Hanks and Ryan Make Me Sleepy in Sag Harbor

In 1739, public uproar concerning outrages committed upon the person of an English sea captain provided the excuse for Britain to attack Spain in what would be called (listen up, you Brown history majors) “The War of Jenkins’ Ear.” Two hundred fifty-nine years later, public uproar relating to outrages committed upon a young person in the White House provided the excuse for the United States to attack Iraq in what history will doubtless designate “The War of Clinton’s Penis.” In both instances, the move to war was prompted by the display of the offended (in the second case, offending) organ in the inferior arm of the national legislature: in Robert Jenkins’ case, pickled in a jar and displayed to the Commons; in Mr. Clinton’s, in the briny prose of the report furnished to the House by independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

The outcome of the ensuing hostilities was in both situations inconclusive, or so we may judge by the absence of triumphalist spin from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue following its deluge of cruise missiles on Baghdad. ‘Twas a half-baked “victory” at best. I remain convinced, as must any rational person, that the retorts and kettles in Saddam Hussein’s biological warfare laboratories continued to bubble away right through the bombardment. I say this because I am certain that these facilities are located in the subbasements of the Iraqi Ministry of Information, below thick concrete upper floors populated by highly compensated U.S. media people “reporting live.”

Given the press-centered values of this Administration, the Iraqi leader surely realizes that the presence of such folks furnishes him with a shield impervious to anything the American political or military leadership is willing to throw at him. Paid for by us in the bargain, I need hardly add.

Assuming Mr. Hussein’s intelligence to be at least of C.I.A. grade, news of Christiane Amanpour’s hasty departure from Amman for (by the lady’s own account) a 15-hour drive through the night to the Iraqi capital, presumably to be on hand just in time for the rockets’ initial red glare, would have given the enemy plenty of time to get ready. What incited Ms. Amanpour’s precipitate translation from Jordan to Iraq is a matter for surmise. With this Administration, you need only follow the leaks, to paraphrase what Deep Throat told Woodward and Bernstein, although I am much too much a gentleman even to suggest that CNN’s answer to Francis Scott Key may have been tipped off by her husband, the State Department’s No. 1 flack.

Not with a bang, but a whimper, as the great poet wrote. Thus did 1998 end. Every which way one looked. About the only way it could have been redeemed would have been for St. Barts to have been blasted from the earth by the eruption of a hitherto unexpected volcano.

Not even You’ve Got Mail could save the day. Nora Ephron’s new Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan starrer both surprised and disappointed. Surprised because at one terrifying moment, wholly unexpectedly, in one of the approximately 90 scenes set at a Starbucks (this picture is the Bhagavad-Gita of product placement), there appeared on the screen an apparition so horrific that the audience screamed as one and many actually fled the theater. Holding my lady tight, hand pressed over her mouth to stifle her shrieks of terror, I for an instant thought that some technician’s error had spliced in a few frames from a new Alien picture, but a second look showed me that it was merely Washington Post banality-meister Richard Cohen, presumably a friend of the director’s.

Let it be said, however, that this was about the only moment in You’ve Got Mail that pierced a torpor of the soporific consistency of Polarfleece. I cannot tell you how disappointed I was. As readers know, the Old Blowhard is really the Old Softie, romantic to the core, a chap who has seen Sleepless in Seattle 16 times (indeed, watched it à deux on New Year’s Eve), never without a ventricular surge. Hell, I even own it on laser disk. So I was primed and ready, but the sorry fact is, I found the new film flat, flat, flat.

But in ways that at least got me thinking. Why? Smart director, smart writers (Nora and Delia’s father Henry used to come into my record store and brag on his daughters), cast to die over, legendary model to work from (The Shop Around the Corner , co-starring my older sons’ grandmother, the late inimitable Margaret Sullavan), a ton of money on the screen.

