Jewish World Review July 21, 1999/ 8 Av 5759
A News Blackout
The Kennedys lived a few blocks from my family in Tribeca, and so we witnessed the surreal neighborhood scene last weekend. Television crews stood in front of their empty N. Moore St. apartment, filming what?
Radio reporters interviewed the “little people” at local hangouts like Bubby’s, Fourth Estate and Socrates, who dutifully said John was a regular guy who bought flowers at the same deli they did, and would gladly sign autographs. On Sunday morning, MUGGER III and I went to see our friend Mary Parvin at Fourth Estate, and strolled around the block to see if the “journalists” were still keeping vigil. What a question.
Of course they were, to the extent that one reporter even asked my four-year-old son for his reaction. CNN and the major networks broadcast almost nonstop coverage—and don’t tell me it’s cynical to assume that behind the scenes the gleeful expectation of higher ratings was on the minds of producers, as their teams worked overtime and called out for pizza and indulged in gallows humor—of the search for the plane, as if any new information would be immediately forthcoming. Time and Newsweek had to call in their suburban troops to remake their covers and inside features, which is legitimate, especially since these will be the bestselling issues of the year thus far.
What really irks me is the minutiae of the coverage: the examination of Kennedy’s flying record, what Carolyn was wearing on the flight, the weather conditions, the questions of whether or not they should’ve boarded a commercial airline. In the end, obviously, it doesn’t matter: They’re dead and the story should end there. God only knows what Oprah, Larry King, Barbara Walters and Geraldo have up their sleeves; it was painful opening the dailies to find pundit after pundit bemoaning the end of Camelot once more. How many times can the American public lose its innocence?
And, as usual, Bill Clinton will go even more overboard in the emotion department. Granted, it’s his place to make a statement to the country, but you just know he’ll continue to debase the sad occasion with poll-conscious oratory. Initially, he’s been restrained; just wait until the funeral. Other politicians will exploit the deaths as well. Count on Al Gore; I hope George W. Bush, who’s had little contact with the Kennedy family, will be simply gracious in paying his respects. Sen. Orrin Hatch was already groaning on for CNN’s King about the near-mystical Catholic faith of the Kennedys. I believe that was true about matriarch Rose Kennedy, and Ethel Kennedy, but the third generation of the family has never worn religion on their sleeves, in either words or actions.
Still, newspaper writers have to fill space, and some do so better than others. I don’t begrudge the New York Post’s Jack Newfield his heartfelt words at all; he truly was a close friend of the family. I could argue about the headline of his July 18 column, “Good night, sweet prince of a noble family,” but his writing is sincere: “John was never arrested. He never stained his family’s name. He didn’t run around with a posse of goon bodyguards. He was good in a way very few famous men are.” Newfield’s colleague Andrea Peyser, on the other hand, let on to readers on the same day that she can’t write on deadline. Read this hysterical bit: “The first reaction upon waking is: It can’t be true. Not him. Not now. Then, denial: This must be some kind of hideous mistake! He wasn’t on that plane. He’s safe. And anger: Why was he flying in that dinky aircraft, in the dark? John, don’t you know what could happen to you?... My heart is broken this sad, dreary day. This can’t be true. He can’t be dead.”
At the Daily News, Stanley Crouch had a strange lead to his eulogy on July 19: “When Princess Di got it, I didn’t get it.”
Newsday’s James Pinkerton, also writing on July 19, concluded his column with an oddly sentimental line that’s uncharacteristic of his work. “And now he’s lost, and we’re facing a stiller world.” That’s what Time’s odious Lance Morrow would claim is the beer talking. The world is no more “still” after Kennedy’s death; he was just one more person who died, although far too young.
Jimmy Breslin, big surprise, was just downright mean. Not about Kennedy, of course. Instead, he wrote in Newsday on Monday: "Jack Kennedy was president for 1,000 days. Jimmy Carter was president longer than that. Who would you rather hear about, Carter or Kennedy? Ford was a president? Who was he? Who is he? Who cares? He bores. Clinton has been president for three more years than Kennedy and I want somebody to tell me one phrase he turned in his whole time of flat, banal English. Except for that finger wagging, 'that woman.' This is a president? That is all he could add to the language? All the rest, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, are minor names. You say Kennedy and all these years later something comes alive. Go ahead, go to the moon. Because it is hard.” Nixon and Reagan are “minor” names? Jimmy, you hittin’ the sauce again?
