REMEMBERING THE SOURCE OF CLINTON FATIGUE

The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr, by Duquesne law professor Ken Gormley, appears more than a decade after the sex-and-real estate scandal called Whitewater ebbed out, but even though Gormley does a fine job in retelling the tale, by the time the reader wades through the nearly 700 pages of bad judgments and self-serving decisions committed by Bill Clinton, Kenneth Starr, and the many colorful supporting players who populate this sad drama, a sickening cringe has resettled on the reader’s shoulders. Ten years turns out to be not nearly enough time at all.

It’s hard to review Clinton’s many tawdry escapades. Today we’re mocking John Edwards for his deceptions and delusions in trying to campaign for president and cover over his embarrassing relationship with Rielle Hunter. But Clinton did it, and obviously got away with it. More important, he got away with violating his path of office, in which he swore `to faithfully execute the laws.” Well, when you lie under oath, you commit perjury, and that’s a violation of his oath. He ought to have resigned.

But he ought not to have been driven out. The simple truth is that there were people who were out to get Clinton, who denied that he was a legitimate president and who sought his ouster. And their vicious campaign to drive him from office constituted a kind of coup.

It was an ugly time. Gormley does a fair and reasonable job of recreating the story, and his interviews with many of the subjects are thoughtful and enlightening. There are even times when Gormley even manages to enlarge our understanding of this well-reported story, as in his account of the day the Special Prosecutor and the FBI detained Monica Lewinsky in an exercise of that is at once farcical and harrowing. Many readers will enjoy this book, but I wouldn’t advise them to wander far from a shower.

`GAME CHANGE’: WHAT’S ALL THE FUSS ABOUT?

I’m a little surprised by the wave of acclaim that has buoyed Game Change onto the top of the bestsellers’ list. The book was written by Mark Halperin, whose excellent work a few years ago on ABC News’s The Note revolutionized political coverage, and by John Heileman. Halperin now writes for Time; Heilemann, for New York magazine, and much has been made of the amount of shoe leather reporting these two undertook in interviewing 300 or so people for this book about the 2008 elections. It’s true that they uncovered lots of inside stuff, but I am not sure that it amounts to much. The much-discussed Harry Reid comment about Obama being light-skinned and speaking without a Negro dialect comes and goes in the story with so little consequence that I rather suspect that without the aid of tub-thumping publicist, the remark would have passed virtually unnoticed. What else? We learn that everyone in politics says fuck a lot. We get chapter and verse on the rivalries inside Hillary Clinton’s high command, but the number of people who care about the antics of these high school student council nerds (with one exception, to come) could fit in the palm of Chris Matthews’ hand. We learn that Elizabeth Edwards isn’t really nice and that John Edwards really isn’t decent, but the woman is dying and the guy is destroyed, and so there’s only so much pleasure to be gained from watching their immolation. There may be much that is new, as in not previously reported, but there is little that changes our views about people. Stlll, some good nuggets. “Jim Wilkinson, a longtime Republican operative, served as [Hank] Paulson’s chief of staff during the [financial] crisis, an his impression of the candidates could hardly have been clearer. “I’m a pro-life, pro-gun, Texas Republican,’’ says Wilkinson. “I worked all eight years for Bush. I helped sell the Iraq war. I was in the Florida recount. And I wrote a letter to John McCain asking for my five hundred dollar contribution back when he pulled that stunt and came back to D.C. Because it just wasn’t what a serious person does.’ To him amazement, Wilkinson determined that he would be voting for Obama.’’

What’s most weird is that the writers fail to extract a sense of drama from the most dramatic election in years. Obama moves through book unchanged, an amazingly composed and charismatic figure who rises to every occasion. The country’s plunge into a desperate financial crisis just weeks before the election becomes just another plot point. Obama aces the test, McCain chokes, but for all their interviews, the authors never deliver what was going on inside the heads of the candidates at this crucial moment.

One very odd thing: the authors devote two pages to an interview with Mark Penn, the widely disliked campaign guru whom many blame for Hillary Clinton’s strategic blunders in positioning herself and creating her message. (To be fair, many blame, and many are blamed, and there is much blame to go around.) But here Penn relates a personal conversation with Clinton in which she largely exonerates Penn. “It was just dysfunctional, and I take responsibility for that,’’ he quotes her as saying, before going on to say that the campaign was probably unwinnable anyway, and—here’s the grabber—that Penn’s rival Patti Solis Doyle was “a disaster’’ who “was in over her head.’’ Penn allows that Hillary told him that he rubbed people the wrong way and should seek therapy. Still, it’s an amazing example of self-serving and largely uncheckable quote that plops into the book virtually undigested.

