Two Big Topics in City: The Crash and the Bush

Right now there are only two conversations in New York. One is about how much you hate George W. Bush, and the other is that we are about to face hard times, real hard times. Both conversations seem to me a little bit unearned.

Myself, I’m more involved in the conversation about money. My story is like everyone else’s in my class, probably worse. A little over a year ago, I confided to friends that I was rich, worth over a million on paper. But that was heavily leveraged and almost all tech. I guess I’m down 60 or 70 percent–I’m not even sure how much. When my wife’s elite retirement account went from 100 to 33, we took our financial consultant out to the Oyster Bar. I paid.

I used to look forward to glancing at the financial pages every morning; now I never look at them. Who wants to? It isn’t fun any more, as Hemingway said.

That regular source of pleasure, reading the financial pages, has been taken away from everyone, and has given way to a feeling that we may be on the threshold of a major recession or depression. Suddenly people who wear Prada are talking about how they will hunker down to weather a long storm. They’re thinking about how little they can live on.

The latest Fast Company is filled with inspirational accounts of people who went through terrible adversity. The headlines teem with woe. “How to Bounce Back from Setbacks.” “Dotzombies.” “Masters of Disaster.” The editors’ letter counsels readers to remember Jim Stockdale’s experience in the Hanoi Hilton. Who didn’t survive? The optimists, Stockdale said.

Of course, it is just like my generation to compare their paper misfortunes to prison camp with a straight face. We can only do it because we made sure that we had no experience of the war, either–our source of information on prison camps being Hollywood.

The poor-mouthing is as self-dramatizing as everything else my generation has gone on about. Because this is, so far, a financial collapse experienced by the rich. And even if it turns into something more, we have too many assets for it to be anything truly grinding for us. We are cushioned; we will export our troubles to the Third World.

It may even be that we want a depression. So much affluence was getting boring. Life had become somewhat manic; everyone was a booster. My old crowd, leftie intellectual Jews, had turned into a bunch of Babbitts. There was something a little distasteful about it. You didn’t have to be Leo Tolstoy to wonder what else life holds.

Now our “hard times” can be a jewel-like moment in our generation’s journey. We will rediscover good values. We’ll be able to say, afterward, that we were tested. Martha Stewart will show us how to make hoecakes.

Some of the belief in the depression is political: It’s about pulling against George Bush. I remember pulling against Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton’s economy for the same reason; I wanted the political discourse to change. When the economy turns, people are more critical and dark. The chickens come home to roost.

People love to hate George Bush. There it is, in the pumped-up headlines about the Chinese plane collision, which somehow doesn’t feel like a real crisis, and in Anthony Lewis’ earnest talk of a Bush coup (echoing Alan Dershowitz’s hyperventilations last fall), and in Maureen Dowd’s withering comments on the Bush dynasty. I heard it on photographer Duane Michals’ answering-machine message. “If this is George Bush, George W. Bush, Barbara Bush … Trent Lott … or Ralph Nader, get off my phone!” he said.

“Oh, I hate him,” a friend told me lately over dinner on Madison Avenue. “I get up in the morning hating him. And I hate that Karl Rove, the way he looks, and I hate that Grover Norquist. I hate their names. You know, I once had dinner with him. He’s just a backslapper–he should be running a chain of Ponderosa steakhouses. Nothing like his father. His wife was there, and they called each other ‘First Person.’ ‘First Person, will you pass the salt?’ ‘First Person, do you want more water?’ It was so cute, it was like eighth-graders making out in public.”

I can’t argue with my friends; George Bush is a mediocrity, impossible to admire, and Kyoto is a reminder of the downside to all of us who wouldn’t vote for Al Gore.

The interesting thing about hating George Bush is how swiftly the swoon has happened, and how ennobled people feel by their hatred. Eight years ago, when the hatred against Bill Clinton began going into the nation’s bloodstream, it wasn’t nearly so easy. You were made to feel guilty about having such feelings and, if you weren’t on the right, had to keep them in the closet. It was wrong to hate, disfiguring. Even four years ago, friends would take you aside and seek to counsel you. “Why do you hate him so?” they would say, as if you were hypersensitive, or maladjusted.

The suddenly fashionable hatred for George Bush feels a bit like political payback: You successfully demonized Bill Clinton to the independent voter, we will now demonize George Bush. And some of it seems racial, too: that most unexamined of racisms, anti-WASP. (I just rewatched Meet the Parents , which is a landmark in the casual and thoroughly acceptable vilification of WASP’s as shallow morons.)

But Bush hatred isn’t going to catch on, not nearly the way that Clinton hatred did. Hatred isn’t about ideology, it’s personal. The right wing was able to gain recruits from the mainstream in its rage against Bill Clinton because of Bill Clinton’s monstrousness, his contempt for individuals and the truth when they got in the way of his self-interest. Almost precisely eight years ago, Travelgate and Waco were the first public demonstrations of a tremendous personal failing, the first in a long string culminating in the impeachment bombings and the description of Monica Lewinsky as a “stalker.”

Bill Clinton was an extreme character. There was nothing halfway about him. He had big appetites and a Macbeth-size dark streak to him. George Bush is like a minor Shakespeare bad guy, Rosencrantz at best, some character whose name you forget.

People talk about George Bush’s meanness, but even his meanness is a garden-variety character flaw, and before long would embarrass President Bush himself. Bill Clinton was unembarrassable. That is why the Clinton haters are so grateful to him for Marc Rich: After everything, he couldn’t and wouldn’t learn.

And he isn’t going away, either. At 9 o’clock the other night, Reed Irvine of Accuracy in Media called me to tell me about new evidence in the Vince Foster case. The evidence involves the gun found in Foster’s hand, which repeated official investigations have said was an heirloom, a Colt revolver that Foster supposedly moved from Arkansas to Washington with him at the outset of the Clinton administration and kept somewhere in his house before turning it on himself in July 1993.

According to Mr. Irvine (and as first reported on the Web site NewsMax.com), a Freedom of Information Act request to the Justice Department’s National Crime Information Center determined that there have been four official requests by law enforcement agencies for information on that gun’s serial number, three of them in March and April 1993, then one three months later, the night Foster died. If it was an heirloom, then why were police asking about it months before Foster’s death? Was it a drop gun? (The big if here: It’s possible the serial number also belonged to a different gun.) “Very interesting,” says the leading Foster theorist, Hugh Sprunt. “We can use this information offensively.”

The FOIA requests were filed by an apprentice machinist in Michigan. What’s the likelihood that, months after George Bush leaves office, apprentice machinists will still be investigating him with such zeal? None. It takes a real monster to foster such hatred. I bet Bill Clinton did something to the Nasdaq, too.