Again in the Times, on Monday, Douglas Brinkley wrote on the paper’s op-ed page: “Americans in their 30’s, like me, grew up with John Kennedy... With his earnest demeanor, handsome countenance and admirable devotion to being a socially responsible citizen, he was my generation’s photogenic redeemer.” Brinkley, an historian and professor at the University of New Orleans, diminishes his reputation with such sentimental slop.
In the July 26 Newsweek, Jonathan Alter was just as presumptuous, writing that Kennedy’s magazine George was “underrated.” No, it wasn’t. It’s a trivial, often silly, publication that most likely would’ve folded soon even if Kennedy hadn’t perished. But the conclusion to Alter’s column tells me that all members of the Beltway media should take a yearlong vacation. He writes, incomprehensibly, “He was more than our ‘Prince Charming,’ as the New York tabs called him. We etched the past and the future on his fine face.” No, Jon, “we” didn’t, even if you did. Which I doubt.
A Kennedy death (but not Michael’s) wouldn’t be complete without a remembrance from Arthur Schlesinger Jr. And so in the July 26 Time, Schlesinger writes with atrocious elitism: “That is why he took up flying. When he traveled on commercial aircraft, fellow passengers would ask questions, seek autographs, exchange memories. He understood that they were people of good-will, and he could not bear to be impolite, but the benign interest of others was a burden. Once he got his flying license, he seemed a liberated man, free to travel as he wished without superfluous demands on time and energy. Nor was he a reckless pilot. The mystery of his death remains.”
Finally, as to the continuous talk of the “Kennedy curse” and allusions to Shakespearean and Greek tragedies, that’s all in the minds of imaginative writers. The Kennedy family is huge and is known for its aggressive, risk-taking lifestyle. It’s all in the odds of life.
I never met John Kennedy Jr. But if what friends tell me is true, that he was a likable, generous man, I have no doubt he’d be acutely embarrassed by this outpouring of confusing, and often self-serving, punditry.
Besides, after all the Kennedys’ years in public life, isn’t it time the media left them alone?
It Just Gets Worse for Gore
A few weeks ago in this column I gave some smart advice to Al Gore: Resign the vice presidency, team up with Bill Bradley and campaign for president full-time, unburdened by the baggage of Bill Clinton. So far, he’s taken a different fork in the road, adding layers of bureaucracy to his organization, spending money lavishly and still tumbling in the polls. Democrats of every bent—from Southern legislators to left-wingers like Paul Wellstone (who’s endorsed Bradley) to the vast majority of the mainstream press—are clearly spooked. (By the way, don’t believe for a second the line currently being peddled that the Beltway poohbahs are soft on George W. Bush: They’re still hoping against hope that Sen. John McCain’s candidacy will ignite. And after that honeymoon, the vast majority of the media elite will fall behind the Democratic nominee.)
I almost feel sorry for Gore. He’s been reduced to being the honorary chairman of a July 22 dinner, sponsored by the National Albanian American Council, to kick off the “Bean Bag Toys for Kosova’s Children” relief effort. Fittingly, Liddy Dole is the cochair and Cokie Roberts is the master of ceremonies. My house is filled with Beanie Babies and one thing is certain: You can put Erin, Roary, Spinner, Twigs, Baldy, Iggy, Kicks, Peace, Millennium, Princess Bear or Batty on a plate, douse them with salt & pepper and the meal will still come up zero on a nutrition scale.
So here’s another idea for depressed Democrats to consider. Gore is not going to turn this election around. In fact, he might even lose the nomination to Bradley, who in turn will go down to defeat against Bush. Clearly there’s time for a celebrity candidate to challenge both Gore and Bradley for the Democratic prize, someone who can excite the party and raise money quickly. Someone who President Clinton will not sabotage by making campaign appearances instead of playing golf or looking for another 21-year-old to screw around with.
Obviously, that person is Hillary Clinton. Why should she settle for a Senate contest in New York, which she has only an even chance of winning, when she’d have a lot more fun, and possibly success, going for it all? Gore is on track to lose California; Hillary could win it. Gore might even go down in New York and New Jersey; Hillary could take them. And the money wouldn’t be a problem. Why, Terry McAuliffe, the sleazy fundraiser who’s done so much for the Clintons, would rise to the challenge. After all, Hillary’s already set a goal of picking up $25 million for her New York Senate race, a number that would shatter the record for a non-incumbent. (But I don’t suppose Crossfire’s Press would suggest she’s trying to “buy” that election.) As far as her husband goes, there’s a chance that he would actually try to help her, figuring this would be his way around the 22nd Amendment.
