagels, purchased for $1.25 each, were charged to the agency.
The records also show that Harding dipped into the agency’s pocket to shower presents on at least one friend who hadn’t the remotest connection to city affairs, at the same time bragging about his ability to file personal expenses—including gambling debts—with the agency as business costs.
Those expenses are now being pored over by the city’s Department of Investigation, a probe that was set in motion after new agency officials examined the records in order to comply with several long-standing Voice Freedom of Information requests.
Alerted by agency insiders that Harding was spending freely, the Voice first filed to obtain the expenses in October 2000. But Harding produced just a handful of records and claimed the rest had been lost in an office move.
Following Harding’s departure in February, however, the Voice re-filed its requests. New HDC president Charles Brass, a Michael Bloomberg appointee, located the records and turned them over. He also immediately fired Cusack, who had remained at the agency, alerted the investigations agency, and ordered Harding’s Southeast Asia tickets canceled.
Harding, 37, has refused to discuss his conduct. Irwin Rochman, a criminal attorney hired to represent him, said Harding “decided not to discuss the matter.”
Citing the ongoing investigation, HDC president Brass declined to address most questions. A spokeswoman, agency assistant counsel Melissa Barkan, said that Cusack had been informed that “his services were no longer required. Beyond that it is inappropriate to comment.”
Cusack also declined comment. “I’m just not going to talk about it,” he said.
Rudy Giuliani quietly promoted Russell Harding to the HDC post, at a salary of $111,000, in June 1998. The Daily News reported it, pointing out that Harding had never finished college and had no financial background for running an agency that puts together multimillion-dollar bond deals to build city housing.
At a City Hall press conference, Giuliani was instantly defensive. It didn’t matter that Harding had no experience in the field, he said. And it mattered less that his father was Ray Harding, Giuliani’s chief political adviser, a man he’d publicly embraced and hailed as “a genius” a few months earlier at his re-election victory rally.
“Russell Harding has done an excellent job for this administration,” he said. “This new job is something that he will do I’m sure with exceptional skill and ability. I don’t hire people because of their father and I don’t hold anybody’s father against them either.
“What I do is,” continued the mayor, warming to his argument, “I try to be fair and have the most talented people I can find in this administration. The reason this administration has been more successful than any administration of the last 30 or 40 years is that we have more talented people than those administrations had,” he said.
Then he threw one last jab at the press corps before him. “I knew when I switched him to this position that you would all criticize me. But sometimes I enjoy it. Particularly when I think you’re wrong and I’m right.”
The mayor knew he was on fairly safe ground at the time. Russell Harding had worked in Giuliani’s campaigns and held two prior lower-level posts in the administration. After dropping out of Clark University in 1986, he had worked as an aide to former senator Alfonse D’Amato and later won a series of public relations jobs with his father’s help. Unlike his brother Robert, who was considered a rising star in the Giuliani administration (and ultimately served as a deputy mayor), Russell was generally rated merely competent.
Flush from his landslide re-election, Giuliani was rewarding his allies, and Ray Harding had proved to be his most valuable political ally. The senior Harding not only helped forge electoral and city policies but also screened potential administration job candidates. He also used his law firm to lobby city commissioners, a practice that had made him wealthy under Giuliani.
The Housing Development Corporation was a perfect spot for Russell—one of those out-of-the-way places where it is hard to foul up too badly. The agency generates its own budget from fees charged to developers who are seeking city-authorized, tax-exempt bond financing for their development projects. In bureaucrat-ese, HDC is “off-line,” meaning no one, neither the city or state comptrollers, nor the City Council has direct oversight or regulatory authority.
It is, in short, the perfect municipal hideaway.
And the newly released records show Russell Harding took his appointment there as a gold-plated ticket to the high life.
From the Bellagio to a bagel: no expense was too great or too small. Harding’s petty cash receipt for his morning bagel.
He was clearly thrilled to be the boss. One of his very first expenditures was to buy a brand-new official city badge to carry. He hired his friend Cusack, with whom he had worked at the city’s Economic Development Corporation. He also gave himself and top executives new corporate credit cards with Diners Club, a practice rarely in use at city agencies. He had the agency acquire a new fleet of cars, including a Ford Windstar, a Chevy Tahoe, and a Mercury Grand Marquis complete with lights and siren. The siren wailed nonstop whenever Harding was chauffeured around town, agency employees said.
“The siren, yeah, we used it to beat traffic,” said one of Harding’s city drivers, Herminio Torres. “It was cool. I personally liked using it.”
But Harding was in the fastest lane when he traveled outside the city. Records show Harding and Cusack, traveling together, logged more than 30 lengthy trips, visiting Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, Toronto, Palm Springs, Dallas, Chicago, Tampa, Denver, Las Vegas, Charleston, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Miami—often returning to favorites for a second stay.
