Whoever said that in the era of gilded info-glut, news magazines are no longer needed? Who else can be relied upon to perform the conspicuous collection of celebrities? What occasion other than Time’ s 75th anniversary cavalcade of self-celebration on March 3 could have seated Mikhail Gorbachev beside Sophia Loren, Joe DiMaggio beside Henry Kissinger, Ted Kennedy next to Muhammad Ali, Tom Cruise next to Walter Cronkite? What institution beside the White House could offer the spectacle of Bill Bradley toasting the Rev. Billy Graham, Sharon Stone toasting Betty Friedan and Tom Hanks toasting John Glenn, all seeing and being seen in the Art Deco splendor of Radio City Music Hall? Perhaps all the rest of the fin de siècle celebrations can be canceled in advance. They’ve been pre-empted.
No small thanks to Time, the consolidation of politics and celebrity is nearly complete. Time-Warner’s seating consultants must have had a blast. Should Kelly Flinn be paired with Dick Morris? Donna Rice with William Ginsburg? Evander Holyfield with Betty Friedan? Jack Kevorkian with Jerry Falwell? Flies on the wall must have been staggering with delight. Imagine the table talk if Leni Riefenstahl, the most accomplished Nazi propagandist of all time, had been paired with Louis Farrakhan! Chat about comparative million-man marches! And if the no-shows had showed, imagine the possibilities: Ariel Sharon with Fidel Castro!
If Hitler had only lived to 109, he might have been paired with Saddam Hussein, who didn’t show, either, but then again, not every Time cover subject was invited. You had to have made a difference to the century-as if Saddam hasn’t! According to Bruce Hallett, the president of Time, “What better way to celebrate every Time than to honor the men and women who have enlivened our pages with their valuable contributions in this century?”
And speaking of no-shows, where was erstwhile cover star O. J. Simpson? Margaret Thatcher? Yasir Arafat? Jimmy Carter? No Newt Gingrich, no George Bush, no Bob Dole, no Dan Quayle. No Oliver North, no Colin Powell. The only Republican pol in sight was Jack Kemp. Perhaps Republicans want to keep their distance from the “liberal media,” or they were upset that Bruce Springsteen, Madonna and Tina Turner weren’t going to be there.
The tone was gee-whiz and, for the most part, predictably self-serving. Mary Tyler Moore regaled the crowd by recalling how Lucille Ball once graced a young actress with a compliment. Surprise! The recipient of the compliment was Mary Tyler Moore. One notable exception to the self-exaltation was DNA double-helix discoverer James Watson’s moving tribute to Linus Pauling, the great chemist whose rival model of DNA was too cumbersome, and whose peacenik activities earned him a salary cut from the proprietors of the California Institute of Technology. Bill Gates, fresh from the Senate Judiciary Committee clutches of Orrin Hatch and Strom Thurmond, delivered himself of a paean to Orville and Wilbur Wright, declaring that “the 20th century has been the American century in large part because of inventors like the Wright Brothers.” As if the 20th century has not also been the century when millions of city-dwellers succumbed to aerial bombardment. More fatuous history has not been on display in one place since the night Newt Gingrich dined alone.
In this company, not for the first time, one has to admire Mikhail Gorbachev, given a pulpit again after years in the wilderness. First he had to put up with his seating partner, Kevin Costner, rising to make a miserable joke about the translator who sat at the table with them. (“If you think this evening is long, you should try hearing it in two different languages.”) No sympathy there for the man who dissolved an empire-only to find, having just flown all the way from Berlin, that he had to lean away from Sophia Loren, seated to his right, in order to stay close to his translator on his left. Who is it? asked a young woman seated next to me as he was being introduced.
When he got his moment before the microphone, Mr. Gorbachev had the gall to address the full glitz and radiance of Radio City Music Hall and actually say something, clumsy though it was. After lumbering through a tribute to Time for lasting into “a mature middle age,” he lionized Mohandas K. Gandhi. Too often, he said, the leadership of the 20th century had realized its potential through force and deception. He called V.I. Lenin “grandiose” while still honoring him (I think) for utopian labors in behalf of “social justice,” and tempering the Soviet state with the market, just as Franklin D. Roosevelt would later do the opposite. To a fidgeting crowd, he declared that the world needed “leadership of a new type,” fusing “politics and morality” into a “new humanism” that would “put an end forever to the geopolitics of force” and “treat all humankind with compassion.”
And now, the envelopes, please. Best (or possibly the only intentional) joke of the evening: Sharon Stone, toasting Betty Friedan: “Two guys go out shopping for a brain … The male brain is $100,000, and the female brain is $25,000. Why is the female so inexpensive? It’s used.” Most desperate Hail Mary attempt at a metaphor: Kevin Costner, reading from notes, on Joe DiMaggio: “He is a man who speaks to us … about how to wear defeat and disappointment as if it were just a passing storm.” Most effusive obsequity toward the hosts: Steven Spielberg called Time “an institution that has always strived to tell the truth.” Subtlest rebuke of the hosts: Toni Morrison crooning (a bit effusively) over the “vivid and intelligent” prose style of the magazine in the 50′s and 60′s, but noting that back then it lacked “a hint of jaundice.” Boldest rebuke of the hosts: James Watson, speaking about Linus Pauling, the great chemist who won a second Nobel Prize, this one for peace, pointed out that Time once ran this caption under Pauling’s photo: “Defender of the unborn or dupe of the enemies of liberty?”