“IT’S CHRIST HIMSELF. CHRIST HIMSELF, BUDDY”

J.D. Salinger, whom Stephen King today rightfully called “the last of the great post-World War II novelists,” died Thursday in New Hampshire at 91. Most people played up the legacy of The Catcher in the Rye, its great teenage narrator, its definitive postwar voice, its eternal first sentence (“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”) But I’ll always take Franny and Zooey. Here’s the ending:

I remember about the fifth time I ever went on ‘Wise Child,’ Zooey tells Franny over the phone.
I subbed for Walt a few times when he was in a cast—remember when he was in that cast? Anyway, I started bitching one night before the broadcast. Seymour’d told me to shine my shoes just as I was going out the door with Waker. I was furious. The studio audience were all morons, the announcer was a moron, the sponsors were morons, and I just damn well wasn’t going to shine my shoes for them, I told Seymour. I said they couldn’t see them anyway, where we sat. He said to shine them anyway. He said to shine them for the Fat Lady. I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but he had a very Seymour look on his face, and so I did it. He never did tell me who the Fat Lady was, but I shined my shoes for the Fat Lady every time I ever went on the air again—all the years you and I were on the pro- gram together, if you remember. I don’t think I missed more than just a couple of times. This terribly clear, clear picture of the Fat Lady formed in my mind. I had her sitting on this porch all day, swatting flies, with her radio going full-blast from morning till night. I figured the heat was terrible, and she probably had cancer, and—I don’t know. Anyway, it seemed goddam clear why Seymour wanted me to shine my shoes when I went on the air. It made sense.”
Franny was standing. She had taken her hand away from her face to hold the phone with two hands. “He told me, too,” she said into the phone. “He told me to be funny for the Fat Lady, once.” She released one hand from the phone and placed it, very briefly, on the crown of her head, then went back to holding the phone with both hands. “I didn’t ever picture her on a porch, but with very-you know-very thick legs, very veiny. I had her in an awful wicker chair. She had cancer, too, though, and she had the radio going full-blast all day! Mine did, too!”
“Yes. Yes. Yes. All right. Let me tell you something now, buddy. . . .Are you listening?”
Franny, looking extremely tense, nodded.
“I don’t care where an actor acts. It can be in summer stock, it can be over a radio, it can be over television, it can be in a goddam Broadway theatre, complete with the most fashionable, most well-fed, most sunburned-looking audience you can imagine. But I’ll tell you a terrible secret—Are you listening to me? There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. That includes your Professor Tupper, buddy. And all his goddam cousins by the dozens. There isn’t anyone anywhere that isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. Don’t you know that? Don’t you know that goddam secret yet? And don’t you know—listen to me, now—don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? . . . Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.”
For joy, apparently, it was all Franny could do to hold the phone, even with both hands. For a fullish half minute or so, there were no other words, no further speech. Then: “I can’t talk any more, buddy.” The sound of a phone being replaced in its catch followed.
Franny took in her breath slightly but continued to hold the phone to her ear. A dial tone, of course, followed the formal break in the connection. She appeared to find it extraordinarily beautiful to listen to, rather as if it were the best possible substitute for the primordial silence itself. But she seemed to know, too, when to stop listening to it, as if all of what little or much wisdom there is in the world were suddenly hers. When she had replaced the phone, she seemed to know just what to do next, too. She cleared away the smoking things, then drew back the cotton bedspread from the bed she had been sitting on, took off her slippers, and got into the bed. For some minutes, before she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep, she just lay quiet, smiling at the ceiling.

MORE CONGRESSIONAL JOB INSECURITY–NOW!

“I don’t believe the American people want us to focus on our job security, they want us to focus on their job security,” President Obama said at his face-off with Republican members of the House yesterday. In fact, one of the keys to getting Washington focus on our job security, and any and all other issues we’re concerned about, is to focus on the security of our legislators.

Everyone knows that Congress is a bit like a university: once people gets tenure, it’s hard to get rid of them. Incumbents in both houses of Congress have enormous advantages–higher name recognition, the ability to raise money, the ability to do things (or to at least appear to.) But the single greatest advantage incumbents enjoy is having a safe seat–a seat where the incumbent’s party enjoys a huge advantage in registration. Thanks to state of the art district-drawing processes, most districts are drawn to give one party or another that huge head start. (Take a look at the map in the illustration, which can be viewed more clearly here; it aims to show the tornado-twisty 15th district, but just looking at the bizarrely-drawn shapes of on this map shows that a clever hand was at work here.) And that means that voters lose out, and not just the voters from the other party. The incumbent doesn’t have to work as hard for any of his constituents.

It’s not a hard concept to understand. You may be a committed Coke drinker, but you benefit enormously from having Pepsi in the world. The presence of Pepsi makes Coke compete harder, to get in more outlets so as to be more available, to add new products and premiums and promotions, to keep prices down. Wherever Coke or any brand has a monopoly, it just doesn’t have to do as much to please its customers.