They listed the business purpose of the trips as attendance at housing finance and technology conferences. But they rarely stayed at the hotels where the conferences were held, and according to others who attended, they were usually absent from the proceedings.
Instead, the expenses show that they ran up huge car rental bills and dining tabs as they sampled local fare.
The pair’s travel tabs dwarf even those of most private, corporate executives. A survey of 200 private corporations conducted in 2000 by a management consulting firm found that the average three-day domestic business trip cost $970, while international trips of seven days averaged $3455.
Harding and Cusack also logged expenses way beyond those of other city officials. When former police commissioner Howard Safir was criticized for taking 10 separate out-of-town trips in 1999, his total expenses were $9100, almost half of which was paid by a private company.
To pay for their travel and entertainment, Harding and Cusack bypassed their agency’s own written expense guidelines. HDC rules mandate that lodging costs at conferences are to be at the set conference rate. Airfare is to be “the most economical.” Meals, both on the road and at home, are not to exceed “reasonable and customary” costs. Exceptions can be granted by the president, however, the rules state, and Harding and Cusack appear to have had a full-time waiver.
Their most exotic fling came in November 1999 when they flew to an international housing conference in Hong Kong. They put up at the Royal Garden there for $2000 in a four-day stay, and spent $1000 on meals. They stopped off in San Francisco on the way back, staying at a small luxury hotel called the Monaco, running a tab of $4000 over four days and dining at a nearby French spot, Restaurant Lulu, where one dinner came to $400.
Last year, records show, Harding and Cusack were on the road almost constantly. For a Washington, D.C., visit in March, they spent $2800 at the Four Seasons in Georgetown, where rooms start at $390 a night.
In April, they jetted to San Diego, saying they would attend a meeting of the National Association of Local Housing Finance Agencies. It was an apparently last-minute decision; tickets were booked just two days before departure and cost $2437 apiece, as much as the first-class rate. They checked into the Hotel del Coronado, considered the city’s most luxurious—and expensive—retreat, where the bill ran to $5300. They spent another $280 on a rental car and almost $1000 on dining.
In May, there was a short, $2500 jaunt to Tampa. In July, Harding went to the Snow Flake Inn in Stowe, Vermont, for a housing meeting, spending $2200. The same month, records show he made quick visits to Houston and Las Vegas.
In October, Harding and Cusack flew to Los Angeles for a “technology” conference. They stayed at the Casa del Mar in Santa Monica (cost: $5780), and dined at Spago, Hollywood’s most crucial see-and-be-seen spot (tab: $390). Harding also asked to be reimbursed for $751 charged to his personal Visa credit card—which he rarely used for business purposes—for the cost of two visits to “Aqua” in Santa Monica, describing them as “conference dinner expenses.” But a search shows no restaurant by that name in Santa Monica, only a plush spa overlooking the Pacific Ocean that offers “exquisite pampering” with massages and aromatherapies—and doesn’t take Diners Club. The L.A. trip cost $11,725.
Two weeks later, the duo was off to Las Vegas for the Comdex computer technology show, considered one of the nation’s largest and wildest. They stayed at the posh Bellagio and spent a total of $7030.
They squeezed in one last trip in 2001, returning in early December to San Diego and the palatial Hotel del Coronado. Airfare ran a staggering $4000 apiece. Another $7000 was consumed in lodging, dining, and car rental.
Back home, in between the four-star hotels and resorts, Harding and Cusack continued to live large, the records reveal. When in New York, they regularly dined at the city’s most expensive restaurants. Their tastes ranged from the chic and trendy—Metrazur, Da Nico, Craft, L’Orto, Etoile, and Union Pacific—to the dependable: Ben Benson’s, the Palm, 14 Wall Street. There were more than 300 such meals recorded. In a one-week stretch in April 2000, Harding managed to dine out six times, spending a total of $880 at restaurants including L’Orto, Estiatorio Milos, Fresco, and Fireman’s, one of his favorite haunts around the corner from his East 62nd Street apartment. On June 1, 2001, Cusack charged a $1000 meal at the Four Seasons, the city’s swankest restaurant.
On January 11, Harding had lunch at the new Water Street steakhouse, Marc Joseph, for $230. Then he dined at Café des Artistes for $198.
All of the meals were recorded simply as “business” occasions, with no indication of the purpose or the companions. Based on his expense statements, Harding was a man who rarely rested from his work. On July 4, 2000, a national day of relaxation, Harding charged a $23 “business lunch” at Vinci’s, a pizza parlor near his home.
Even on the harrowing afternoon of September 11, Harding wasn’t too shaken to talk business over lunch. He billed the agency $36 for burgers at Jackson Hole, also around the corner from where he lives. That one time he listed a dining companion: his driver.
