Last year, in what has to have been about the worst reading of the runes in history, your correspondent expressed the opinion that 1998 would prove to be the last good summer. For whatever reason, possibly envy-a high moral tone is the last resort of a decent chap in reduced circumstances-I sensed collapse at hand, a final degrading of financial assets to complete the degradation that had already taken place elsewhere in American life: in morals, family values, the public deportment of the “overclass,” civility and civic responsibility in general.
And yet here it is the cusp of the summer of ’99, and what proved troubling then seems merely to have exponentiated in degree and distastefulness. Depending, of course, where you sit. Certainly, the rich have gotten richer. The Dow is up a cool 3,000 points. Paper wealth, artfully investigated in these pages last week by my estimable younger colleagues Nick Paumgarten and Gabriel Snyder, has soared, especially if ‘Net-connected. On the day The Street.com went public, James J. Cramer, whom I cannot help but think of as the Alan Dershowitz of finance, was briefly worth $200 million, which strikes me as a pretty high valuation of someone who does what he does. Except that he makes a loud noise, and perhaps that’s the key, for ours has become a culture which accepts noise, from the publicist’s bray to the rapid-fire crackle made by an AK-47 in the hands of a teenager, as the only true yardstick of artistic and cultural meaning, or (perhaps it should be) the only meaningful yardstick of artistic and cultural truth. The old B.Q., or Buzz Quotient, in other words: nine parts volume to one part fact.
That our market-based system will enrich a Cramer to this degree, even though that “merit-based” valuation be theoretical, while paying Representatives and Senators $136,700 a year, a sum that many of our younger Wall Street readers must consider derisory, goes far to explain why we have got the society and the government we have ended up with. Pinocchio in the White House and Lady Macbeth about to run for the Senate in New York, both skilled at enhancing the poverty innate to public service through useful connections in China and Little Rock, America’s Palermo.
I do not use the name of Carlo Collodi’s puppet-made-boy lightly. In (I believe) a recent American Spectator , Mark Steyn, to my mind the funniest, most astute, most reliable-hell, just plain week-in, week-out best!-commentator on the American scene and Clinton-watcher, raises an apparently well-known physiognomic-psychological truth: Liars play with their noses while lying, apparently in response to vascular and other sensitizing changes that occur in the organ of smell when the synapses of untruth kick in.
Mr. Steyn points out that during his Lewinsky testimony, the First Fellatee’s hands were constantly on his bugle, an observation that has gotten me fixated with the Presidential Proboscis, in much the same spirit as Nora Ephron became obsessed (thanks to Liz Smith) years ago with the eyes of a now-deceased Palm Beach society lady, the late Helene (Mrs. Roy) Tuchbreiter, whose comings and goings were regularly recorded in that unspeakable resort’s “Shiny Sheet.” Nowadays, whenever careless work with the remote causes my eye to light on the Clinton phiz, it’s the schnoz I see, and nothing but, as if a combination of Cyrano de Bergerac, Jimmy Durante, the immortal backstop Ernie Lombardi of the Cincinnati Reds (and others) and my eighth-grade Buckley math teacher Frank Somerby, all nose men of the highest quality, had swum into my ken. The Clinton nose dominates his face and my thinking. And the sight of that distended, overcaressed snot locker causes me to ponder another question that’s been on my mind for some time now.
Namely: Does the President drink, and how much?
It’s not just that the nose looks like a drinker’s nose, losing definition day by day as my own did when I drank, there’s something about the behavior that rings a bell. I know what it’s like to be a smart, oversexed, silver-tongued, top-of-the-world 40- to 50-year-old with the feeling that it should be working out better than it seems to be, that it should feel better than it does. Especially after a couple of pops the night before, or a half-bottle of white wine on a weekend afternoon. When I first heard about Ms. Lewinsky, the bell that rang in my mind and memory tolled the words “Hangover Hots.” The lack of judgment, the satyrlike instincts, with the pheromones spinning like tiny shooting stars behind the eyeballs, the perpetual semi-tumescence, the “winging it” and risk-taking, and-above all-the terrible taste in partners. Paula Jones. Kathleen Willey. Gennifer Flowers. Alcohol, it is said, has much to answer for, and such names suggest some of what is meant by that.
Booze encourages the last shot at wild and carefree before the old guy in the sheet with the scythe steps out from behind the tree and hangs about the fringes of the garden party. Booze brings its own truth, its own clarity, its own sure sense of how things ought to go. There are drinkers who have all the answers, that’s why they drink, and drinkers who have none, and that’s why they do. I belonged to the first category, and I can’t help wondering whether Mr. Clinton might not as well. And once you board a train of suspicion, you don’t get off until the end of the line, so now I wonder why it is we know so little of the Clintons’ White House-Camp David life, the way we even did of Richard Nixon’s, for Lord’s sakes!
I’m not suggesting that the President has a bottle of Old Mr. Boston 100-proof hidden in the Oval Office, or that he’s doing a homegrown imitation of Boris Yeltsin, but maybe at the close of day, when there’s nothing to distract him, and his evening consists of a bad movie or a TV show, with Hillary glowering and glowing like angry radium in the dark at the other end of the sofa, while he wonders what Jennifer Aniston or Julia Roberts looks like in the buff, and wishes he was Brad Pitt or Benjamin Bratt instead of Mr. Kosovo, well, maybe, just maybe, it’s to J. Daniel rather than M. Albright or A. Greenspan that he turns, and the next morning there’s just enough semi-tumescent desperation in the afterbuzz to prompt a boy to hit on the help. A great many of the world’s ills at any given time can be attributed to the desire of one person to know what another person looks like without any clothes, and nothing intensifies or facilitates that kind of fantasy, or works more efficiently to convert that kind of fantasy into behavioral imperative, than alcohol. Indeed, of the winged creatures who lead us on to ill-judged carnal connection, I’d guess that the Famous Grouse has been more effective than all the cupids ever painted by Titian or Fragonard.
People who live in glass decanters, or did, probably shouldn’t throw stones. I’m just speculating. If Mr. Clinton drinks, who can blame him? Who can blame any of us? It’s no better out this way, certainly. The President only has one Milosevic to deal with, but we have two Della Feminas, now that Jerry’s whelp Jodi has produced some kind of guidebook laying out the back roads and other “insider” dope. I have to say I do not understand why people who claim to love a place try so hard to ruin it. Is the pull of the Warholian quarter-hour so irresistible? Apparently.
Over in Southampton, the surf in the social teacup is running higher than usual because someone leaked the Beach Club’s list of proposed new members to the New York Post . This is what happens when clubs cease to be clubs and become a kind of socioeconomic trophy or a function of commission or stipendiary relationships between those on the inside and those who want in. It’s sad and stupid and will cause some inconvenience and very likely some social injustice, but emblematic of a value system that holds that what’s yours is mine if I can make a literal or figurative buck on it.
What odd times these are. The British are selling their bullion; Amazon.com Inc. has paid, according to The Wall Street Journal , $250 million in stock for a database-cum-tracking business that in its last fiscal year grossed $500,000 and made a loss. Nothing makes sense. I will cultivate my garden. Artie Gimlet has gone to the Adirondacks. Summer is here. God help us, every one!