Egad! I Met Marc Rich, Long Ago in Switzerland

To the best of my memory, I only met Marc Rich once. It was

quite a while ago, in the Swiss Alps, whence he’d fled after Spain-his original

on-the-lam lighting point-suddenly became too hot (the Feds had started to

close in on him with a serious extradition deal, and there were rumors that a

contract snatch by bounty hunters was about to go down). It was at an evening

party given by someone who was more of a friend then than is the case today, a

tax-driven expatriate of whom another friend once observed, “He has abandoned

the country of his birth for the money he loves.” My then friend had only

recently undergone a new psycho-economic transition often observed in persons

of great wealth: the passage from Stage 1, when one values one’s wealth

principally in terms of what it can do for one, or what it can buy, to Stage 2,

when one can buy almost anything or anyone, and therefore rates one’s own net

worth almost exclusively by comparing it to how much or how little money

someone else has.

All I can recall today is that Mr. Rich was a slimy-looking

creep with overlong sideburns who spent most of the evening half-hidden behind

a large, doubtless expensive panatela. Whether I met Mrs. Rich (as she must

still have been), I cannot remember. It seems unlikely, since to judge from the

pictures recently in the papers (and after allowing for the passage of two

decades), I may well have assumed at the time that she was paid to be in

attendance: not sufficiently comme il

faut -indeed, a bit common-for a Mme. Claude girl; more likely a gypsy

chanteuse attached to the band that supplied the music for the party.

The next day I encountered mine host of the previous

evening, at an elegant club to which it was then unthinkable that someone like

Mr. Rich would ever be admitted, even by the sanitary entrance (but at which

today-standards having slipped so grievously-the fugitive financier is

doubtless a revered life member). “How could you have scum like that in your

house?” I asked tactfully, in the spirit in which, five or so years later, I

would begin to write this column. My friend took a couple of long, thoughtful

steps along the path to becoming an ex-friend. “Oh, Marc,” he chuckled

nervously, with that fainthearted approbation the hugely advantaged reserve for

real wealth, no matter how dishonestly gotten-and that was that.

I didn’t think about Mr. Rich much after that. A few years

ago, there were rumors that he had snuck into the country a couple of times,

presumably to see his desperately ill daughter. Then came the pardon, about

which little more need be said.

I suppose a certain conjectural interest might attach to the

fact that Mr. Clinton chose to pardon Mr. Rich and not Michael Milken. Do we

have Rich lawyer-fixer Jack Quinn to thank for this? If Mr. Quinn had

represented Mr. Milken, would Mr. Rich still languish in the snows? Was there

some kind of triage-cum-bribery competition in effect? A silent auction

presided over by someone like Vernon Jordan? An unspoken quota: No more than

one financial felon to be pardoned? There are elements in all this that remind

one of the heated contest a decade or so ago between two of our better-known

billionaires for a choice “named” space in one of our great cultural

institutions. Both offered the same dough, but one insisted (so the story goes)

that his name be emblazoned on the exterior

of the building, and so the other guy won.

It’s interesting to compare Mr. Clinton’s departure from

office with that of King Charles I. Of the latter, it was observed by a great

poet (Marvell) that “He nothing common did or mean / Upon that memorable

scene,” whereas the former did nothing but. His leave-taking was both noisy and

noisome. This came as no surprise to those of us who awoke some seven years ago

to the chilling realization that we had voted in 1992 for a man who was made,

from tip to toe, of the wrong stuff-as rotten, through and through, as our

judgment of the man (and his consort).

Some of us felt betrayed and said so. It wasn’t

self-flagellation, just a simple admission of error and a desire to do what we

could to rectify a gross mistake that we had helped visit upon the country.