No item was too small to be charged to the agency. Petty cash logs show that Harding regularly reimbursed himself for the bagel he bought in the morning. He submitted receipts for individual 69-cent sodas, bought at the drugstore next door to his office. A heavy smoker, Harding daily dispatched his driver to buy his cigarettes, always at least two packs at a time. They were recorded on petty cash chits as “incidentals” or “office supplies.” Smoking, of course, is an increasingly expensive habit. And the records show that in a two-year stretch from December 1999 to December 2001, more than $2500 was charged this way.
Harding was also generous with his friends in spending agency funds. When a friend he met in an AOL chat room for movie buffs told him he was watching TV on an old 13-inch Emerson, Harding ordered a new Sony 20-inch combination TV-VCR for him. A couple of months later he had a new DVD player sent as well.
“Don’t worry about the price,” he typed in a message on September 9, 2000, to his online pal, Fred Sawyers of Indianapolis, “i can put them both on an expense report at work. i do it all the time with shit like that . . . just one of the perks of being president.” He added a sideways cyber smile, :), then continued, “besides that is how i paid for the tv i got you.”
Sawyers, 33, said these and other comments made him suspicious about what Harding was doing and he decided to file away copies of their online chats. “I was worried I might get in trouble,” he said. “I didn’t know what he was doing and my tendency is to save everything anyways. I’m a pack rat.” He also saved the packaging receipts, which he gave to the Voice. They show that both items were sent to him by Harding from his home address via online vendors. The DVD receipt from Crutchfield.com indicates it cost $359.90 and that Harding paid for it with his Diners Club card.
Agency expense records show that Harding submitted the Crutchfield charge, along with the rest of his Diners Club expenses, to HDC for payment. The purchase was marked “MIS [management information systems] equipment.”
Similarly, Harding sent Sawyers, by way of Amazon.com, a DVD of Billy Wilder’s Sabrina last June 21. On the same date, expense records show, Harding charged $72.94 to Amazon using his Diners Club. He listed the expenses as “president’s publications.”
On one occasion, Sawyers said Harding sent him an unsolicited $500 by FedEx to help Sawyers—whom he has never met—pay some bills. After the package arrived, Harding ordered him to destroy the packing slip. “I don’t want anything in your house with my name and number on it . . . you understand???” typed Harding. Sawyers agreed, but held on to the slip. The FedEx air bill shows Harding’s name and address, in his characteristic left-slanted handwriting.
During their online chats, Harding often bragged about billing other personal expenses to his agency. In one exchange on November 15, 2000, Harding told Sawyers he was writing on his laptop from his hotel room in Las Vegas. He was having a great time, Harding typed. “I’ve been playing the tables some . . . lost a few thou 🙁 . . . but it’s cool . . . I can just work anything I lose back into my expenses that I turn in for the trip.”
Harding was in Las Vegas that day, the expense records show, attending a computer conference. The records show Harding and Cusack ran their largest tab ever on that trip, almost $17,000 for airfare, two hotels, restaurants—and a $936 helicopter ride.
Sawyers acknowledges that his decision to seek out the Voice earlier this year came after hearing from Harding that a reporter was seeking his records—and after Harding badly hurt his feelings last summer. A cancer care group in Indianapolis gave Sawyers, who suffers from leukemia, a free trip to New York, a place he said he always wanted to visit. When he shared the good news with Harding, however, his friend became irate, insisting that he not come.
Harding has since accused Sawyers of “stalking” him and warned him in an e-mail that if he talked to the reporter about him it would be considered “extortion.” Sawyers denies that he’s ever demanded anything of Harding or threatened to pursue him.
“It’s kind of hard to stalk someone from Indianapolis,” said Sawyers, who returned the free New York ticket to the cancer group unused.
Neither does Sawyers appear to be motivated by publicity. He initially maintained that he did not want to be named in this article and only agreed after the Voice went to Indianapolis to interview him and confirm his identity.
As an administrator at HDC, Harding got mixed grades. He was credited with updating the agency’s obsolete computer systems. In a move that he said was designed to improve morale and productivity, he relocated the agency in plush offices on Williams Street, spending millions in the process. He bought expensive Aeron chairs for every worker and spent thousands more installing a shower in the president’s office. He also held corporate picnics, spending $15,000 for an outing held last August, and extravagant Christmas parties costing tens of thousands more.
But he showed little patience with his employees, firing at least 14 during his term in office and making other workers so nervous that some began taking home records that documented his spending sprees. “The man was a tyrant,” said one longtime staffer.
One executive, Mina McEvoy, 63, was fired from her post as vice president for marketing after running afoul of Harding in 2000. In response to an age discrimination complaint filed by McEvoy, Harding listed McEvoy’s shortcomings as failing to get the agency’s more than 700 holiday greeting cards out on time and omitting a photograph from the agency’s annual report. McEvoy denies those charges, but both parties agree on one thing: The annual report was pulped and destroyed, at a cost of more than $25,000.