Ideally, legislative seats should be competitive. Ideally, candidates from both parties, including incumbents, would be working hard to try to attract voters from the other side, through service, through initiative, by getting things done. Yes, we want our elected officials to take strong stands and offer firm leadership. But seldom does it benefit the majority when they are hard-core partisans.

But that’s what we’ve got. In most districts, the incumbents have to please the party activists, who are usually more partisan and more extreme than the ordinary voter. And so the incumbents have no incentive to compromise. As long as they keep delivering to their base, their jobs are secure. And that’s why changing parties seldom gets us what we want. We get new faces and new positions, but we get the same old way of doing business.

What we need is a voter movement–a bipartisan, cross-party movement to insist that next year, after the census results are in, the state legislators who are drawing the new Congressional districts stop serving the political incumbents and the political parties. They need to draw fewer safe seats, and to start drawing more competitive seats. President Obama speaks for millions when he says that he’d like to end the partisan obstructionism epidemic in our politics. Persuasion, however, is not the way to do that. Competition–good old market forces–is the best way to put the good of the people back in politics.

STEVE LOVELADY 1943-2010

My friend Steve Lovelady died on January 15. He and I worked together at Time in 1997 and 1998, and although I didn’t have a lot of interaction with him, I found him to smart, decent, tough but low-key, enormously effective, a top-notch editor. And in fact, he was the one who sent me along to Ann Kolson, an editor at the Times who just so happened to be his wife, for whom I wrote about 40 stories. The Philadelphia Inquirer, where Steve worked for 23 years and where he edited stories that won six Pulitzer Prizes (and among the articles he midwifed at Time, two won National magazine Awards), offered him an excellent obituary, which included a sort of toast, if you will. Headlining this “The Lovelady Style”, it quoted the lead that Steve wrote for an installment of the Pulitzer Prize-winning series “The Great Tax Giveaway” by then-Inquirer staff writers Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele.

Imagine, if you will, that you are a tall, bald father of three living in a Northeast Philadelphia rowhouse and selling aluminum siding door-to-door for a living.
Imagine that you go to your congressman and ask him to insert a provision in the federal tax code that exempts tall, bald fathers of three living in Northeast Philadelphia and selling aluminum siding for a living from paying taxes on income from door-to-door sales.
Imagine further that your congressman cooperates, writes that exemption and inserts it into pending legislation. And that Congress then actually passes it into law.
Lots of luck.
The more than 80 million low- and middle-income individuals and families who pay federal taxes just don’t get that kind of personal break. Nor for that matter do most upper-middle-class and affluent Americans.
But some people do.

A terrific intro, colloquial and light, the perfect way to ease a reader into a complicated and important subject, an excellent example of the editor’s art. Here’s to you, Big Fella.

THE FIGHTING 69TH

I’m doing some work for Nielsen IAG this week at an office located on Park Avenue South at 26th Street. We’re on the western half of the block; on the east, as I discovered today, is the 69th Regiment Armory, home of New York’s Fighting 69th, and these days, the 165th Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard. The Armory, which was built in 1904, housed the Armory Show in 1913, a watershed event where America was introduced to Modern Art; at least 17 Roller Derby matches; several Knick games between 1946 and the 2003 and 2009 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. The 69th first earned distinction during the Civil War, when it was famously known as the Irish Brigade under the leadership of the gallant Brigadier General Thomas Meagher. During the First World War, the 69th was part of the Rainbow Division. Among its veterans are William Joseph Donovan, who won a Medal of Honor and later founded the OSS, the author Richard O’Neill, also a Medal of Honor recipient, and Fighting Father Duffy.

BRETT FAVRE: ATHLETE, ARTIST, IDIOT

You can’t say a bad word about Peyton Manning. The very model of the modern managerial quarterback is as heroically cool as the statue of him that the Hoosiers will no doubt erect in front of their football palace the day after he retires. But Manning, like Joe Montana, like Bob Griese, is the kind of quarterback whose greatness leaves me cold. He is all excellence and no drama, all precision and no agony. I much prefer the emotional field generals, the divas, the desperadoes, the gunslingers–-Ken Stabler, John Elway, Phil Simms, Ben Roethlesberger, Terry Bradshaw on fourth and ten heaving what turns into the Immaculate Reception, Eli Manning eluding the grasping Patriots to stick the ball onto David Tyree’s head. And of these desperate Come Back With Your Shield Or On It quarterbacks, none is a better model than Brett Favre.

