August 8, 2006


Fans of historical fiction, and of Patrick O’Brian’s sea-faring adventures in particular, are advised to investigate That Anvil of Our Souls: A Novel of he Monitor and the Merrimack (Simon & Schuster), by veteran novelist David Poyer, now in paperback. This is the third in Poyer’s series of Civil War naval fiction (earlier installments: Fire on the Water; A Country of Our Own). Once again, Poyer combines rich characterization and a deep technical knowledge to tell an exciting, absorbing tale. For more information, check out Poyer’s website at


August 30, 2006


Keith Olbermann, smart, tetchy host of Countdown, delivered this haymaker right on the square jaw of Donald Rumsfeld last night.

“The man who sees absolutes, where all other men see nuances and shades of meaning, is either a prophet, or a quack. Donald H. Rumsfeld is not a prophet. . . .

“That about which Mr. Rumsfeld is confused is simply this: This is a Democracy. Still. Sometimes just barely. And as such, all voices count – not just his. Had he or his president perhaps proven any of their prior claims of omniscience – about Osama Bin Laden’s plans five years ago – about Saddam Hussein’s weapons four years ago – about Hurricane Katrina’s impact one year ago – we all might be able to swallow hard, and accept their omniscience as a bearable, even useful recipe, of fact, plus ego.

“But, to date, this government has proved little besides its own arrogance, and its own hubris. Mr. Rumsfeld is also personally confused, morally or intellectually, about his own standing in this matter. From Iraq to Katrina, to flu vaccine shortages, to the entire “Fog of Fear” which continues to envelope this nation – he, Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, and their cronies, have – inadvertently or intentionally – profited and benefited, both personally, and politically.

“And yet he can stand up in public, and question the morality and the intellect of those of us who dare ask just for the receipt for the Emperor’s New Clothes. In what country was Mr. Rumsfeld raised? As a child, of whose heroism did he read? On what side of the battle for freedom did he dream one day to fight? With what country has he confused… the United States of America?’’

September 21, 2006


One of the great things about working in midtown Manhattan is that often great stuff happens while you’re just sitting around. Last year it was the Gates exhibit by Christo in Central Park, just a couple blocks north of the offices: hundreds of saffron-colored flags suddenly roosting in Central Park, seeming a little chagrined to find themselves so out of place.

This week the sudden treasure  has appeared six blocks south: Sky Mirror, a 35-foot, 125-ton concave stainless steel mirror by the Bombay-born sculptor Anish Kapoor, popped up yesterday on Fifth Avenue just opposite 30 Rockefeller Center. It’s very cool. Viewed from the Fifth Avenue side, Sky Mirror gives you a huge, wide-angle view of one of Gotham’s hubbubingest streetscapes, and a chance to see your small self tucked in among the madding crowd from an angle seldom glimpsed. Viewed from the opposite side, Sky Mirror shows you a watery, dreamy view of 30 Rock floating upside down in the sky. Too bad there weren’t any nice white puffy clouds.


September 26, 2006


Bill Clinton may have looked like he lost his cool in his interview with Fox News’s Chris Wallace this weekend. He even got a little personal, sniping at Wallace, “You have that little smirk on your face, you think you’re so clever.” Surely this was overkill; Wallace is among the least partisan of Fox’s newshounds, and whatever expression he betrayed when he asked Clinton about how much his administration had done to kill Osama bin Laden, it was hardly a smirk (and as somebody who attended an all-boy Catholic high school, I feel I know smirks.)

More likely, Wallace was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, the unfortunate foil present at the moment Clinton, who is supposed to be ex-presidentially above the partisan fray, felt like reminding his fellow Democrats how they’re supposed to behave during a campaign season. Clinton always lived by the dictum from The Untouchables—”They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue”—and as much as anything, that taste for the rough and tumble helped him win terms in the Oval Office that eluded the less-than-scrappy Gore and Kerry. The Democrats have a chance to win both the House and Senate this fall, but that won’t happen unless they show some killer’s instinct (which Bush and Rove have in abundance) and go for the throat. Indeed, maybe Clinton’s criticism of Wallace’s smirk was all a smoke screen, a way of taking a slap at the smirkingest man in America (sorry, Dennis Miller; sorry, David Spade), namely George W. Bush.