Harding knew he was unpopular, according to his online chats with Sawyers. “I found out last week that my whole staff hates me,” he typed on October 3, 2000. “It was very upsetting . . . not so much because they hate me but because i actually thought i was very well liked. And bear in mind i have a staff of 110.”
At least a year before he resigned, Harding told friends he knew he’d be out of a job once a new mayor was in City Hall. His February 1 departure date was set weeks ahead of time, and Cusack had the agency shell out $665 for a farewell party. But Harding had already made sure he would be going out in style.
Records show he had HDC pre-pay one-year subscriptions to The New York Times, the Daily News, the New York Post, Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News and World Report, and Vanity Fair, at a cost of more than $2500, to be delivered to his home. He also had the agency pay more than $1000 for a year’s service for his handheld computer. On Christmas Eve, he went on an $860 shopping spree at Borders. He used his corporate Diners Club card to buy what appear to be either last-minute presents or a stack of reading material for a long vacation. He purchased a book on old cars, two biographies of Ronald Reagan, Caspar Weinberger’s memoirs, and new thrillers by Ken Follett and John Grisham, as well as three $200 gift cards. He also picked up maps and guides to Bali. On his next-to-last day in office, January 31, Harding spent $264 at Staples on office supplies and billed the agency.
His planned trip to Southeast Asia didn’t come to light until after the Voice filed its new requests for all travel and expense records. On March 14, HDC president Brass canceled the tickets. It was too late, however, to avoid one more Harding expense: a cancellation penalty of $500.
In his only comment, Harding’s attorney said that the agency has been reimbursed for the cancellation penalty, as well as the Borders shopping spree.
September 3, 1958
A novel by Vladimir Nabokov
All writing begins somewhere on a scale streching from Farthest Inside to Farthest Outside. Vladimir Nabokov’s widely heralded “Lolita” is the outsidest, most artificial book I’ve read in years. To its admirers, that may be its spendor. I want something else in novels.
But whatsa matter with ya? “Lolita” is an anti-novel, deliberately.
Fine, my friends. If this be Philistinism, make the most of it.
But “Lolita” is a satire
Fine, my friends. Of what—and why?
Of romanticism. Of America. Of youth. Of America’s zany glorification of youth. Of Mme. De Goncourt or De Stael, or somebody or other like that in the eighteenth century or something. Or maybe it’s the Marquis de Sade. Or you know.
Fine, my friends. But I don’t know. And nobody, certainly not Mr. Nabokov, is helping me to know.
The definitive and perfect review of “Lolita” is the one contributed by Robert Hatch to the Current (August 30) issue of the Nation. Nothing of my own could add further illumination, so let me steal the best of Hatch: “I cannot praise too highly the finesse with which Nabokov sketches the vacuous elegance of his hero’s mind. I am impressed by his mastery of English and amused by his accurate though not very profound gibes at American mores and American pretensions. Nevertheless, the hours I spent with Humbert Humbert were achingly tedious—best explained, perhaps, by the premise that Mr. Nabokov was indulging himself in a prolonged practical joke.”
That vacuous Mr. Humbert Humbert, as you must by now know, is a 40-year-old Continental introvert who sets out to seduce a 12-year-old American girl, only to be seduced and ruined by her instead. It is an ambiguity both pragmatic and spiritual, for to me the most irritating aspect of this “sensational” and “shocking” book is that nowhere in it will you be able to discover just which of its cardboard figures does what, and with what, and to whom. I should say: what, if anything. For did it all just take place in Humbert Humbert’s head? That would be the cruelest joke of all on the Partisan Reviewers who have pushed so hard—who have virtually “made”—”Lolita.” Three hundred pages of sex in the head. A good number of them funny pages, I admit. Even delicately Joycean. But too many, and too much.
May 26, 1998
“State of emergency is where I want to be,” Björk sang over and over in her encore at Hammerstein Ballroom last week, but that’s just where she’d been for the previous hour and a half. Working her vocal range like a DJ scratching and fading vinyl, she never merely sang, she shaped noise. She shouted, she whispered, she crooned, she shredded lyrics and rewove them in midair. She moved beyond language, beyond words to create a buzzing, burbling, weirdly thrilling soundscape—a place you could lose yourself in for days. “I don’t recognize myself,” she sang, and we knew just what she meant.
In a funny little white leather Jeremy Scott dress with pleated, bat-wing sleeves, she was Alice in Wonderland as Merlin the Magician, lost in spaces that only she could have imagined. Björk has always seemed to inhabit a world of her own, part twee fantasyland, part gnarly fun house. For the Hammerstein show, the stage was transformed into an underwater scene with a backdrop of flimsy scarves that fluttered like seaweed. Foaming billows of cellophane hung high above the singer, clear streamers dangled around her, and she bobbed before liquid projections. But because Björk is not entirely at home in swoony psychedelia, the tranquilized mood was repeatedly undercut by blackouts and shattered by harsh spotlights trained out into the audience. Björk thrives in this gap between comfort and unease, sweet and sour, lulling us and jolting us by turns. She knows the drama of extremes and the excitement when they mesh. On one side of the stage was an atoll of strings; on the other, Mark Bell and a craggy mountain of synthesizers. Scampering between them, Björk appeared to mix sound with a wave of her wings, sending jagged keyboard shards crunching through the violins like a crosscut saw through silk.
