My new Think Again: Thoughts on Milton Friedman and Gore Vidal.
Believe it or not, I watched “Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion” this morning on Blu-ray as I typed this. It’s a perfect movie to watch if you’re my age and you are hardly paying attention, and the most perfect role my friend Janeane Garofalo ever had, given who she is and what she thinks. (Though I watched "Jimmy Plays Berkeley" to get the sugar out of my system, afterward.) I got it because the studio released a bunch of "anniversary editions" on Blu-ray, but the one I really wanted, I didn’t get, which was "High Fidelity". They also released “Gross Pointe Blank” which is also pretty great, together with “Adventures in Babysitting" and "The Preacher’s Wife” which you will have to judge for yourselves.
My friends at Concord put out four single “best of” CDs by Miles, Sonny Rollins, Wes Montgomery and Chet Baker. I find it hard to believe that anyone cool enough to be reading me here needs an introduction—except perhaps to Wes, but if you do, you can get ‘em now, cheap. Legacy also has a new collection called I Am An Elvis Fan, a 21-song collection of Elvis songs voted on by fans in May 2012 via a campaign hosted at www.iamanelvisfan.com. Same deal.
Now here’s Reed.
August and Everything After
by Reed Richardson
It was in the fall of 2004 that I found myself taking the F train uptown toward Central Park to meet Gore Vidal. I was an intern at the Nation and had been assigned by its editor, Victor Navasky, to conduct research for a speech Vidal was to give on the frightening sequel to the Patriot Act being debated at the time. Vidal had already been corresponding with me via phone from his home in Rafello, Italy, and during those few calls, two things had struck me. First, Vidal was not someone who deferred to others’ expertise on the American national security state, since most of his documentary requests of me involved compiling what he himself had already said and written elsewhere on the topic. The second, more quotidian, and rather poignant detail was that he was a man who loved his cats, since an unmistakable feline mewling—emanating from what, based on the volume, sounded like a perch on Vidal’s lap—often drowned out his voice and made our phone conversations difficult.
Upon arriving at the Ritz-Carlton, another Nation employee and I were met by Navasky who escorted us up to Vidal’s room. There was an unspoken air of anxiety accompanying us on the elevator ride up I recall, what I imagine going to have an audience with the Pope must be like. Strangers don’t just walk into a room alone to meet his eminence, in other words. With his old friend among our party, though, Vidal seemed in good spirits, although it was much more apparent in person that he was well into his lion-in-winter phase. So much so that the meeting, which was supposed to be a work session for us to prepare for his speech, turned out to be something of a hash because he just wanted to sit around and bullshit rather than talk about something as depressing as George Bush’s next assault on due process and the Fourth Amendment. In fact, we had barely sat down when he launched into a well-delivered joke about a Texan and his wife on their honeymoon (a geographical variation of this old saw). One emptied champagne flute of his later, the three of us were politely bidding Vidal adieu. Leaving with me were all the research files I had brought. The speech, like the specific legislation it targeted, never came to pass. But as we learned recently, the abuses of executive power he would have warned against still continue today.
Vidal’s passing also brought to mind his role in Tim Robbins’ masterful 1992 political satire “Bob Roberts.” In it, Vidal’s unforgettably named character, Brickley Paiste, a wizened liberal Senator from Pennsylvania, played the foil to the movie’s namesake. (Here’s the scene where the pair face off in a debate.) Played by Robbins, Bob Roberts is an unctuous conservative political candidate with a background in financial speculation whose superficial campaign platform amounts to little more than gossamer threads of laissez-faire capitalist platitudes and gimcrack right-wing populism set to music.
As is apparent, the similarities between the fictional Roberts from two decades ago and the real Republican presidential candidate of 2012 are uncanny, their vastly different abilities to carry a tune notwithstanding. Indeed, Romney could pass for a 20-year-older version of the generically handsome, perfectly-coiffed Roberts, as if the FBI had mocked up the former by digitally aging a photograph of the latter. (“Let’s add some gray hair around the temples, too.”) Likewise, Roberts’ railing against “wasteful social programs,” pleas to “cut taxes,” and promise to “bring the values of the common man to Washington” could be seamlessly inserted into Romney’s stump speech today and no one would be the wiser.
Whether this represents intellectual consistency or ossification on the part of conservatives is debatable. But it’s worth noting that the movie doesn’t let liberals off the hook so easily either. Robbins, who both wrote and directed, and Vidal combined to create a flawed left-wing character in Paiste as well. The moment in the debate where the bow tie-clad Paiste creakily abjures attacking Roberts, who circulated a scurrilous sexual rumor about him, comes across as more frustratingly naïve rather than principled. And though his ideological impulses and policy prescriptions are commendable, Paiste’s quaint notion that “image doesn’t matter” comes across as hopelessly out of step with the modern realities of what it takes to exercise and retain political power.
