But Talk should be praised to the skies for trying to revive the belief that journalism is an on-the-spot vocation, and that the more reporting you do, the better your article. In her ballyhooed Hillary piece, Lucinda Franks bragged about having visited five different countries with Hillary Clinton (letting drop that the North Africa leg of the trip cost $60,000 for one tv reporter), and my Standard colleague Tucker Carlson's piece on George W. Bush retails the half-dozen venues in which he and Bush had intimate conversations.
That's certainly the old-style, expense-a-helicopter school of journalism, and I'm all for it. As I read the obituaries of Willie Morris last week, I was reminded of my friend John Corry's reminiscences in his autobiography My Times, of writing magazine pieces for and with Morris and David Halberstam in the late 60s. If John wanted to do a piece on the Greek colonels, he'd be told, "I'm not sure we're interested, but take six or seven weeks over there?and see if you come up with anything." If I wanted to do a piece on something gargantuan?say, the unrest in Iran?I'd be told, "Take four days?but this better be good."
But all Franks picked up, in her months of traveling with Hillary, was one scrap about how her husband had been "scarred by abuse" at age four?and how that shaped Bill's later randiness. And even then, she hardly seemed to realize what she had, because claims of abuse and addiction are staples of the glossies:
? The intros like: "'Do you have anything non-alcoholic, garçon?' says LaRayna Majick, sitting at a wrought-iron table overlooking the Pont Neuf."
? The kickers like: "Ten years ago, Brad Leatherwood worked as a bouncer in a crack den to feed his cocaine habit. Today, with Kill Shot grossing 800 trillion dollars in its first hour, he talks to us about..."
? Photo captions like: "Olga Trpova: 'President Ceausescu used to flog me with a birch.'"
What made Franks' article explosive is that, while we love to think of screen idols being controlled by irrational demons, the same doesn't hold for the people who set the rules we live under. As soon as the Clintons found that out (here it's worth calling the interjection "Duh..." into play), they took up a fallback position. It's true that Hillary did say the First Goat was "abused" as a child. But she didn't say that's the reason why every time he sees a comely young woman he thinks: "Human spittoon!"
You have only to read the story to realize that the White House effort to wriggle out of what Hillary said does not have the facts on its side. Hillary's stated view in the article (as opposed to the post-article spin) is that the "abuse," which most American parents would describe as "discipline," caused the satyriasis. Says Hillary: "He has become more aware of his past and what was causing this behavior." Q.E.D., no?
What's mysterious is that Lucinda Franks herself has been willing to defend the official White House spin against her own trustworthiness as a journalist. "Two separate parts of her interview," said Franks, "about the sexual infidelities and her feelings about her husband?it's all being squashed together. There seems to be no end to the way the press misinterprets, manipulates and quotes out of context in order to create a story." Sorry, is that an independent journalist speaking or is that Joe Lockhart? Had Franks read what she wrote? This was a truly curious moment, because it allows us to guess something about how the interview was agreed to. It was Hillary, Melanne Verveer and Mandy Grunwald sitting together, discussing Franks' political inclinations and nodding, oh, we can trust Lucinda on this one.
Carlson's article on Bush was a considerably more professional job, and the consensus among righties in Washington is that it's going to do Bush a great deal of damage. Not because of the governor's tendency to pepper his sentences with "fuck," "fucking" and "fucked"?which is the revelation that has the Bush staff most upset. No, it's three counts:
(1) Abortion. Bush told Carlson he had no idea whether abortions had gone up or down in the state since he became governor, an indication of his true level of interest in the issue.
(2) Karla Faye Tucker, the convicted murderer who was "born again" in prison, and who was executed last year after Bush denied her appeal for a stay. You can make an argument for Bush's decision on policy grounds. But he didn't have to treat Carlson to a piping "Oooh! don't kill me!" imitation of Karla Faye Tucker pleading for clemency in the last days of her life. Something about the incident left me with the impression that this particular comic routine had been honed by repetition at dozens of stag poker nights. (Haw! Haw! Haw!) One wonders whether the country will get to know Bush is the worst kind of swaggering preppy pig.
(3) Cocaine. When Carlson asked about the rumors of Bush's high living as a young man, the candidate blew his top. That's the line Bush has taken with the newspapers that have been trying to get the governor to admit he's used cocaine. "There's a game of vicious gossip," he told one newsman, "and I'm not going to participate in the game of vicious gossip. If the voters don't like that, they can find someone else to be for." In particular, the Daily News has asked the question of 12 candidates and Bush is the only one not to have answered. He always replies with some discursion on the "politics of personal destruction." Anytime you hear "politics of..." the guy might as well be saying, "Bullshit alert!"
This stuff is either off-limits or it's not. Who knows whether Bush will eventually be forced to admit he's tried cocaine. But he can't brag about his marital fidelity, as he does in the Talk article, without opening himself to reporters' asking the question again and again. Watch out. General Bradley What's strange, though, is that the stupider politicians act, the higher their poll numbers rise. Hillary pulled even with Giuliani this week, even in the heavily Giuliani-weighted Zogby poll, and Bill Bradley has emerged in the past month as a real challenger to Al Gore. It's hard to see how. Both candidates are dwelling on race, spewing platitudes left and right. At one recent speech, Gore described his father's clashes with bigots who used the word "nigger," and said, "I want to create a future where nobody knows that term." First, Al Gore Sr.'s opposition to Jim Crow was considerably less than full-throated; second, when is the last time you heard that term? Pace Gore, we have not just a future but a present in which nobody uses it. If it exists in America's working vocabulary, it is thanks only to liberal politicians, who want to claim both the popularity progressive racial attitudes bring in the 90s, and the courage they were evidence of in the 50s. Now as then, the word is a tool for cynical demagogues.
While Gore was prattling on, Bradley gave a speech to Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. His rhetoric was even more deeply immured in the 1950s than Gore's. Talking about "inclusion," Bradley said, "If more of us realize that multiracial coalitions can come together...it is building a holy lighthouse that will last 1000 years." A what? "A Holy Lighthouse That Will Last 1000 Years"? Is that some lost Hendrix album?
Nothing Bradley says, though, is as annoying as Gore's deployment of Spanish, which he doesn't speak. Spanish is now being introduced into our politics at such a Traveler's Phrasebook level that it was refreshing to hear Jerry Polinard of The University of Texas Pan-American say last week: "You're walking a thin line there between showing a commitment?and being patronizing." Look, most people can learn to read Spanish aloud. Really: If George W. Bush can do it, anyone can do it.