He’s J.B., No. 1. Hillary’s a Sleaze and You’re Nobody

I am talking on NPR, the Chris Lydon show. The subject is Hillary Clinton–should she run, what will happen? Everybody and their pet cockroach has already expressed an opinion on the subject, but why not unburden myself of any last crumbs of opinion I might have hidden in the recesses of my mind?

Anyway, radio is a seductive media sister. You speak from home into the phone as if there were no audience, but you know that out there someone, lots of someones, are wishing you dead. For some perverse reason, this is mildly exciting and habit-forming. You feel as if you’ve dropped a stone down, down into the Grand Canyon; sooner or later, it will hit bottom. I did hit bottom on Chris Lydon’s show. Not his fault, not his fault at all.

Here’s what happened. The quotes that follow are accurate to the best of my memory. I was told that James Bennet, who wrote the piece in The New York Times Magazine on Hillary, would also be on the show. I was interested in what he had to say. The piece was excellent, the reporting fine, the journalist to be congratulated. We begin, nothing much is said, but that’s par for the course.

The tone is civil, the conversation conversational. Suddenly, Mr. Lydon says that joining us from New York will be Jimmy, and I thought he said Jimmy Rosen. Does he mean Jeffrey Rosen, I think to myself, who writes for The New Republic and The New Yorker ? Jimmy who? The disembodied voice begins. It has a fierce Brooklyn accent. The voice is loud and full, sucking in the air space, angry and pushing, pulsing through my skull. We are no longer at the Plaza having tea. Where the hell are we?

He begins by calling Hillary Clinton a sleaze like her husband. He says that New York doesn’t need their kind of moral slime. He blasts and blusters and rails. I interrupt. “Wait a minute,” I say, “she could be our Eleanor Roosevelt.” Jimmy, last name still unknown to me, howls, “Don’t interrupt me.” I wait a polite beat or two. He says the Clintons have started this insane war. They are bombing and killing. He screams. I interrupt again. “What would you do about the refugees?” I ask. “What about Rwanda?” he counters. He says some impolite things about the Clinton’s warmaking. I object. Jimmy the disembodied voice says, “Who are you anyway to attack me? You’re a nothing, an absolute nothing.” “Well,” I say, “who are you, some right-wing Republican?”

“You don’t know who I am?” he yells, wounded to the bone. “You nothing you. I’ve never heard of you. I won’t be attacked by a nothing,” he yells again. “I’m a lifelong Democrat,” he shouts.

Chris wants to help me out, “His wife is a prominent Democrat in city politics,” he says. Oh my God, Ronnie Eldridge, Jimmy Breslin. No, he’s not a right-wing Republican. How could I have made such a mistake? Oops. Jimmy Rosen was a figure of my imagination, an old boyfriend perhaps.

I laugh. This is embarrassing. On the other hand, I am still confused. Why is a lifelong Democrat attacking the Clintons, as if he were William Bennett or Tom DeLay? “Bill Clinton has no relation to Eleanor Roosevelt,” says Jimmy. “He cut Aid to Dependent Children.” Yes, I say (the last word isn’t in on the pros and cons of that, I think to myself), “but he was pushed by budgets, he had to compromise. The Republican push to welfare reform was–” I try. Jimmy blasts again, “His bombs are killing innocent children.”

Mr. Lydon, I say, I have to go, I have to go to the dentist. This is not true. I went to the dentist last week. This is a white lie. I hang up. Forgive me, NPR. Jimmy’s high-decibel fury sounds like Bob Grant, like Rush Limbaugh, like Louis Farrakhan orating on a street corner. In some strange way, they are blood brothers and I’m still asking them if they want one lump or two as the china cup rattles in its saucer. It makes me sigh. The airwaves are poisoned, my eardrums ache. Brooklynese rings through my head. For the first time in my life, I don’t find it charming. I’m confused.

Why would a Democrat, man of the little people, call someone a nothing because he hadn’t heard of him or her? Isn’t that supposed to be an upper-class snobbery? Why does he think I’m nothing just because he hasn’t met me at a fashionable party or a high-price-ticket benefit event? Isn’t he speaking for, not yelling at, the man in the street who I must be if I am a nameless nobody? That’s problem No. 1.

Problem No. 2: Why is the right and the left in such agreement? Jimmy despises the Clintons just as if he were Henry Hyde. Jimmy has brought out all his Vietnam War slogans, give peace a chance and so on, and he has dumped them in Republican hands. The world has turned truly upside down. Jimmy, whose heart was bleeding for blacks in the South, for naked Vietnamese kids, suddenly is unmoved by the strained faces of the Kosovars pouring through the mountain passes.

All that matters to him is to get the Clintons. But what is it? Did Jimmy Breslin never make a moral error? Is his life so saintly and blameless that he really can call the Clintons, Hillary too, a sleaze? Did Mrs. Clinton not invite the Breslins to the White House for tea? Surely Jimmy knows that nobody in power is clean as the driven snow. Why the self-righteous tone? Do the people of America really sneer so easily at each other?

Well, radio is performance art. The idea (except on NPR) is to heat everything up so that the audience gets a rush. Jimmy is a hot act, but is this political dialogue, political thought? I like passion in my politics. So does everybody. That’s Al Gore’s problem. It was Michael Dukakis’ problem, too. But something else here–the Clinton hatred that Jimmy expressed–comes from the left but ends up in agreement, not mild at all, with the right. Where do I stand then in these, the constantly shifting political sands? Certainly with the nobody and the anybody and the everyone who is not Jimmy Breslin or a brand name, like Charmin or Kellogg’s or Raid.

Turning the volume down, we have to admit that if Jimmy speaks for a crowd of Jimmys, not only will the rest of New York go deaf but Hillary will have a very hard time. But perhaps Jimmy is more like the monster who used to live in my childhood closet. If I turn the light on and open the door, he just melts away and, putting my thumb in my mouth, I can sleep in peace.

He’s J.B., No. 1. Hillary’s a Sleaze and You’re Nobody