So entirely in character

was the Rich pardon that a quantum of astonishment has been added to the

intense amusement we Clinton-haters are enjoying at the sight of so many of his

acolytes scrambling to cover the traces of their loyalty. It is all so vastly

second-rate. But what did these people expect? Money is supposed to be what

fools are soon parted from, but intellectual dignity is running the circulating

medium a close second right now, at least among the punditocracy. Mr. Bush may

be unexceptional in most ways, but he does have one truly extraordinary

quality: The mere mention of his name reduces otherwise sane people to

blithering idiots doing the intellectual equivalent of foaming at the mouth and

babbling gibberish. Look at the list: the entire New York Times Op-Ed roster with the exception of William Safire,

most of Slate and all the usual

suspects. Is it Bush distemper that causes this, or is it a byproduct of the

self-loathing that Mr. Clinton has left smeared on the face of American

political life, like the slime-trail of a garden slug?

My real question for all these bright (just ask ‘em) folks

is: What in the world is wrong with being wrong? Wrong, that is, in the

punditical way, where all that is injured is the afflatus of one’s

self-congratulation and self-esteem. I’m not talking about dropping bombs on a

hospital thanks to the mistaken perception that it’s an ammunition dump. I’m

talking about a simple misjudgment of character, which most of us do about a

dozen times a day.

I rather like being wrong. Admission of error has a

cleansing effect (on the wallet as well as the soul, let me hasten to add, from

the perspective afforded by three sundered marriages). It is the essence of the

examined life.

But don’t call me wrong if I’m not. This paper, last week,

carried a letter (whose first paragraph is redolent of everything that one

regards as intellectually dubious about suburban New Jersey) accusing me of

having equated our new President with Harry S. Truman. I did not. I never have.

I have observed, twice now and simply, that the same kinds of things are being

said about Mr. Bush today-little more than a fortnight into his

administration-that were said about Truman at the moment of his accession to

the White House in 1945. In the latter’s case, these slurs proved unfounded,

and he went on to be a fine President. Perhaps this may eventually be true of

Mr. Bush. Only time will tell. That is all I said-and if that is wrong, or if I

said something different, then prove it. The letter writer implies acquaintance

with Truman biographer David McCullough. If this is the case, Mr. McCullough

should mind the company he’s keeping-unless he has a preference for the company

of fools.

Admission of error can lead to life enhancement. For

example, there’s a young painter named Lisa Yuskavage who has gotten a lot of

ink recently. The work I’d seen-only in reproduction-inclined me to pooh-pooh

her stuff as more postmodernist trickery. Still, one shouldn’t make up one’s

mind about art without looking at it, so 10 days ago I trekked over to Chelsea,

to the Marianne Boesky (no pardon jokes, please!) Gallery, to look at Ms.

Yuskavage’s new show and came away very, very impressed. It’s tough to be a

representational painter these days, no matter how beautifully or effectively

one’s talent enables one to apply paint to ground; the difficulty is to find a

vocabulary of images that breaks through gimmickry and isn’t derivative. This

is what Ms. Yuskavage has been struggling with, it seems to me, and I think she

has finally gotten where she needs to be. I’d like to see her paintings hung

next to Lucian Freud’s. It would be a dynamite juxtaposition, a real test for

the eye. Two styles further apart you won’t find, but Ms. Yuskavage’s eroticism

seems to me no less effective than Mr. Freud’s, her way with paint no less

compelling. She’s a keeper.

Another keeper was my Jamaican friend of 20 years, Alexandra (Sandi) Morris, who

gave up the ghost on Jan. 25. I spent the weekend before last hitting golf

balls into some very odd corners of Jamaica, and the island didn’t seem the

same without Sandi dropping in for a meal and a good gossip, mostly of times

past, when gossip was real and not merely what it has since become: the

regurgitation of publicists’ handouts. She knew Cuba in the old days, she knew

some pretty fragrant characters, she knew a lot of good stories. She never had

much money, but hers was a true island spirit-sunny most days and open to the

winds-and she brightened and freshened the hours of a lot of people, Poppi’s

and mine as much as anyone’s. I won’t be there for the Mass of Thanksgiving that

will be celebrated for her this coming Sunday in the little R.C. Church in the

village of Reading, but the place will be packed, I know, and those present

will emerge afterward into the fragrant sunlight with an improved understanding

of wherein the riches of this life and the next are truly laid up.

And that’s something you really don’t want to be wrong

about.