September 27, 2006


A very illuminating article by Jim Rutenberg in The New York Times today gives us an idea of what to expect from the Republicans as we move through the campaign season: sticking words in other people’s mouths. For example, Rutenberg quotes President Bush saying “Most people want us to win,’’ leaving the impression that the Democrats and anybody else who opposes the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld regime of incompetence wants America to lose. Rutenberg has Bush saying later on “I need members of Congress who understand that you can’t negotiate with these folks,” as though Democrats have been clamoring for peace talks with Al-Qaeda. He quotes Defense Secretary Rumsfeld as asking “Can folks really continue to think that free countries can negotiate a separate peace with terrorists?” Obviously Democrats aren’t advocating negotiations with terrorists and surely do not want terrorists to win. But as the National Intelligence Estimate that was released over the weekend shows, Bush’s strategy is leading to defeat. Bush and his claque don’t want to talk about that; perhaps they think that by sticking words in other people’s mouths, they won’t have to speak for themselves.


September 28, 2006


News services are reporting that Paul Haggis, the Oscar winning writer-director of Crash and screenwriter behind Million Dollar Baby, is in talks to direct two other Oscar winners, Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron, in The Garden of Elah, about a career soldier whose son returns from the Iraq War and suddenly disappears. The story is based on an article by Mark Boal called “Death and Dishonor,” which appeared in our May 2004 issue, that tells of an army veteran who discovers his serviceman son was killed by members of his own unit.

October 3, 2006



One hates to shoot fish in a barrel. There’s really no sport in ridiculing small-minded people with giant-sized hang-ups, or ass-covering bureaucrats, either. But then every once in a while a story comes along, as it did in Saturday’s New York Times that is simply too rich to ignore. It seems that in Frisco, Texas, a 51-year-old elementary school art teacher named Sydney McGee has been fired for taking her fifth-grade students on a field trip to the Dallas Museum of Art. It appears that one of the kids’ parents complained to the principal that the child had in passing been exposed to nude art, and the principal, without lingering long over the fact that she had approved the field trip to this sin pit, promptly notified the 28-year classroom veteran that she had transgressed. The school board soon suspended Ms. McGee and informed her that her contract would not be renewed.

The Times reports that in the past decade, more than half a million students, including about a thousand from other Frisco schools, have toured the museum. None felt obliged to complain. Among the nude art in the museum’s collection is Rodin’s “Shade,” Aristide Maillol’s “Flora,” Jean Arp’s “Star in a Dream,” and the torso of a Greek youth, circa 330 B.C.

Texas used to pride itself on how big a state it was. But now we see how very, very small some of its people can be. Here’s hoping Ms. McGee enjoys a culturally enriched life with the large judgment she will no doubt be awarded in the suit she certainly soon will file.


October 4, 2006


Things went bad for Mark Foley fast, but he shouldn’t have been surprised. Things never seem to go easy on a Republican caught in a sex scandal. As Paul Farhi points out in The Washington Post,  “for the most part, Democrats have been able to survive their sordid escapades while Republicans have paid with their political lives.”

Farhi’s right. It’s true that some Democrats like presidential candidate Gary Hart and Rep. Gary Condit suffered for their liaisons. But Rep. Gerry Studds had an affair with a congressional page, and was returned to office, and Rep. Barney Frank hired a male prostitute, and was returned to office, and Sen. Chuck Robb accepted “a back rub” from the lovely Tai Collins (later immortalized in a Playboy pictorial), and he was returned to office, and Bill Clinton fooled around with Monica Lewinsky, and he became more popular than ever. Even Rep. Wilbur Mills, whose involvement with an exotic dancer named Fanny Foxe, the Argentine Firecracker, became Washington legend after the two of them were found romping in the Tidal Basin, was reelected. It was only later, after a drunken Mills joined Ms. Foxe onstage in Boston, that Democrats demanded, and received, his resignation.

