Gore Inherits the MTV Culture War

Jittery and wild-eyed, John Leguizamo looked out at the Radio City Music Hall audience. It was Sept. 14, about halfway through the Democratic National Committee’s benefit concert for the Al Gore-Joe Lieberman ticket, and Mr. Leguizamo was about to make headlines. He glanced over at Row AA, center stage, where the Vice President, his wife Tipper Gore, his daughters Karenna and Sarah Gore, Senator Joseph Lieberman and his wife Hadassah were diplomatically dispersed among the event’s chairmen, Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner, Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein and VH-1 chief John Sykes. “I’m psyched to be here tonight. I’ve never done anything political,” he said, “and I hope I won’t be sorry.”

A faint laugh rose up from the audience. Then, according to Mr. Leguizamo’s publicist, Ina Treciokas, the actor and performance artist abandoned the D.N.C.-approved script. Quick-tongued New Yorker that he is, Mr. Leguizamo began riffing, and in doing so, he provided the flash powder for what could be the first culture war of the new century.

“I’m absolutely thrilled that Al Gore picked Joe Lieberman for Vice President,” Mr. Leguizamo told the crowd, adding eventually that Mr. Gore “is operating under a very old, wise principle that New York women have known for years. It takes a Jew to lick Bush.”

The response that followed sounded like half of the crowd had been punched hard in their guts, prompting the other half to laugh at them. Then, like steam, hisses of disapproval rose off the dying roar.

Mr. Leguizamo paced the stage. Uncertainty darted in and out of his gaze. He was being challenged now. His street sense would not let him fold. “Oh, come on,” he fired back, “you’re acting like Republicans.”

Actually, the reaction was pretty mild compared to the Republicans’ real response, delivered through G.O.P. Vice Presidential candidate Dick Cheney’s wife, Lynne Cheney, during a Sept. 17 appearance on a Fox News Channel program.

Ms. Cheney complained that there were “scatological remarks about people who are concerned about this issue,” and that there were “X-rated jokes told with the Vice President of the United States sitting there, with the Vice President hopeful sitting there.” And, added Ms. Cheney, “it’s quite amazing to me that they would go to such an event, a real X-rated event, on the very day that they are condemning people for marketing X-rated materials to our kids.”

Ms. Cheney was picking up where she had left off a day before the concert, when she had spoken at a Senate hearing that had been arranged to discuss a newly released Federal Trade Commission report which concluded that adult-oriented entertainment was often marketed to teenagers and children. Mr. Gore and Mr. Lieberman responded to the F.T.C. report by devising a plan that gave Hollywood six months to get its act together or face regulation. But when eight of the entertainment-company executives invited to attend the Senate hearing did not show, Washington went on the attack–and though the discussion was supposed to be limited to marketing, the criticisms often extended to content, with Ms. Cheney specifically taking Mr. Weinstein to task for not showing up, and for the film Kids . This, even though Miramax–no doubt sensitive to Mr. Weinstein’s active role in the Gore-Lieberman campaign–had responded to the F.T.C. report by rushing out voluntary revisions of its marketing guidelines.

Then, hours before the D.N.C. concert, Republican National Committee chairman Jim Nicholson stood in front of Radio City Music Hall and accused the Gore-Lieberman ticket of hypocrisy for taking a stand against Hollywood then taking money from such show-business guys as Messrs. Weinstein, Sykes and Wenner.

In these NC-17 days, “X-rated” is a term that conjures up the 70’s, Marilyn Chambers, and, by association, the stiff, uncomfortable Nixon administration. And in using that term no less than three times to describe the D.N.C. concert, Ms. Cheney, for better or worse, appeared to be recycling the stale but, thanks to William Safire, more clever strategy of Spiro Agnew’s reference to the “effete corps of impudent snobs” in the media who were opposing the Vietnam War. Or maybe she was channeling Dan Quayle’s criticism of the “cultural elite” who saw no problem with Murphy Brown being a single mother.

Whatever it was, Ms. Cheney seemed to be trying out the latest version of portraying the media as a worthwhile, glamorous enemy–a gambit with which they have a history of tremendous success.

Except: that was then and this is now. And now is a vertically integrated, entertainment-oriented world, where, as VH-1’s Mr. Sykes said, “the MTV generation are becoming parents.” It is also where one of MTV’s ground-floor guys, Robert Pittman, is about to become the chief operating officer of AOL-Time Warner, which will place him in a considerably powerful position in the Fourth Estate as overseer of CNN and the house that Henry Luce built, Time Inc. Now is also a place where Viacom owns both MTV, which has helped Eminem’s current, controversial album sell more than 6 million copies, and William Paley’s Tiffany Network, CBS, home of Survivor .

