Armando Iannucci’s new HBO series Veep, which premiered on Tuesday night at the Time Warner Center, looks like a winner—more Biden than Bentsen. Starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the shaky-cam comedy is to the West Wing what a bucket of Popeye’s is to a bowl of flax-dusted Brussels sprouts (less wholesome but considerably tastier).
During the cocktail hour preceding the screening, the premise of the show gave us an excuse to ask everyone : Who is your favorite vice president? Fortunately, guests were in a festive and charitable mood. No doubt they were already anticipating the post-screening filet mignon awaiting them at Porter House.
“You know what? I’ve never been asked that before,” Fran Lebowitz replied when we tracked her down in a corner of the 10th-floor reception area. “That’s a great question.” She thought a little. “Well, there was Johnson, and he became the president. Which is why you can’t nominate someone like Sarah Palin.”
Still, he wasn’t exactly her favorite. “I believe it’s possible that I do not have a favorite vice president. And if you asked a president he might say the same thing.”
Ms. Lebowitz was asked whether she’d been following the Republican primaries. “I feel more like they’ve been following me,” she said. “I see Santorum suspended his campaign today, so he doesn’t have to lose in his home state.” The Observer pointed out that Mr. Santorum was even unpopular in his home town. “Well, that isn’t such a bad thing,” she replied. “That’s why many of us came to New York!”
We put the question to her pal, Frank Rich, who is executive producing. “That is a great question!” he said. “Favorite? Not the greatest, right? I guess Lyndon Johnson. Lotta drama, Macbeth-like conniving…”
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly went with John Adams. “He was the first one, he had to figure out the job. And he had a son who became president,” he said. “So if I had to pick one…”—yes, you can only pick one, that’s the challenge—“Adams. There was an HBO series about him!” Asked whether he’d consider the role himself, he replied, “I have the best job in the world.” He always says that.
Bill Keller thought it was a great question. (We were beginning to think this was a stalling tactic.) “It’s gotta be gotta be Spiro Agnew. As a journalist, how could there be anything better than that? I mean the wristwatch in the safe? Come on!” (Did he actually say this? We think so. But when we Googled “wristwatch safe Agnew,” we got nothing, so maybe that particular nugget never made it into the paper of record.)
“The rest of them are all pretty much a bucket of warm spit,” he added. (This, he definitely said—quoting FDR veep John Nance Garner.)
What did Mr. Keller think were the most important traits of a successful veep, we wondered. “A masochistic tendency for subservience,” he replied. Not to say they aren’t strivers. “Ambition is the ambient quality for anyone seeking a top job in politics—heart-attack-making ambition,” he elaborated. “But in order to be vice president you have to be willing to supress that ambition so totally that you’re willing to be somebody’s bitch for four years.”
“Or eight,” we noted, before remembering he was no longer in any position to give us a job, so why try so hard?
“Yes, or eight.”
Prompted by Mr. Keller’s surprising use of the B-word in a non-canine context, we asked how he was adjusting to life after giving up the reigns of the Times (translation: was he maybe kind of losing it?). “I’m very happy,” he said. “I’ve got a lot more control of my life. I don’t have to be in a lot of meetings. I don’t have to be in any meetings, as a matter of fact. Life is good.”
We grabbed art-world scourge Morley Safer and hit him with the evening’s query. He was quiet for a moment. “Trick question,” we said.
“Even worse for him—he’s Canadian,” offered his wife, Jane.
“I’d say Lyndon Johnson,” Mr. Safer said. “He became a great President. Though he didn’t like me very much.” Mr. Safer didn’t elaborate, but we suspected he was referring to his report on the burning of Cam Ne, which helped turn American public opinion against the Vietnam war.
Johnson hated the piece, of course. No doubt the nabobs of the art world know just how he felt. We asked Mr. Safer how they’d reacted to his latest 60 Minutes salvo, in which he visted Art Basel Miami Beach and wondered pointedly whether contemporary art wasn’t perhaps “the biggest scam since Hans Christian Andersen trotted out the Emperor’s new clothes.”
“The Gray Lady of The New York Times didn’t like it very much,” he said. “But she’s clueless.” In case you weren’t sure just which gray lady he meant, he added, “Ms. Smith,” i.e., Roberta Smith, who had pronounced the segment “tired and formulaic.” Mr. Safer added, “Critics like Ms. Smith are part of what’s wrong with contemporary art. She writes in this impenetrable prose that makes it all seem important. But that’s why what she says is meaningless.”
We moved on to the subject of his own art. Mr. Safer is himself a painter, who described his work as “mostly” figurative “but not necessarily.” Years ago, he even had a few shows. Is he still at it? “I’m desperate to do it but my day job keeps me pretty busy,” he said.
Later, we ran into Ms. Lebowitz again (yes, her day job is still writing a book—two, in fact). She had a question for us. “Did anyone name Al Gore?” she wondered. They hadn’t. “Aw, that’s too bad,” she said.