By contrast, Rep. Bob Livingston, Rep. Robert Bauman, Sen. Bob Packwood, Rep. Thomas Evans and Rep. Dan Crane watched their careers disappear when allegations arose. Crane’s experience is particularly jarring: at the same time Studds was censured for sleeping with a 17-year-old male page, Crane was censured for sleeping with a 17-year-old female page. Crane apologized; Studds refused. Crane’s conservative district turned him out; Studds’ liberal Massachusetts constituents reelected him.

In 2004, a Republican senatorial candidate in Illinois, Jack Ryan, dropped out of the race after his wife (Jeri Ryan, Star Trek’s legendary 7 of 9) alleged in divorce papers that he had asked her to go to sex clubs and have sex with strange men. In other words, Ryan was eliminated not because he had sex, but because he fantasized about his wife having it. Favored in the race, the seat subsequently went to a Democrat, Barack Obama.

Why the discrepancy? Surely it has to do with the attitudes of their constituents, and how they feel about sex, and how much or little they care about the private lives of public figures. But it also has to do with sanctimoniousness. Anti-internet porn crusader Foley was the latest in a long line of small government Republicans who want to put big government in your pants. The holier-than-thou they are, the harder they fall.


October 9, 2006



Most of us know that an enabler is person who helps or allows or covers up another’s unproductive patterns of behavior. The person could be abusing drugs or alcohol or food, spending too much, gambling too much, whatever, and the enabler either keeps quiet, or covers up, or makes excuses, or takes over the job.

James Baker has long been the Bush family enabler. He helped George H.W. Bush get into politics by managing his unsuccessful campaigns for the Senate in 1970 and the presidency in 1980, helped persuade Ronald Reagan to offer Bush the Vice Presidency in 1980, and managed Bush’s successful campaign for the presidency in 1988. He even reluctantly resigned as Secretary of State to get back into the mud of a campaign in a futile attempt to rescue Bush’s foundering reelection campaign in 1992. Then, in 2000, the silky Houston gunslinger continued his Bush family service by traveling to Florida after the election and taking charge of the courtroom and back room efforts to stymie an honest recount and ensure that Florida’s electoral votes went for George W. Bush.

Think of him as Winston “The Wolf’” Wolfe, the mysterious, sinister, quietly intimidating character that Harvey Keitel played in Pulp Fiction. “I’m Winston Wolfe,’” he said. “I solve problems.” It is not too much to say that without Jim Baker’s intercessions, the whole sorry story of the mediocre presidency of Bush the Elder and the calamitous presidency of Bush the Crusader might never have been visited upon the American people.

Now we read that the faithful family retainer is back in harness. At the president’s request, Baker is chairing an Iraq study group. ABC News’s The Note says today that “some say [the group] has secretly already made up its mind about recommending a dramatically new direction in Iraq — after the election.”

If true, it’s hard to think of anything more cynical. While George W. stumps the country pledging to stay the course, his family’s Winston Wolfe devises a November surprise, a bacon-saving plan to be presented after the election. If you’re on patrol in Baghdad this week, you may well wonder, Why wait?

October 10, 2006


Finally caught The Black Dahlia, Brian De Palma’s film version of the James McElroy novel, and jeez, was it bad. Despite some lovely long tracking shot, De Palma couldn’t escape the fact that the plot of the story was way too intricate and that his actors were simply not very good. Josh Hartnett was reserved to the point of invisibility, Scarlett Johansson did more posing than performing, and Hilary Swank hasn’t hammed it up this much since whatever high school musical she played in. If you want a rewarding film noir about postwar L.A., Chinatown and L.A. Confidential have yet to be matched.

But if you want to engage something truly gripping on the subject of the Black Dahlia, the terrible, grisly, sensational murder of 22 year-old beauty Elizabeth Short that was never solved, try The Black Dahlia Avenger. The 2003 book was written by Steve Hodel, a veteran LAPD homicide detective who convincingly makes the case that the murderer was his father, a doctor with a sadistic streak. Hodel not only builds a meticulous case against his old man, but also explains how corruption within the LAPD might have allowed his father to escape arrest. In one of his most striking findings, he demonstrates how the gruesome positioning of Short’s dissected corpse resembles a painting by Man Ray, the surrealist artist who was a close friend of Dr. Hodel. Now lending credence to this view comes Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder, a new book by Sarah Bayliss and Mark Nelson, which uses visual comparisons and historical research to further underscore Steve Hodel’s insights by showing connections between the murder and works by Man Ray and other surrealists. The Black Dahlia Avenger has been optioned by film producers and might one day make its way to film; certainly no one should think that the De Palma film has come anywhere near to exhausting the subject.