And, ironically, now is a time where the notably conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch, on whose Fox News Channel Ms. Cheney made her “X-rated” comments, appeared on the Gore-Lieberman concert program as one of the event’s vice chairs. Mr. Murdoch’s spokesman, Howard Rubenstein, confirmed that Mr. Murdoch’s News Corporation was a “major contributor” to the event, although he said he did not know how much that major contribution totaled. Then he explained why: “News Corp. is not a hard-line right-wing, monolithic organization. They’re a company with diverse opinions. This reflects the company’s diverse opinions,” said Mr. Rubenstein, adding: “News Corp. has contributed to both Republicans and Democrats.”

So, while a number of the Democrats involved in the Sept. 14 concert agree that maybe Mr. Leguizamo’s shtick crossed the line of taste, they can’t quite square what happened that night with Ms. Cheney’s comments. Robert Zimmerman, a D.N.C. member and a co-chair of the event told The Observer : “The off-color comments at Radio City were not relevant to anyone except a few people from the far Right who wanted to exploit it. I don’t think anyone’s going to hold the Gore-Lieberman team accountable for anyone who showed poor taste at the event.” Mr. Zimmerman also said that he suspected that Ms. Cheney was trying to “exploit the fears and tensions that people have” and “to create a cultural warfare.” And, referring to Ms. Cheney’s leading the National Endowment for the Humanities during the Reagan and Bush administrations, he added, “as off-color as some of the comments were at Radio City Hall, I don’t think that anything is as obscene as Lynne Cheney’s record in the performing arts community or in America’s culture.”

Rolling Stone ‘s Mr. Wenner, who spoke to The Observer by phone on Sept. 19, opined that if Ms. Cheney “thinks the concert was an X-rated show, then she’s someone from the frontier circa 1890. And probably even further back than that.” Mr. Wenner explained that, “There was one thing that crossed the line in terms of … what you do in public in front of a sitting Vice President, which was [John] Leguizamo’s [remark], but all it was was tasteless. It really wasn’t X-rated. And it wasn’t funny.” Through his spokeswoman, Ms. Treciokas, Mr. Leguizamo declined to comment on the matter. “We’re not going to further the Republican agenda,” said Ms. Treciokas. She added that “The Democratic party should not be implicated in this. John is a New York comedian and he went off-book. It’s subject to interpretation what one person thinks is funny.”

Indeed, according to Mr. Wenner, who was sitting a seat away from the Vice President, Mr. Gore “did not appreciate [Mr. Leguizamo’s] performance. I can tell you that.” But he added, “The rest was fine.”

The Post had reported that Bette Midler’s performance had caused some winces, and at one point, the video cameras that were projecting the event onto a large video screen for people in the cheap seats caught Mrs. Gore at a moment when she seemed to be rolling her eyes. But Mr. Wenner disputed this, saying that, after the show, Mrs. Gore immediately sought out Ms. Midler to tell her how much she enjoyed the show. “I paid close attention to what Bette was doing and went through her dialogue with her early in the day,” said Mr. Wenner. “I mean, Lieberman leaned over to me and said, ‘I loved that.’ He was laughing his head off, first, at Bette in general, but [then] at her specific routine, which was barbed at him but in a very gentle, nicely humored funny way.”

Anyone who followed Mr. Leguizamo, as Ms. Midler did, would have seemed gentle in comparison, especially since Mr. Leguizamo introduced the performer as someone who had “appeared in more bathhouses than Ed Koch.” And, after his subsequent joke, which dealt with the origin of Mr. Koch’s “How Am I Doin'” slogan, Mr. Leguizamo proclaimed that he loved Mr. Koch so much, “I’d let him do me!”

But Ms. Midler calmed things down by coming out and performing “The Rose” before she started getting saucy. Stalking the stage, wearing a Jabberjaw grin, Ms. Midler noted that there were a lot of politicians in the house. “It’s not like the old days,” she said, though. “You know they’re very well behaved nowadays. In the old days a girl could count on getting hit on by Bob Packwood. I kinda miss those days.”

After the rim shot, Ms. Midler continued, “I know you’re all relying on me to do Bush and Dick jokes, but I want you all to know that I would never ever want to embarrass the Vice President and his running mate under any circumstances, even though I recently took a flying leap into the … vat of moral decay known as prime-time network television.” The crowd offered up a knowing laugh and Ms. Midler’s smile broadened. “Yes, Joe Lieberman is smiling at me now,” she said, “but just wait until sweeps. He’s going to be coming after me with a broom. They’re re-editing my pilot so that the word ‘rat’ appears across my bosom hundreds of times during the episode. That’s sure to guarantee me tons and tons of press. Yes, those major-league assholes really love that.”

