Bill Clinton, Rainmaker, and Other Scary Ideas

Between Christmas and New Year’s, I found myself wandering the streets of Manhattan in a black funk. So clearly did my feelings-of the wan and palely loitering knight-at-arms variety-show upon my face that passers-by halted, some even extended tentative helping hands and nervous little solicitous murmurs. If I had a nickel for every time I was told, “I know, old boy, it’s hard, but one must get on with one’s life,” I’d be rich enough to afford Patricia Duff.

Clearly, I was a sad case. I felt so myself. “How could I have let myself in for this again,” I muttered to the air like a street person. “Only a total fool doesn’t learn from experience,” I wailed in silent anguish. “Woe, woe is me! Never again will I put myself through something like this!”

O.K., I know what you’re thinking, but you’re wrong. The powerful feelings that were coursing through me and registering on my normally jolly face, turning it into a distended mask of disaffection and emotional affliction, weren’t produced by recent relationship misadventures. We’re talking something much, much worse here. We’re talking about a man who, despite an oath taken in blood and sworn on the heads of my children, let himself be persuaded to see The Talented Mr. Ripley and was now paying the full price in the coin of self-disgust.

After The English Patient , still the rankest piece of low-bourgeois bulls– claptrap I’ve ever been forced to endure in a movie theater, I had vowed in blood never to see another film directed by Anthony Minghella. This guy is to phony what Michelangelo was to ceiling painting. I still wake up in the middle of the night screaming at the recollection of that Sikh unreeling his hair, and T.E.P. left me with such an allergy to Ralph Fiennes that I’m being forced to take shots in order to go see The End of the Affair . The shrinks and physicians are doing their best, but they are sadly agreed that my condition is so acute there is no chance I will ever recover enough even to consider Onegin . Such is the curse of Minghella.

So when friends suggested that we ankle over to one of the nabes and check out Ripley , why didn’t I just flee, screaming, in the opposite direction? For one thing, I read the book seven or eight years ago in Scotland, before the Patricia Highsmith boom got properly orchestrated, and wasn’t much impressed then. I think Ms. Highsmith is a crude writer, and very schematic, and the thought of her heavy-legged plot and characters being translated to the screen by a director with Mr. Minghella’s fat-necked aspirations to piss-elegance was nausea-making. But I went, anyway. I think what got me to the theater was that I really liked the people with whom I would be going, and because the picture is set in a time of which I have only fond memories: the mid-1950′s, when in company with a great friend, then fellow art-history major (although at Harvard, while I was doing my Oscar Wilde-cum-Panofsky imitation at Yale), and now distinguished judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, Pierre Leval, I traveled the length of Italy devouring that great country’s art and culture.

Well, I got what I deserved. Practically from the first frame of Ripley (or Shirt Lifters on a Vespa , as it might with equal justice be titled, since Mr. Minghella clearly patterns the title character and his mark, Dickie, on Guy and Bruno in Hitchcock’s Highsmith-derived Strangers on a Train ,) you know you’re in Phony-Baloney Land. As for authenticity, forget it. An early shot shows H.M.S. Queen Mary taking Ripley to Italy, whereas in those days, the sort of people Ripley thinks it’s about would have traveled either via American Export Lines’ Independence or Constitution , or the Italian Lines’ Leonardo , Raffaello , Andrea Doria or Conte Biancamano . In Rome, when Cate Blanchett returns to her hotel, she appears to be putting up at the Etruscan Museum. Not that Ms. Blanchett doesn’t have a right to feel confused: She must think she has wandered by some casting-call misdirection into a French farce, given the rate at which doors open and close and Matt Damon pops up claiming to be someone else.

And it just gets worse. I like Mr. Damon, but he has been coached to play his part mainly with his teeth, as if acting in a dentifrice commercial, and in a manner, over all, that has escalated Manhattan movie conversations to new heights of intrusive banality: “Did you see Ripley ?”

“Yes.”

“Do you think Matt Damon’s really gay?”

“Aaaaaaaaagh!”

Anyway, there I was, slumping along 70th Street, feeling as if I was drowning in vulgarity, when it suddenly occurred to me to visit the splendid show of drawings by Watteau and other 18th-century French masters at the Frick Collection. There can be no quicker-acting, more effective antidote to Minghellism than true refinement, true in manner, true in essence, true in execution, and so it proved.

It also got me thinking about how utterly refinement and its sister qualities such as discretion and moderation have all but disappeared from the way we live now. About how utterly we have lost the sense of what is meet and right, what is appropriate and what is not.

I use the latter term most hesitantly, because if there’s one word I hate, it’s “inappropriate,” and not simply because I’ve recently had to hear it quite a lot. I think people should be required to take out a license to use it. The word is usually uttered by persons who have a more elevated, presumptuous social, intellectual or moral idea of themselves than is warranted either by the facts or the comparative dignity of their personal situation. It’s a caterer’s word, but it has become pervasive. Indeed, a recent cliché survey I turned up on the Net reports that “inappropriate” is the self-serving banality uttered by members of Congress, according to The Congressional Record .

Loathe the word I may, and many of those who use it with regularity, but it has its applications-almost everything Donald Trump is, does or says, is inappropriate-and one that comes immediately to mind is to the rumor that William Clinton, once he has smeared the last bit of moral and ethical fecal matter across the escutcheon of the Presidency, will be joining the fine old firm of Lazard Frères.

The idea was apparently cooked up by new Lazard hire Vernon Jordan, along with Wonder Boy (a.k.a. Steven Rattner), presumably in an effort to muffle the cacophony made by rodents’ tiny claws scuttling down the hawsers of what some Wall Street observers regard as a sinking ship. Mr. Clinton will presumably be “a rainmaker,” and I have no doubt he will be, although possibly not in the manner intended. More of the kind that Noah had to deal with than what Lazard must have in mind: a producer of the sweet showers that bathe the vine of New Business with the sweet liquor that engenders not virtue, but deals. I doubt this will happen, since I can think of no one in American public life with less ethical credibility, of no one with whom a pecuniary association is more likely to give rise to suspicion and media scrutiny. These are not the qualities one looks for in a rainmaker.

Whether Corporate America business will rush to give its financing business to a proven liar, philanderer and double-crosser seems conjectural. On the other hand, there is the China tie, and that could be worth real renminbi. I frankly wonder whether Mr. Clinton mightn’t already have been decorated (and a convenient pension arranged through the Bank of New York) in recognition of undercover services to the People’s Republic, the way Kim Philby and the others were by the Russians for their Cold War betrayals.

If Lazard takes him on, I think it will prove counterproductive. Still, he has to find something to do, and I hold with those who urge a Hollywood life. As an actor. Cloud-Cuckoo Land turns out at least two films a year requiring someone to play a President or high-ranking statesman; at a million a pop, say, with an unlimited open-to-buy at the better escort services in the 310 area code, Mr. Clinton could be kept off the dole and out of Hillary’s hair. Besides, doesn’t this idea make a lovely circularity? The current Clinton-era prosperity is the logical working-out of a process begun during a time when we had an actor as President. How fitting it will seem if the bubble should burst during a time when we have a President as an actor!