(One digression: Voters’ minds are usually decided by symbolic moments rather than arcane policy proposals. One remark by Clinton last Tuesday proves that she must never deviate from a prepared script. At Jones Beach, she said: “I feel like I’m on Baywatch. I’ve heard about [the famous beach] literally all my life, from many friends who would come here and spend lots of glorious summer days. I’m just delighted to be here.”)
A goofy scenario? Not in this election cycle.
When Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are all either outright supporting Bush or praising him despite pledges of impartiality, the cry that “grassroots” GOP activists will reject Bush rings hollow. The questions Republicans have to answer are these: Do you want Bush or Gore filling the next Supreme Court vacancies? Who is more likely, with a GOP-controlled Congress, to deliver meaningful tax cuts, such as the abolition of the “death tax”? Who will promote an agenda of less government regulation and not be beholden to corrupt labor unions? And who will restore dignity to the White House? The answer to all these questions, of course, is Bush, and crybabies like Lamar Alexander, Steve Forbes, Bauer and Smith look ridiculous and self-absorbed as they attempt to the derail the best GOP presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan.
I get a kick out of partisan journalists like Press who claim that Bush has too much money. In fact, Steve Forbes (!) has received a free ride, despite his vast inherited wealth, because he’s rightfully put in the loser category. Typical of this hypocrisy is a paragraph found in Dana Milbank’s latest New Republic piece (Aug. 2): "Those of us who don’t carry around plastic fetuses should be encouraged by the right’s loathing of Bush. If he’s making those kinds of enemies, he’s probably a sensible fellow. Still, the conservatives are right that there’s something obscene about his $36 million take. Gore would have been able to make an issue of it were it not for his own fund-raising controversies from 1996. Absurdly, the greatest voice now the little guy is Steve Forbes, who will spend his personal millions to make sure the Republican primary is competitive."
It must be tough working in the Gore Republic bunker right now. Imagine owner Marty Peretz on his cell phone, yelling at his reporters, "Do something for Al!" What Milbank chooses not to mention is that, Bush aside, Gore would’ve broken the record for a first-half-of-the-year financial filing on contributions with his $18 million. Would that have been obscene? Of course not, ’cause You Can Call Me Al.
Horsefeathers. Bob Dole had the life scared out of him in the ’96 primaries, losing New Hampshire, and his presidential campaign was still a nightmare. A "rugged conflict for the [GOP] nomination" would better serve Bradley or Gore. Why can’t journalists look themselves in the mirror and say, "Hey, I think I’ll be honest today!" It would better serve their families and, more important, better serve the country.
John Kasich was smart to drop out of the race even before the August straw poll in Iowa. As a result, it’s likely that the influential Ohio congressman, who won’t be running for reelection, will receive an important position in the Bush administration. Alexander, when he finally packs it up, will be lucky to be appointed as a White House usher.
It says something when even Lars-Erik Nelson, the Daily News columnist who’s probably never voted for a Republican, writes a piece called “Bush Smears Are Low.” On July 9, Nelson called the Los Angeles Times story questioning Bush’s military record—why that paper has it out for Bush I haven’t figured out yet—“careful and balanced,” but “part of a destructive trend” among journalists to destroy presidential candidates. He writes: “It is not partisan malice. [I’ll let that whopper go for the moment, since Lars is making so much sense here.] We are more like thoughtless children pulling the wings off flies, just out of curiosity. Any time some new political figure pokes his head up and decides to run for high office, the press now feels obliged to find some fatal character flaw, some crooked deal in his past... His spouse, Laura, has been derided in The New York Times as a ‘Betty Crocker wife,’ meaning, no doubt, that she cooks for her own children. How bourgeois! How five minutes ago!
Apparently, Nelson, unlike so many of his ostrich colleagues, has
realized that short of a gigantic scandal -- it would be hard to beat
rape-- Bush will be the GOP nominee. Nelson’s ready for the general
election, and will no doubt write thousands of words on behalf of either
Gore or Bradley, but at least he’s come to grips with the political
reality of Bush’s dominance. After all, it’s no accident that
Republicans in Congress have suddenly awoke from their slumber and are
actually proposing legislation that has some teeth. It’s because Bush is
now the titular leader of the GOP. Ever since Newt Gingrich
self-destructed in ’95 the party has been adrift. That’s all about to
07/16/99: Time of the Season