90’s Boom Didn’t Cost Much-Only the Soul of a Nation

I sit on my porch and glower at the passers-by on Madison Street much as Evelyn Waugh, a writer to whom I feel a certain kinship of outlook, used to sit in the bow window of his (and my former) London club and glare at the action in St. James’s Street. I find it impossible to think in long arches. Bits and pieces only.

Already, this is proving a summer for the record books. By mid-June, the Silly Season well advanced. Commentator on ABC referred to “Maidenstone Club.” So much for Roone Arledge’s chance of getting in. Southampton Hospital reports new high for June occurrences of seasonal syndromes like “Grigio Grimace”: dysfunction of facial muscles similar in effect to Bell’s palsy. Results from strain of tightly clenching and consuming plastic cups of cheap white wine. Usually at overpriced charity functions and media occasions thronged by cretins whose expensiveness of turnout and transportation can’t hide a fundamental crudeness of aspect, thought and speech patterns.

But it’s not simply the garden-variety riffraff passing by that knits the brow and causes the spirit to rage. What was feared is now official: The First Liar, Mrs. Liar and Chelsea are abandoning 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on or about July 31 to spend a week at the Alan Patricof house at 63 Hunting Lane, East Hampton. What this will do for the neighborhood at this crowded time of year beggars imagining. If you doubt me, ask the members (those few who didn’t quit in protest) of Greg Norman’s Medalist Golf Club in Florida about how wonderfully the First Presence enhanced their annual member guest weekend. Already, owners of houses in the neighborhood are being invited to rent their houses to the Presidential Support Team: the guys who move the First Ball in the rough, the accounting team responsible for “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap’s Sunbeam audit to keep the First Scorecard, etc., etc. The White House is offering roughly half the going weekly rate, which at first sounds penny ante until you take into account that without the heavy, politically motivated hand of the Great Greenspin (sic) on the money supply throttle, the Dow Jones wouldn’t be anywhere near the level that has underwritten current rentals. I figure this is a wash.

Anyway, I’m putting my porch time to good use; in the spirit of Terry Southern’s Guy Grand ( The Magic Christian ), now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of making it hot down here for El Primo Creepo. If you disapprove of the First Lecher’s conduct in office, or disagree with the Administration’s position in the Mideast, its abandonment of Japan for China, or-on the domestic front-its monocular focus on the Fed-subsidized transfer of the national wealth to the very rentier class that will be surrounding him in East Hampton like wriggling puppies, literally slobbering with self-congratulation, then verily I say to you: Letter a placard, don a stout pair of picket line-walking boots and hie thee to Hunting Lane! A nice round sum of 5,000 protesters should really make the First Visit worth a postcard to the folks in Hope.

Herewith a few other tiles in a random mosaic. A Defining 90’s Moment: Rain pounding on the tent. The crowd inside glamorous, famous, rich, gathered for a ceremony. The babble typical of such moments, a sparkling, noisy obbligato of self-congratulation. Vocal preening. Then, all at once, a hush upon the place. A silence that’s reverent, all-eclipsing. I look toward the aisle. The Great Greenspin (sic) is being led toward a choice seat. Immediately think of favorite phrase-“It was one of those moments of rare beauty that are vouchsafed to men who do business in great waters”-from Samuel Eliot Morison’s History of the United States Naval Operations in World War II . (Note to recent Brown graduates: “World War II” was a conflict that took place in 1939-1945 between the United States, Great Britain, the U.S.S.R.-where caviar comes from-and their allies, and Germany-which makes Beemers-and Japan and their allies. In it, people risked-and many gave-their lives for their countries. Did you ever hear of such a silly thing?)

“Well, Alan made all this possible,” someone behind me murmurs. Not so, I think. The taste, the care, the class and-yes-the money that makes this possible were all well in place when the Fed chairman was still but a mote in Mammon’s eye. What he made possible were a good many of the guests. Still, it’s quite something to be able to quiet a mob of self-regarding, publicity-crazed loudmouths by your mere presence. At that instant, the spirit of the 90’s truly walked among us.

You Read It Here First: In The Wall Street Journal (June 2), Martin Feldstein, keeper of Reaganite flame, said any cure of the Korea collapse must leave interest rates on outstanding debt alone. Hey, Marty, if it’ll work in Seoul, why wouldn’t it have worked in Dallas? And The New York Times (June 27) discovers Karl Marx had some keen insights into the nature of global capitalism. This space predicted Marx would have another bite at the apple (Apple?).