“I thought I could organize freedom/How Scandinavian of me,” Björk confesses in “Hunter,” and clearly she’s learned to let go. But, onstage and on her records, she’s also learned how to turn chaos to her own ends. She wills herself to lose control. She strides into a song tentatively, or forcefully, then lets it take her and toss her voice every which way. Listening to her, the rush of release is exhilaratingly physical; watching her, you long to be equally possessed. But if Björk’s hyperemotionality edges into gorgeous mess, it never goes there. She might skewer her songs with raw, crashing synths, but her vocals remain meticulously orchestrated, operatic even when frayed. This tiny gamine, buffeted by sweet cacophony at center stage, only rides a whirlwind when she can hold the reins real tight.
Because she sings about transformation, metamorphosis, it often comes as a surprise that Björk’s also singing love songs. Even when you pay close attention, the songs tend to dissolve and bubble away, leaving phrases to float through the brain: “Don’t get angry with yourself,” “emotional landscapes,” “You can’t handle love.” One song on her latest album, Homogenic (Elektra), is composed entirely of what seem to be overheard quotes, most memorably “I’m no fucking Buddhist but this is enlightenment.” No matter. Björk turns words into atmosphere—bursts of sensibility that use language as freely as they use sound. In “5 Years,” when she bites into the line “I’m so bored of cowards,” her anger is bracing; she turns the word cowards into a chewed-up piece of garbage and tosses it into a pot of boiling synths. In “All Neon Like,” she promises, “I’ll heal you,” but follows it, “with a razorblade, I’ll cut a slit open and the luminous beam feeds you honey.” Her luminous has nearly eight shimmering syllables. Tossed on wave upon wave of now brittle, now honeyed synth combustions and those impossibly lovely strings, Björk’s lyrics are as ephemeral as smoke, as vivid as a lightning bolt—and sometimes as illuminating.
“Excuse me, but I just have to explode this body,” she tells us, matter-of-factly. Go on, girl. She already knows how to explode a song. At the Hammerstein, she could have been Liza Minelli channeling Lotte Lenya, tossing out crisp little Thank yous in between flights of speaking in tongues. She’s Venus as a girl—or a mermaid, a sprite, a friendly alien. She’s the smallest thing onstage, but she fills the whole room. Who could imagine this? Perhaps only someone yearning to be violently happy and create a soundtrack for the neverending process.
August 6, 2002
They’re neither co-opted conservatives nor keep-it-real black nationalists. Their politics are questioning, not exclusive. Rejected or misunderstood by blacks, whites, and nearly everyone else, their view of race matters balances the sins of America’s past with hope for an internationalist future. And since both Martha Stewart-brand whiteness and ghetto-fabulous negritude are in remission, the culture is now giving mad props to black nerds.
Not for a long time have so many brothers and sisters received so much mainstream attention without trying to be down. Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter received a $4 million book advance from Knopf for The Emperor of Ocean Park. His first novel, a thriller with the black bourgeois world of law degrees and Oak Bluffs vacations as its backdrop, arrived in stores in June. Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks nabbed this year’s Pulitzer Prize in drama for Topdog/Underdog, currently on Broadway. Colson Whitehead’s novel John Henry Days was short-listed for the 2002 Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Poet-performer Carl Hancock Rux received this year’s New York Foundation for the Arts prize; his play Talk completed a run at the Public Theater in May. Last week, Simon & Schuster bought Rux’s first novel, Asphalt, for a “six figure” advance. Even hip-hop’s reigning kings and queens are Southern goofballs who dress funny—Missy and Timbaland, Outkast and the Neptunes, a/k/a N.E.R.D. In addition to the higher-profile success stories, writers such as theologist Thandeka, Boston University economics professor (and supposed former neocon) Glenn C. Loury, performance artist William Pope.L, and novelist Martha Southgate have also found new ways of addressing the tricky nature of modern American racism.
Studying at elite institutions has alienated these Afrodemics from blacks who see higher education as whitewashing. Yet their views still cause mainstream whites to ostracize or misunderstand them. Isolated from both camps, and even each other, they’ve developed an independent party of race politics with an intellectual bent. All that isolation and scholarship are what classify them as nerds. None of them object to the label. Southgate embraces it: “In high school, I never found my way into the black social circle, but I never felt fully comfortable in white social circles either. I certainly am a nerd!” For Southgate and others, righteous anger usually takes a backseat to curiosity, compassion, and a dash of world-weariness. “People ask me at readings to provide answers to this conundrum,” she says. “I don’t really have any. I’m just interested in exploring that tension.”