One answer is, I think, that the picture’s elements don’t add up. The bookstore conflict is a phony, for one thing. Shakespeare & Company was an unspeakable place to buy books, as Ms. Ephron herself has admitted in interviews, and its putative, brief-lived rival, Endicott, even more loathsome. When Barnes & Noble opened on Broadway, it offered a civilized alternative as well as lower prices, so that’s where buyers went. I hesitate to dwell on this sort of thing, because maybe if you don’t know enough to see it, it won’t bother you, but there aren’t any stores like Meg Ryan’s on the West Side. Indeed, to an experienced eye, what’s amusing about the picture is that visually and demographically Nora Ephron has invested her Upper West Side with the look and population of the Upper East Side, which is perhaps the greatest neighborhood book market in the world. Ask Shakespeare & Company, poor babies, who now have two newish East Side locations (23rd and 68th streets).

The bigger issue is that bookstores of whatever size that do a great, personalized job for urban customers aren’t forced out of business. Books & Company wasn’t forced out of business; its owner was tired of running the shop, wanted to do something else, and was unwilling to modify the inventory and look of the store to accommodate the tastes of the average book buyer in its neighborhood. Indeed, one of the more amusing aspects of the great bookstore debate is why the fiercest, noisiest battles are pitched around stores so out of touch with their basic markets, or so idiosyncratic or attitude-ridden, that it’s a mystery why they’re in business at all. In San Francisco, the naysayers just defeated a zoning modification that would have allowed Borders Books & Music to open in a Union Street location now “served” by Solar Light Books, a mediocrity in which not once, in what must now be 15 years, has anyone offered to help me, and by the Writers Bookstore, with a fat stock of deeply discounted new titles, and whose inventory sourcing, to put it politely, is a matter of interest and speculation in the publishing community.

The answer as to why people will go to the barricades for places that serve you indifferently or in constant ill temper must be (this a lesson drawn from living in Sag Harbor) that like is drawn to like. The right to petition is ancient and honorable, but in our time, those who draw them up, and many of those who sign them, are not folks you’d care to be associated with. Show me a lousy cause, and I’ll show you a bunch of lice.

And then there’s the New York angle.

Many nice one-on-one love stories have been filmed in this city, ranging in style from sentimental to snappy, but I’m not sure the kind of postmodern urban culture for which we can thank our great mayor accommodates these any longer. You used to be able to sell “New York” to the rest of the country, and to itself, on the strength of its apartness; now the selling point is how like every place else we have made ourselves, what Christopher Hitchens calls “a ramified version of St. Louis, Missouri or Des Moines, Iowa.” But we aren’t Des Moines or St. Louis under the skin, not quite, not yet, and that’s why you can’t make a Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan picture in New York, or a “New York” picture with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

Mr. Hitchens says this in the only review ( London Review of Books ) so far of A Man in Full to take on the Tom Wolfe phenomenon for the hype-driven scam that it is, in which the heat generated has nothing to do with literary values or standards on any level. The shaming point is that it seems not to matter whether the book can be responsibly touted to prospective readers as any good (which according to the reader on the adjacent pillow and Mr. Hitchens it cannot!) but whether the mere publication of the new novel can be converted by the World According to C. Rose and W. Isaacson into an event around which cover stories can be built and interview slots filled. Give us the squeak, the white suit and the rest of the bullshit, and we’ll give you the grease. My hat’s off to Mr. Hitchens, for saying what the rest of us want to say but don’t–nine times out of 10 simply because we’ll be accused of venting our own shortcomings at the all-ruling box office (as Mr. Wolfe has insinuated in his smarmy way about Norman Mailer and John Updike) and how many impugnings of motivation does one have to put up with?

Ah, well, enough of the second-rate. It’s time to begin the long slog toward the millennium. In closing this first column of 1999, I want to bid Godspeed to Russell Baker, whose departure from column-writing leaves the rest of us staring unhappily and diminished at the footprints of a giant. And to put before you a thought that came to me of a midnight’s tossing not long ago.

Simply this. It’s a common game among historians to play at hypotheses: What if John Burgoyne had won at Saratoga? Or Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg? Or if Klaus von Stauffenberg had assassinated Adolf Hitler? Outcomes we can never know.

But here’s one we can. It seems to me that in the Administration of William Jefferson Clinton we have chapter and verse of what it would have been like had Huey Long gotten to the White House. All the more reason to impeach him and remove him from office. I know, I know … but never forget the examples of Al Capone and Michael Milken: The worst crimes of which a truly big-time crook is guilty are seldom those of which he can be convicted.

Hanks and Ryan Make Me Sleepy in Sag Harbor