October 17, 2006



Four thoughts that occurred during a weekend trip to the University of Colorado at Boulder:

1) Is there a better-looking campus anywhere?
2) Were coeds this pretty when I was in school, and if so, where the hell was I?
3) Has an 0-6 team (as Colorado was before Saturday) ever looked so dominant against a 4-2 team (as the Texas Tech Red Raiders were)? The Buffs looked great.
4) Are there still political parties in Colorado? Though the sample of radio and TV ads and lawn signs to which we were exposed was admittedly small, it was nonetheless striking that none of the five or six candidates for Governor or Congress whose ads we saw made any mention of the political party to which the candidate belonged. Indeed, the only time a party affiliation was mentioned was in an attack ad, where a Congressional candidate was labeled — correctly enough — as a Democrat. This doesn’t seem to be the case in New York, New Jersey or Connecticut, where candidates still seem to think there is an advantage in announcing the herd they’re running with. Maybe it’s a purple state phenomenon, something that happens where candidates are so intent on targeting an independent (or mushy) middle, that they are reluctant to stand on one side or the other, and instead try to seem as though they are products of a political immaculate conception. It makes you wonder if we are heading into a world that will treat political affiliation the way people used to treat sex — as something people practiced behind closed doors, did not admit to having.

October 18, 2006


Playboy’s inimitable cartoon editor Michelle Urry died over the weekend. A distinctive, one of a kind character, the glamorous Urry did not suffer fools gladly. A real ground breaker, a Playboy mainstay since the swinging sixties, the legendary Urry was sui generis. As my friend Chris Napolitano eulogized, “During her 30-plus years with the company, she rose through the ranks from her start as an assistant to Hef to a position as the vice president of the licensing department in the 1970s. Her place in the world of cartoons was unmatched; working closely with Hef, she regularly brought the best out in such preeminent artists as Jules Feiffer, Gahan Wilson, Buck Brown, Arnold Roth and B. Kliban, whom she discovered. Each month her work was enjoyed by millions, and she will be missed and mourned by many.’’ I’m glad I got the chance to meet her.


October 18, 2006


Departing New York’s JFK airport at the height of rush hour last Thursday morning, the wait to get through security was a manageable 15 minutes. Departing Denver International Airport three days later, on a relatively sleepy Sunday morning, the wait to snake through the line to inspectors was an excruciating 35 minutes.

Unless you were a first class passenger on one of the airlines, that is. First-class passengers had their own special lane that enabled them to zip to the front of the line.

Call me a miserable, small-D democrat, but this should not be allowed. It’s one thing for the airlines to reward higher-paying passengers with comfier chairs and bubblier champagne, but skipping to the head of the security line shouldn’t be a privilege dispensed by marketing departments to the cash-entitled. Waiting in line to get through security is an annoyance that we are being forced to endure because of the actions of terrorists. It is one of the few burdens imposed by the Global War on Terrorism that we in the great middle class have to personally bear. Using a first-class ticket to buck the line isn’t exactly the same as being a Civil War swell who paid a bounty to have a substitute take his place in the draft, but it’s in the same spirit.


NOVEMBER 1, 2006


Last week, in a desperate grab to regain the lead, Sen. George Allen attacked his opponent James Webb for having written novels that had sex scenes in them. It’s kind of hard to understand the point Allen was trying to make (unlike his “macaca” moment, which was so clear).  Should Virginians be outraged or embarrassed at the thought of having a senator who has written novels? Or at having a Senator who has an interest in sex? Anyway, between this and the Harold Ford kerfluffle about attending Playboy’s Super Bowl party, it seems as though Republicans want us to believe that the Democrats are the “likes sex” party, and that the GOP is the “likes e-mailing pages” party.