Over the last two decades, Favre has been the most charismatic player in the game, the one player who always made it worthwhile to go out of your way, to stay up late, to pay money to watch. It seems like he always gives you something special, a lagniappe that brings you back for more–an improvision, an underhand toss, a mighty heave, a block, a tackle, and always the promise that the game can always be won. As a quarterback, he is more of an artist than any man who played the game–capable of innovation, imagination and creativity as he authors a new performance in the company of 21 collaborators who can either help or hurt. Often the results are brilliant–a Monday night against Denver that Green Bay wins when Favre throws a bomb on the first play of overtime, and that amazing Monday Night game against Oakland that he played right after his father died, where he racked up yardage and points as though in doing so he could his father back to life. Of course, there were all those interceptions, those stupid, gambling, ill-advised picks that he threw trying to write magical endings and that instead delivered ruination.

On Sunday Favre was poised to write what might have been the most glorious chapter of his career. Already feeling his age, he was battered by the Saints almost into Y.A. Titledom. Once he had to be lifted up. Once he had to be carried off. On the sidelines, he had to be unwrapped and rewrapped like an Elgin Marble about to go on tour. And yet twice he brought the Vikings back to tie the game, and with half a minute left, he had them poised to win with a kick by the providentially named kicker Ryan Longwell. And then came a penalty that moved the Vikes out of field goal range. And then came the final play, a roll out that left an open space in front of Favre. All he needed to do was run into it, and Longwell would be back in business. Instead he heaved the ball across his body, across the filed, into the middle of the field, into the arms of a Saints defender. Troy Aikman, a three-time Super Bowl winner of the managerial type, murmured in sorry befuddlement, “That’s the first thing they teach you not to do.” Oh well. As Shelby Foote wrote of the catastrophe Pickett’s Charge, “That was the price the South paid for having Robert E. Lee.” That interception was the price Minnesota paid for having Favre lead them to the title game.

And thus his legacy. Brett Favre: Artist. Legend. Idiot.

WHEN WALTER FIRST WENT UP IN THE AIR

Many years ago, Walter Kirn worked in the cubicle next to me at Spy, and he was a most entertaining neighbor (in fact, Walter was succeeded by Jim Collins and then by Larry Doyle. On the other side, I had Joanne Gruber. Spy provided me with tremendous neighbors.) During Walter’s short tenure, we spent pretty much the first half hour of every day talking over the wall, and because Walter lived a very different life than mine–he was literary, and a drinker, and a midwestern Mormon Princetonian, and in the process of divorcing his pretty English wife–I found him endlessly fascinating. Plus he always had interesting stuff to say, like whether everybody in the world could be divided into digital and analog camps. There was a day, or maybe more than one day, when Walter came in and expounded on airport life, on how all the things you do there are different than what you do in real life. You eat food you never eat anywhere else and read USA Today, which you never read anywhere else, and read novels that you don’t read anywhere else. He went on and on. I Wish I remembered his riffs more exactly, because they were so smart and funny, and because this one, no doubt, became his novel Up in the Air. Which, I confess, I have not read, but which inspired a movie that I saw last night, and which I admired very much (even though the movie does not contain the novel’s best line, “Fast friends aren’t my only friends, but they’re my best friends.” There was much to like, mostly the rather sad and unsparing ending to which the film builds. My favorite moment, though, came in a scene that takes place at a meeting. All of the road warriors, of which George Clooney is one of the best, have been gathered by their boss Jason Bateman, and there, sitting at table next to George, playing one of the road warriors, is Walter. They are watching video of someone being fired, and the person doing the firing says to the displaced worker “Anybody who ever built an empire or changed the world sat where you are now. And it’s because they sat there that they were able to do it.” It’s a line George spoke earlier in the film, and at that moment, a disgruntled George turns to Walter and says “That’s my line! I came up with that!” or words to that effect. I like that–the actor telling the original writer “That’s my line! I came up with that!” I know for a fact where the whole thing originated. Congratulations, Walter!

ONE MORE. . .


From Art Director Richard Weigand, a love letter to writers on the cover of Esquire‘s 40th anniversary issue in October 1973, showing contributors John Kenneth Galbraith, Tom Wolfe, Nora Ephron, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Alan Arthur, Murray Kempton, John Updike, William Styron, Gay Talese, Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, Philip Roth, Dwight Macdonald, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Baldwin, John O’Hara, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow, H.L. Mencken, Dorothy Parker, Irwin Shaw, Richard H. Rovere, Truman Capote, Vladimir Nabokov, Peter Bogdanovich, Garry Wills, Richard Joseph, Leon Trotsky, Ralph Ellison, Tennessee Williams, Malcolm Muggeridge, Sinclair Lewis, Gore Vidal, John Sack, Arnold Gingrich, John Dos Passos, Thomas Berger, John Cheever, Laurence Stallings. My heroes, more or less.