Brazenly esoteric, Loury’s new book, The Anatomy of Racial Inequality, excavates racism using the unlikely tools of theoretical economics. He argues that racism has become embedded in our society because racially stigmatized groups are denied access to the informal social networks crucial to success in any field. Also, what he calls “self-confirming stereotypes” help to “create the facts.” Black people sometimes believe our own bad press and behave accordingly, even adopting negative stereotypical behavior as a way of throwing it back at society. But when non-blacks see the effect of this “feedback loop,” they conclude that blacks are being held back because of something in our nature. This Loury calls “essentialism,” and he rejects it as an explanation for inequality. He holds liberal politics responsible for miscomprehending this process. The problem, he says, is that liberal individualism sweeps the issues of social networking and self-confirming stereotypes under the rug. In the process, it has allowed the idea of racism to become separated from specific acts of discrimination, so that it appears “natural and nondissonant.”
Loury’s assertion that racism has become unmoored from its direct objects is a common thread among today’s black intellectuals. So, too, is his ambivalent conclusion, reflecting a global awareness that tends to put this country’s obsession with race in greater perspective. “The whole problem of race relations is being transformed under the pressures of a tremendous demographic transition in the last 35 years,” he says. “I’m not quite sure what the second generation of Latino and Asian immigrants are going to think about ghettos or failing black businesses or high prison rates,” he says. “It’s unlikely that their heartstrings are going to be pulled by the playing of ‘We Shall Overcome.’ ”
Thandeka, a Unitarian minister and associate professor of theology and culture at Meadville/Lombard Theological School, draws conclusions not unlike Loury’s, but with a more sensitive, sociological approach. Her recent book, Learning to Be White, examines the process by which Euro-Americans maintain racial boundaries for their children through shame. It may seem counterintuitive for a black woman to spend time explaining the damaging effects of racism on white kids. But the real paradox is that it has always fallen to the victims of discrimination to describe how it works—as if they had created it.
“Would that the problem was really racism in and of itself!” Thandeka exclaims. She starts off Learning to Be White with a series of personal anecdotes from Euro-Americans detailing the first instances in which they felt themselves to be “raced.” “Sarah,” Thandeka explains, recounting an episode from the book, “brought her black best friend home, and her mother told her not to bring her back. As Sarah pressed for the real reason, she discovered that if she persisted, she risked losing her mother’s love. Every time she saw her friend, her appearance reminded Sarah of what she didn’t want to know.” In many cases, theorizes the author, “the motivation for racist acts is not racism, but a fear of being excluded.”
While Loury suspects that class will become as much of an issue as race in the future, Thandeka’s research reveals that America’s racist attitudes originated with class discrimination. She cites colonial Virginia’s “race laws” of the late 1600s as the moment when British classism gave way to American racism. Previously, indentured servants and slaves had mixed freely and identified with the other group’s plight. In 1676, former indentured servants began to rebel against the ruling class for their unfair taxation and greed. They burned Jamestown to the ground. Terrified that the slave population would join forces with the indentured servants, the masters put the “race laws” into effect. Among other rules, white servants could legally whip black slaves and were protected from receiving beatings themselves. “A new multiclass ‘white race’ would emerge from the Virginia laws as one not biologically engineered but socially constructed,” concludes Thandeka. “The very definition of the white would now be legally bound to the inferior social status of the black.”
It isn’t hard to bring this historical data alive in the modern era, Thandeka points out, since the ruling class still treats the lower classes with contempt no matter who they are. “The Enron execs didn’t discriminate against their employees racially!” she says.
Distilling the complicated modern landscape of race and class mapped out by thinkers like Loury and Thandeka into works of art is especially daunting for artists of color. In art, the compulsion to get down to the real nitty-gritty often collides with the pressure to uplift the race. Self-expression can get muddled if you become too much of a mouthpiece for a political viewpoint.
Leery of all orthodoxies, the black nerd has had a rough time making art in the last 10 years. Marketing executives and publicists all had some idea of what would sell to whom, and they weren’t pushing any black brainiacs. Perhaps this is part of what inspired performance artist William Pope.L, whose work was included in this year’s Whitney Biennial, to make a career out of crawling up sidewalks. “I wanted to find a way to talk about personal and social development in the street,” he explains. “I was trying to conflate the homeless body and the black male body, and I wanted to find a way to express that these people were not inert.”
Through the crawl pieces, Pope.L gained awareness of the connotations of verticality and horizontality. Verticality was associated with rigidity, status, and portraiture, while horizontality and crawling alluded to dirt, landscape, and sexuality. Fascinated by this dichotomy and how it reflects on racial attitudes, Pope.L even describes blackness in America in those terms. “In the 1960s there was a notion that blackness had a monolithic, vertical quality to it, that black people were cohesive and delimited and that was that,” he says. “More recently there’s an attempt to think of it as a landscape rather than an obelisk.”