Whatever. In the meantime, it turns out that Webb is hardly the only politico to write a steamy sentence. As Slate reminds us, Barbara Boxer, William F. Buckley Jr., Jimmy Carter, Lynne Cheney, Winston Churchill, William Cohen, Newt Gingrich, Scooter Libby and William Weld have also written sexy scenes in their novels.


November 2, 2006


Earl Butz could have told John Kerry not to make jokes. John McCain could have told him, Arnold Schwarzeneggar could have told him, lots of guys could have him: shut the hell up. Yeah, if you’re FDR or JFK, feel free to toss off a bon mot. But if you’re a big stiff, stick to the prepared remarks.

For those who missed it, here—in syntax almost as painfully jumbled as President Bush’s—is what Kerry said: “You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, and you make the effort to be smart, you can do quite well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”

In what will surely be a thankless effort to help the big oaf, here is what he should have said: “You know, if you study history, if you look at the long, troubled history of Iraq, if you don’t treat intelligence as a plaything that can be manipulated, if you respect the proven-effective Powell Doctrine and don’t go into a country without overwhelming force, if you don’t ignore the advice of your most respected military leaders and instead go in with half the troops they recommended, if you don’t delegate all decisions to stiff-necked ideologues and actually seek out discordant views, if you don’t appoint inexperienced sycophants who disband the Iraqi military, if you ignore the copious feedback that tells you your plan is just not working, if you refuse to act like a cheerleader and instead act like a world leader, you can do quite well. Otherwise you get stuck in Iraq.’’

See, now it’s hilarious.

Did John Kerry insult the intelligence of our troops by his remark? Yeah, maybe. Has George Bush insulted their intelligence by telling them they’re great patriots while leaving them in harm’s way while he diddles with a plan?  You tell me.



November 2, 2006


It was a wonderful surprise to wake up this morning and see that the Times had run a `Where Are They Now?’ chart of the present fates of many of us who used to work at Spy. Very cool indeed.




November 3, 2006



President Bush said Wednesday he wants Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney to remain with him until the end of his presidency, extending a job guarantee to two of the most-vilified members of his administration. ‘Both those men are doing fantastic jobs, and I strongly support them,’ Bush said in an interview.” —Terence Hunt, The Associated Press, November 2, 2006

Thus the president expresses the essence of this election: Do you want more of the same, or not?

November 10, 2006


It’s been a bad week for Donald Rumsfeld. First, on Tuesday, he loses his party an election; and then he loses his job;  and now, according to Time magazine, he’s about to be indicted by Germany for war crimes. (Yikes! You know that when Germany indicts you for war crimes, at least you’re being indicted by people who’ve got some experience in the field.) But look on the bright side, Don: next week just can’t be worse.


November 23, 2006


This week, as we commemorate with turkey and pigskin the first Thanksgiving, let us remember that very few of us today, and especially few of us reading Playboy, would have all that much in common with the Pilgrims who got New England rolling. As Nathaniel Philbrick points out in Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, the first settlers were a sour, dour bunch of religious fundamentalists who often settled the problems they had with the natives by killing them, sometimes in a genocidal way. So they were courageous, yes, but not quite the best role models for a 21st-century American.

That’s why, when I toast early settlers this week, I’m going to salute the Dutch. As Russell Shorto describes in The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America, the Dutch who settled in Manhattan were wonderful role models. Residents of the colony included whites, blacks, Jews, and people of other origins, and they were not the sexual blue-noses that were the settlers of Plymouth. Shorto even makes the argument that governments exist by the consent of the governed got ingrained in America thanks to this group. And if that’s not enough, they gave us the words for cookie and cole slaw.
Granted, that’s not quite as good as turkey, but toleration and democracy more than make up for it.

December 19, 2006


Robert Gates, the new Defense Secretary, was sworn in today, which means we can at long last bring a close to Donald Rumsfeld’s long, vainglorious, self-indulgent farewell tour. Though more than a month has passed since the electorate effectively and the president officially dumped the architect of Iraqi tragedy, Rumsfeld has stayed on the job, mostly to play a series of farewell engagements at which he justifies his thuggish, ineffective tenure, and receives praise from cronies like Dick Cheney, who called Rummy the “greatest Secretary of Defense’” in history. Check the stent, Dick—I don’t think enough blood is reaching your brain.