The Obama camp’s aggressive campaign posture this election cycle seems intent on not making this same mistake of unilateral disarmament, despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth amongst the political press. But in an environment where the Beltway media is increasingly derelict in its duty (and overwhelmingly disliked), it falls to the campaigns to stake out the broader distinctions between the candidates.
Consider, for example, this scene from “Bob Roberts,” where the Robbins’ composure is momentarily ruffled when confronted backstage at a campaign event by an independent journalist, played by Giancarlo Esposito, who has pointed questions about shady financial dealings in his past. Throughout the long, tracking shot, Roberts and his minions make a searies of wrong turns while the candidate tries desperately to avoid answering any of the specific charges leveled at him. Notably, one tactic involves turning on the reporter with a short admonition about violating “objectivity.”
Now compare that admittedly fictitious episode with this sad, real-life video of journalists from the our country’s foremost media organizations ineffectually yelling out questions like “What about your gaffes?” to Romney as he glides by them unperturbed. Granted, it’s a 30-second snapshot of the campaign trail. And I’ll allow that Romney is now kept in a hermetically sealed polyurethane bubble between stump speeches, so the New York Times,Politico, and CNN reporters heard here don’t have the proximity, and thus, the time, to ask more engaging, policy questions. But still, it’s a window into the sorry, small-minded state of current journalistic thinking.
Still, the upshot of this video was that gaffes beget gaffes, as an idiotic adviser from the Romney campaign actually ginned up sympathy for the media in this case by cursing them out. Never mind that no real news was made, the press got what they needed—one more daystory about Romney’s PR disaster of a foreign trip, which everyone agreed it was. Well, almost everyone.
Dorothy Rabinowitz at the Wall Street Journal crowed in a column that (paywall req.), in Romney’s oft-criticized response to a question about Britain’s Olympic preparedness, “he neglected to think about politics and diplomacy.” Since Romney just happens to be running for the most importantpolitical and diplomatic job in the world, her logic, I admit, escapes me. But then again maybe it explains a lot about the conservative worldview right now. Not to be outdone, the Washington Post’s resident Romney consigliere, Jennifer Rubin, actually said of the debacle: “Romney, frankly, has been at his best.” To be fair, this might yet be proven true.
Nevertheless, the media’s fascination with gaffes isn’t healthy for it or us. It encourages a vicious cycle of coverage that ignores substantive issues and merely mimics real debate. Consequently, it becomes that much easier for the press to play tit-for-tat with regard to these ephemeral diversions. That the scrutiny over Romney’s statements abroad, unfair in Republicans’ eyes, followed hard on the heels of that party’s unabashed manufacturing of a gaffe (with Fox News playing willing accomplice) out of Obama’s “You didn’t build that” line, was no accident. You live by the gaffe, you die by the gaffe.
This week, the political press was handed a big, fat storyline that could change its course, however. According to a Tax Policy Center analysis, Romney’s draconian tax plan presents a drastically different vision from the one the President champions and the Senate passed last week. Still stuck in snarky gaffe mode, the Romney team tried to laugh off as “biased” and a “joke” the Center’s politically deadly conclusion that their plan would raise taxes on everyone but the very wealthy, whose burden would notably drop. If anything, what’s laughable is how far the analysts bent over backward to give Romney the benefit of the doubt, yet his plan still ended up being little more than a time machine trip back to policies of the Gilded Age. But will the media bite on this blatant attempt by Romney to wriggle out of the policy corner he’s backed himself into and let him manipulate their fears of violating “objectivity” by pointing out the facts?
I suspect I know what Vidal’s answer to this question would be. His cynicism of the both our nation’s press corps as well as its political discourse is well documented. But he’s no longer with us and won’t be burdened with what happens in November, since he famously believed, after death: “There is nothing else. No thing. This is it. And quite enough, all in all.”
The rest of us, however, have three more months of this presidential campaign left to endure. Is it really too much to stop the pedantic rhetorical scorekeeping and instead focus on the very real choice America faces this fall? Do the members of our not-so-esteemed political press corps, come next year, really want to risk looking back on yet another momentous story with regret and remorse? I can already hear Vidal’s four favorite words ringing in their ears: “I told you so.”
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Just wanted to say thanks for the great review you posted through Eric Alterman today. Having worked at the Boston University School of Law for the past two years while finishing up my undergraduate degree, I can say that Ken Feinberg is extremely well respected in academia—if only in the Northeast. Your continuation of the point in his epilogue is really one of the more powerful things I’ve read recently, Keep up the good work and let me know if you need any contacts at BU Law (Cornelius Hurley is a great source for banking and housing policy and is an unabashed lefty like you and me).
Reed replies: Joe’s onto something here, and I say that not just because Prof. Hurley hails from my alma mater. Just last week, Hurley was writing about a clever idea for breaking up the big banks without government intrusion.
Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.