Now This. New Yorker writer Mark Singer (whose take on Terry Southern and Easy Rider in a recent issue is worth a lifetime subscription) once observed that a true financial calamity requires everything to go wrong in a unique and perfect way. What applies on the way down applies on the way up. It’s as true of booms as of busts: Everything must just fall into place. That’s America’s story in the 90’s. Our reserve-currency status permitted self-abusive trade balances, there was a credit-financed, growing-population consumer boom, a morally bankrupt politics played guardian angel to magnetic, fluid securities markets driven by people who had run out of things to buy and who now discovered the allure of bits of engraved paper. Everything worked together and at once, as if a complex jigsaw puzzle had been spilled willy-nilly from its box and assembled itself at one go. Now cracks are showing. Fix Japan, and it’ll be O.K., we’re told. But we match up badly with Japan, as they say in pro basketball. You oversave because you don’t consume enough, we tell them, so stop oversaving and start consuming! But where exactly are they going to put the stuff we say they should consume?

Faustian Bargain Department: Goldman, Sachs & Company is going public. Influential retired partners have argued against the move-in the spirit such partners always will, that of the boards of prewar East Side co-ops who blackball 30-ish self-made derivativocrats trying to buy someone else’s apartment for more zeros than could be spoken of politely when the board members bought theirs. Still, having been a partner of Lehman Brothers when it went from partnership to corporation, I know that there’ll be changes, and Goldman will never again be what it was.

Other Faustian bargains merit study by the connoisseur. Here’s my favorite. Fearful of the threat posed by “liberal” multicultural-P.C. agendas to high culture, the right lined up with the free-market “conservative” crowd and has ended up with the Walt Disney Company and Donald Trump in the saddle and high culture in worse shape than ever. This is not the audience’s fault or wish; the problem, if you ask me, is that our bedrock culture-shaping institutions-films, TV, print, museums-are dominated by Ivy League baby-boomers, from Harvard in particular: These are the worst and most narrowly educated people in America, who-ironically-bring to their high-paying work a thoroughgoing contempt for the greater audience, which is much brighter, more seasoned, thirstier and discriminating than these arrogant young idiots know enough to give it credit for! When a market stinks, it often has something to do with the product, although it’s easier to blame it on the demographics.

Take “Wally World,” the celebrity theme park and infomercial bazaar the Manhattan Mediocracy’s most obvious eager beaver is industriously constructing on the ruins of the magazine formerly known as Time . The model may be Disneyish-indeed, the evolving product is the media equivalent to what would have happened had Michael Eisner gotten his way at Bull Run-but the premise-that Mickey Mouse, so to speak, was the inspiration of a focus group-seems to me to be flawed. Fatally so.

Or take book publishing. Here’s a business that has in most instances abrogated its fiduciary responsibility to writers, a business in which-in some houses-expensive, overflacked and self-congratulatory party-hosting clearly ranks higher on the agenda than the intellectual elbow grease needed to help well-edited books find a market. A hundred freeloaders noshing Le Cirque tidbits doth not a market make, even though it be ever so much fun and exclusive!

It’s not just the right I feel for. There’s the flip side, too. I weep for the so-called leftish, liberal heart, which had beaten exultantly in tune with great collective programs (like the New Deal or the Great Society) that undertook to ameliorate social suffering and inequity. It drank too deeply of the 60’s, and what it read in the coca leaves as greening-of-America “individualism” has turned out to be a selfish, agenda-ridden, laissez-demander philosophy that preaches, “One for all, and all for me.” Deep down, both old-fashioned liberals and old-fashioned conservatives must feel as if they’re in exile. I know I-a bit of both-do.

So Read a Good Book, See a Good Movie: Read Guard of Honor , one of the three or four greatest American novels to come out of World War II, being reissued by the Modern Library. Read Harold Bloom’s and Mary Karr’s rants on the state of poetry in The Best of the Best American Poetry 1988-1997 and Viper Rum , respectively. I especially like what Ms. Karr has to say; my guess is that she shares my opinion that about as black a day as postmodern poetry has known was when James Merrill bought that goddamn Ouija board. And she isn’t afraid to name names. Indeed, I shall use her as my model when I come to write my magnum opus: Ozymandias in Union Square: The Myth of Roger Straus .

Go see The Last Days of Disco . Whit Stillman’s film is a truly wonderful take on young people trying to make out who they are in a city which is once and forever now! and therefore simultaneously the best and worst place on earth to undertake the fraught voyage of self-discovery. Plus he has the same kind of feel for how the city can look on film that set Woody Allen apart.

And keep an open mind on Steve Brill. It’s tempting to write him off as the William Ginsburg of publishing, but the guy has an edge (who do you think came up with “Eddie Haskell” as a nickname for the editor of a prominent newsmagazine?) Will this play through, or is Mr. Brill’s ambition merely to replace this paper as a Four Seasons-Nick & Toni’s “must read”? If the latter is indeed the case, we can only wait and see. His success will depend on the depth of his pockets and the shallowness of his ambitions.

90’s Boom Didn’t Cost Much-Only the Soul of a Nation