Many of Pope.L’s ideas have converged in a piece called Great White Way, a five-year crawl up Broadway he’s undertaking while wearing a Superman costume. This past May, he began by crawling from Wall to Fulton streets. He started his horizontal journeys dressed in business attire, but switched once he realized that “the Superman costume crosses the line into the heroic, into romance and childhood.”
While Pope.L fixes his sights on the relationship between class, racial struggles, and verticality, novelist Martha Southgate focuses on upward mobility, and the ways in which race and class have ceased to be synonymous social problems, echoing the ideas of Loury and Thandeka. Centering on an intra-black class conflict, her recent novel The Fall of Rome describes the events leading to a confrontation between two black men of different classes. One, Jerome Washington, is a conservative Latin teacher at a prep school. The other, Rashid Bryson, is an inner-city recruit with a chip on his shoulder and a tragedy in his past. Jerome, clinging to the fallacy that one can make it by merit alone, resents Rashid, who is overwhelmed by the schoolwork and bewildered more by his exposure to the upper-middle class than specifically to whites. Rashid becomes Jerome’s track-and-field protégé, but the pressures of his new environment prove too great, and the two head down a collision course strewn with more issues than Ebony magazine.
“The Fall of Rome ended up being in part a way to address the idea that things aren’t simply black and white,” says 41-year-old Southgate. “In the early ’90s there were a number of newspaper pieces about the good old days when we all lived together, almost saying, ‘Segregation is good.’ I would get impatient with that. They’re right about the split among classes, and that a lot of people have been left utterly behind. But I just don’t really think Jim Crow was that great!”
Still, in adopting the voice of a conservative black man, Southgate says she “felt discomfort disagreeing with positions that a lot of other people take. When I was writing this book I was very concerned that people would think, ‘Oh, she’s a female Clarence Thomas type.’ But I’m not Jerome. Yet I’m not unsympathetic to him.”
Pope.L and Southgate describe modern racial debates in terms of physical stance and political leanings, but Carl Hancock Rux lets his play Talk embody the arguments themselves. Mimicking a panel discussion about fictional African American novelist Archer Aymes, the piece wittily reveals how supposedly intellectual battles mask personal bias. As a group of middle-aged white professors and Afrodemics nitpick about publishing world minutiae from 30 years ago, who is arguing over what and why becomes more important than arriving at anything approaching consensual truth. Yet Aymes remains a Negro enigma. This is exactly Rux’s point.
Part of the inspiration for Talk came to Rux while sitting on a panel about Gordon Parks’s photographs of flowers. In the Q&A portion of the discussion, an older black man asked if Parks had stopped making black art. For Rux this raised several questions: What is black art? Does it need black content? If so, is photographing flowers off-limits? “I wanted to know, was he making black art when he was photographing Ingrid Bergman?” says Rux. A panel at the Black Arts Festival also fired up his muse. “Amiri Baraka accused everyone of being unprepared and ignorant. He called Playthell Benjamin a yes-nigger. Kevin Powell ran off the stage crying. This was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.”
Raised in foster homes in the Bronx, the 32-year-old Rux tried to reject his inner-city roots after being accepted to Columbia. “I didn’t want to be black in the way that my environment dictated. I figured out how to blend in and hang out on the Upper West Side. I wore khakis. Everything about how I started to look was drastically different.” He got mugged three times in his South Bronx neighborhood during his freshman year. “They punched me unconscious. I had this big black eye the first few months of school. I was called an Oreo at that time by kids on my block. But I wanted it. I wanted to say that I wasn’t just from that culture even if I lived there. When I would go back to a ‘black aesthetic’ it was just another extreme performance.” Like the rest of these new black nerds, he rejects the notion that race must be “worn as a garment,” and seems to agree with them that black America’s fragmentation along class lines need not dilute the aims of racial justice. “Black culture makes itself up as it goes along, but is comprised of things that are outside itself. Blackness doesn’t have to be performed,” he says. “It has to be investigated.”
BLACK NERDS THROUGH HISTORY
AKHNATON Egyptian pharaoh/eccentric mama’s boy; brought avant-garde art and monotheism to Egypt in 1300s B.C. Moved capital to middle of desert. Legacy suppressed, name denounced for years afterward.
BANKOURI Prince who renounced throne of Songhai to become scholar at Timbuktu during heyday in 14th century.
SALLY HEMINGS Jefferson slave and baby-mama; favored coalition-building in early 1800s as diplomatic means to freedom. Became neocon after decision to return to America and slavery rather than stay in Paris.
ERNEST EVERETT JUST Early-20th-century American biophysicist. Pioneer in fertilization and cell development. Remained obscure because he didn’t invent peanut butter. Appears on 1995 Black Heritage stamp.