Ms. Midler tried to move on, but the crowd caught her allusion to George W. Bush’s remark about New York Times reporter Adam Clymer, and reacted enthusiastically.

Ms. Midler beamed. “I’m so excited at the prospect of electing Al and Joe,” she said. “They’re going to roll up their sleeves and dig us out of this cultural morass that we’ve been in for so many years. I know you find this very hard to believe, but I personally cannot wait for the day when it is socially unacceptable to tell this one in public.”

Then she proceeded to tell three mildly bawdy jokes. The best of which was about the john who complained to a prostitute named Clementine about her $100 fee by noting that “for heaven’s sake, the Dutch bought the entire island of Manhattan for $24.”

“That’s right, replied Clementine, but Manhattan just lies there.” Ms. Midler also did the one about making a pass at the grocery store bag boy by telling him, in the parking lot, that she had an “itchy booty.” The reply: “I’m sorry lady, I don’t know one Japanese car from another.”

Aside from Mr. Leguizamo’s comments, that was as X-rated as things got, and quite frankly, if you’d polled anyone in the room that night, Ms. Midler would have come away as the pinnacle of the evening when it came to entertainment. Which is why Mr. Wenner dismissed Ms. Cheney’s comments as “just opportunistic gamesmanship, the level of sidewalk press conference sniping.” He added that “the signal they don’t take that very seriously is they gave it to the wife of the vice presidential candidate to blurt out. If they were really trying to make an issue out of it, it would be coming from George or from Cheney himself.”

The gathering of three of the Eagles, Don Henley, Timothy B. Schmit and Glenn Frey, was another high point, but, truth be told, the trio’s three-song set, which included Mr. Henley’s “Boys of Summer,” as well as “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and “Desperado” evoked a sexy, nostalgic mood that seemed more in tune with Bill Clinton than Mr. Gore. (Could this have had something to do with the video cameraperson–

what team were they on anyway?–catching Hillary Clinton looking like a dead mackerel during their performance.) The Eagles may be serious old men now, consigned to the VH-1 playlist, but you look in their eyes and you know they once did all the decadent things that rock ‘n’ rollers did. And if MTV had come along a decade earlier, they would have been all over it.

In that sense, you could say that Mr. Clinton was the MTV president, and Mr. Gore, if he’s elected, will be the VH-1 candidate. The group that followed Ms. Midler, the geezer brigade of Crosby Stills & Nash, seemed more Mr. Gore’s speed as did Paul Simon and his very large band, which looked like Mr. Simon had picked them up at the U.N. cafeteria. They knew their stuff, but took things a bit too seriously.

There were a few moments at the beginning of the concert when Mr. Gore gave the impression that he and Mr. Lieberman were running in a post-ironic age. One came when Mr. Gore gave the crowd the Top 10 list he just had read on that day’s taping of Late Night with David Letterman . The subject was rejected campaign slogans, and number four was “With Joe Lieberman on the ticket, you get all kinds of fun new days off,” adding “Joe and I will work for you 24-6.” The laughter that followed was a big release. Mr. Gore, or his daughter the comedy writer, or Mr. Letterman’s writers, had hit the perfect pitch with that joke, one that said, we’ve all been around long enough in this country to get it .

The big finale came when all of the participants–Julia Roberts and Matt Damon and Salma Hayek joined all of the musicians onstage to sing to the Gores and the Liebermans, CSN’s “Teach Your Children.” “I was just so touched by that last moment,” said Mr. Wenner. “This rock ‘n’ roll generation assembled on the stage delivering this message to the candidate … Because he’s like them. He’s that same age, same generation, same outlook. To me, there was a real importance to the show, beyond the money, which is obviously the paramount thing, but with this message that these artists as a group stand for something. For a set of values. And that the Vice President stands with them.”

Then again, save for Lenny Kravitz and maybe Sheryl Crow, and people like Ms. Roberts and Mr. Damon, a lot of the artists up on that stage are perceived as dinosaurs, who are in the process of giving up their last antediluvian roar. The new kids on the block, the people racking up platinum albums today, like Eminem and Rage Against The Machine, Limp Bizkit and even that little Lolita Britney Spears were not present. And whether Mr. Gore and Mr. Lieberman and his supporters like it or not, those artists are the controversial future. And their royalties are funding Mr. Gore’s royalty.

No wonder, Jimmy Buffett–right before the final number–told the crowd, “Thank you for our phony baloney jobs.” That was then, however, and Mr. Gore is campaigning for now, a moment he may not quite fully comprehend as well as those who fêted him at Radio City Music Hall.

Gore Inherits the MTV Culture War