One of Rumsfeld’s final acts was to appear on the radio of Cal Thomas, the right wing Christian fundamentalist columnist. According to The Washington Post, Rumsfeld “told Thomas he hadn’t given much thought about what he’d do after today’s departure. Thomas invited him over to his home theater—complete with surround sound—to watch a movie.’’ Then his exchange occurred:

Rumsfeld: “I have not been in six years to the movies.”
Thomas: “It’ll be fun. I got one for you that’d you’d really love. … It’s called Akeelah and the Bee. Starbucks is involved in it. It’s about a little African American girl, 11 years old, growing up in Crenshaw in L.A. Her father’s been killed by some hoodie. Her brother’s about to become a hoodie. And they discover that she has this great gift of spelling. … I guarantee you I’ll give you your money back if you don’t love this movie. You will absolutely love this. It’s got everything. There’s not a white guy—the only white guy in it is the principal of the school. Everybody else is minority, everybody else gets along.”
Rumsfeld: “Did you like The Sound of Music?”
Thomas: “Of course I liked The Sound of Music.
Rumsfeld: “Well, so did I. People laugh at that.”
Thomas: “Well, I want to [tell] you something. I stalked Julie Andrews for 40 years before I finally got her.”
Rumsfeld: “Is that right?”
Thomas: “On our shelf, a picture of us having tea together in New York.”

Rumsfeld: “How long ago?”
Thomas: “Two years.”
Rumsfeld: “She’s showing her years.”

December 20, 2006


A highly personal, totally idiosyncratic view of the year’s best.

10. Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke, and Douglas Brinkley’s book The Great Deluge. One’s a film maker, the other a historian, but both got into the muck to show in fine detail the destruction of Katrina and its terrible aftermath.
9. The second-to-last episode of Rescue Me. All the poor dysfunctional slobs who occupy the fire house were contemplating an escape, and each lacked something—the brains, the balls, whatever—to get out. A false alarm puts them at the corner of Liberty and Greenwich Streets, in front of the 6-foot high, 7,000-pound bronze triptych memorial to the fire fighters who died on 9/11. Amid the spirits of their fallen brethren, they grudgingly admit their failures, and subltly rededicate themselves to one another, and their vocation. A rare moment of authentic, inchoate emotion on episodic TV.
8. Utterly Monkey, by Nick Laird. A jolly, boozy, sexy, nasty, sarcastic rebellious romp by a young Irish novelist. Laird’s inventive use of language shows his enormous gifts as a poet.
7. Big fat books by Serious Journalists, like Bob Woodward’s State of Denial, Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, and Thomas Ricks’ Fiasco laid bare the Bush’s administration’s pretentions, vanities, and willful ignorance. Anybody who thinks they can keep up with the news by reading Yahoo! headlines is a moron.
6. Middle age has been great to Alec Baldwin. Never quite large enough to be a convincing leading man, he has lowered his sights, and now manages to convey a wisdom and a heft that enables him to be our most convincing character actor. See him steal scenes (hilariously) in The Departed, The Good Shepherd and Running With Scissors, while week after week being the best thing on 30 Rock. Maturity becomes him.
5. Meryl Streep. Might have made this list by virtue of her bravura summertime performance of Mother Courage in Central Park alone, but throw in her dark chocolate cookie of a performance in The Devil Wears Prada, and you see why she is unchallenged as our very greatest actress.
4. Flight 93. Paul Greengrass’s account of the 9/11 attacks, and, most especially, the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania, sticks close to the facts, and in doing so, honors all who were affected.
3. The Sopranos. Part One of the Final Season meandered quite a bit, but where else would you see scenes like Johnny Sack’s breakdown after his daughter’s wedding, Christopher’s druggy evening at the Italian street fair, and most daring of all, the romance between the pathological, tortured Vito and his Johnny Cakes? Even when running on fumes, this remains an exciting, courageous series.
2. The Election Year. From Macaca to Mark Foley, this election year was as exciting and as improbable as any mini-series.
1. Bond. Back and better than ever. Is Daniel Craig the best Bond ever? Let’s put it this way: He’s the best actor who’s ever played Bond.

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