BAYARD RUSTIN Nonviolent activist who organized 1963 March on Washington. Condemned as “known homosexual” by Strom Thurmond before the march, to little effect.
ADRIENNE KENNEDY Award-winning playwright rejected by Black Arts Movement for creating multiracial plots and surreal, symbolist images. With Maria Irene Fornes and Sam Shepard, changed the face of theater.
ERNEST THOMAS A/K/A RAJ (from What’s Happening!!) From 1976 to ’79, led motley clique of very uncool African Americans. Tutored college basketball player, lied about age in order to date model.
RITA DOVE U.S. poet laureate 1993-95. Won 1987 Pulitzer Prize for collection Thomas and Beulah. Avoided popularity by eschewing dialect.
HENRY LOUIS GATES JR. West Virginia-born public intellectual. After testifying in favor of 2 Live Crew, created prestigious African American Studies department at Harvard during 1990s. Traveled around Africa for six-hour PBS special while wearing khaki shorts, polo shirt, and glasses. —J.H.
The comedy by William Shakespeare, presented outdoors and free in Central Park by Joseph Papp and the New York Summer Shakespeare Festival. Directed by Stuart Vaughan.
July 31, 1957
Burlesque came back to New York with a bang last week when “Two Gentlemen of Verona” opened in Central Park. This makes for the happiest news of the summer.
There’s everything—crude comedians, dirty jokes, flower pots, jugglers, dancing bears, a funny dog, pretty girls dolled up like trees, pretty girls necking around with handsome young men, ice-cream hawkers in the background—everything except the naked nipple, and to make up for that there’s even a belly-dancer with the wondrous name of Chrysoula Frangos. “Hey,” said an honest townsman crouched next to me on the greensward, “dis Shakespeare wrote good slapstick, huh?” It seemed to have shook him to the chops.
To the Winds
Producer Papp and director Vaughan of the New York Summer Shakespeare Festival have thrown all caution to the winds. I did not expect it and I am delighted. IF this is Shakespeare for the masses all I can say is that I am one of them on evenings like these.
There’s no one I can think of to fault in the company, from the leading actors down to the expert electricians. Anne Meara is a heart, handsome, lusty Julia straight out of some sixteenth-century paradise of long-stemmed redheads; Peggy Bennion’s Sylvia, in fine contrast, is dark and dangerous and dashing. Very dashing indeed in a similar if sneaking way is the Proteus of Paul Stevens-he who with one breath swears eternal love to the beauteous Miss Meara, and with the next, having been packed off by papa to Milan, blithely sets about trying to swipe the best-beloved of his best friend. That would be Valentine, the other young gentlemen of Verona, and the girl at issue would be of course Miss Bennion. Valentine in the hands of Robert Blackburn is as blunt, bewildered, and charming a type as you might find this side of Princeton.
A Wandering Cur
The low comedians are Jack Cannon, all fuse and fluster as Valentine’s servant Speed, and Jerry Stiller as the squat and sentimental Launce, servant to Proteus and master to Crab, a mongrel dog. Crab is played, says the publicity, by a cur-a dirty white mutt-found wandering through the park during rehearsal. A likely story, but a brilliant buffoon. Cannon and Stiller are brilliant too, somewhat along the lines of Abbott and Costello, a couple of old burlesque hands if ever there were any. The audience was continually flipping. I was right with it, as already noted.
Other names I must mention without actually wishing to skip any, are Robert Geiringer as the fussy-foolish Duke of Milan, turned by “business” and props into a nutty horticulturist; Albert Quinton (Thurio), Joseph Shaw (Eglamour), and Patricia Falkenhain (Lucetta, sweetly sardonic waiting-woman to Julia). Bernie Joy deserves all praise for the vivid gaiety of his costumes, and for whatever assistance he gave Mr. Vaughan in the general décor; the dances choreographed by Herta Payson are, untypically, a great asset; and David Amram, who should’ve been plugged by me on the last show, “Romeo and Juliet,” but wasn’t, as again contributed, with the lightest of touches, just the right amount and sort of Elizabethan mood music.
I might, I guess, say something about the play, which is little-known to most of us, if I didn’t want you to go and see it for yourself, and didn’t consider it the most trivial of works except for who wrote it and perhaps a half-hundred of its lines, chiefly those spoken by the clowns or sung, on one immortal occasion, to Sylvia. Being trivial, it could not be better rendered than in its unabashed burlesque. Do go for yourself. But a word of advice: go early. I arrived at 8:32, two minutes before curtain, and found some 1500 people there before more-or many more than 1500, because I think that’s the capacity of the bleachers and camp-chairs by the Belvedere Tower. As a result, I saw the whole thing from sharp stage right, almost from backstage, alternately standing up and collapsing back onto the ground as the actors would move from the far side of the theater to my own. You can see that it did not dampen my enthusiasm. IND express to 59th Street, local to 79th, walk about two blocks into the park from Central Park West. You can’t miss it.