This is the season the French call ” la Rentrée, ” when everyone returns from their holidays rested up and pepped up and rarin’ to go for the fall season. For most people, it seems to have been a dreary, fleeting summer. I can’t recall ever hearing the words “I hate summer” drop from so many lips; a couple of friends I’ve spoken with have even declared the intention to sell their country places. It was that bad.
Personally, summer here in Festung Dumbo was pretty good. Francis and I played for the first time in our golf club’s father-son tournament, an event that has enriched entire generations of Freudian psychologists, and we had both a good time and acquitted ourselves honorably. It’s hard to imagine that, when we started this paper and this column, my youngest son was a 1 year-old in a crib, and now he’s an eighth-grader.
As reported, I watched not one single second of either convention, to which I can proudly add that Survivor has also gone 100 percent unwatched in this household. Relentless self-examination of the sort to which your correspondent is notoriously prone has so far revealed not even trace feelings of cultural deprivation or inadequacy, although I must confess that when I read about Survivor in The New York Times –a paper whose degeneration is now headlong–I experienced the same utterly out-of-it lack of understanding that I associate with freshman physics at Yale.
Speaking of which, I owe my Harvard friends an apologetic asterisk on my screed of a fortnight ago. People in glass houses are scarcely entitled to throw stones, a caveat which surely applies to criticism of any other seat of learning by alumni of the college that graduated David Gergen, a man who, for this reporter, is the very physiognomic (as well as intellectual and moral) incarnation of the word “dickhead.” Accurate I may have been in my deprecation of Fair Harvard, but I am also quite aware that if you hurl the word “Gergen” at me after the fact, the way one brandishes a cross at a vampire, I am honor-bound to fold up like a cheap suit. Charlie Rose once asked me why I wrote so critically about his show. The answer is simple: Any program that gives air time to the likes of David Gergen doesn’t deserve the air time it has to give.
My fellow Yalie, of course, epitomizes just about everything that is wrong with politics, politicians and the political media in this country. Which isn’t to say that the run-up to the election won’t be lively. I am keenly interested to see whether Al Gore will say the same things to (or at ) W. that he’s been telling his friends he meant to say to Bill Clinton the past eight years if there’d only been time. But either Mr. Gore was tied up at some Buddhist fund-raiser or Mr. Clinton was being given head in the Oval Office, so what with one thing or another, the Vice President was denied the opportunity to take the firm–not to mention charming and witty–moral stance he and his apologists keep assuring us he would have taken with his boss if there’d only been … well, you know what I mean.
Right now, just as many of us expected, W. is in full twerp mode, with his wisecrack reflex completely out of control. The latter often belies deep-seated insecurity, the sense of always being a little boy in a room full of grownups, which in most situations can be managed around. But if the room in question is the Oval Office, it does give one pause. Governing Texas ain’t the same; the Lone Star State is run by a dozen big law firms and their corporate clients, who are shrewd enough to realize that a certain base amount of socioeconomic decency is necessary to keep the populace sullen but not mutinous.
Not that Mr. Bush is entirely without weapons. For one thing, I would be very amused to see what would happen if he were to ask, “Mr. Vice President, do you think your military experience will prove useful in managing the Middle Eastern war your Vice President is likely to try to get us involved in?” I really would like to hear what charming, witty response Mr. Gore comes up with to that question. He might even drop to his knees in search of divine guidance, which seems to be the style these days, although this might be a politically tricky gambit for one closely identified with an administration that has made the assumption of a kneeling position its ethical trademark.
As things now stand, I find myself unable to vote for either Presidential candidate. I will pull the lever for Rick Lazio and go on from there. It isn’t merely anti-Hillary sentiment that animates this feeling, although that’s a large part of it. The peckerwood corruptibility that is Clintonism must needs be expunged from our national (as opposed to local) political life, and the time to take a stand is now. If we do so, future generations may refer to “voting booths along the Hudson” with the same fervor generations of young Americans were once brought up to say “Bunker Hill” or “Gettysburg.”
My guess is that, ultimately, this election is going to turn on taxes and tax equity. I suspect that economic polarization–the “left behind” syndrome–might prove to be a livelier issue than the pundits think. Especially with the advent of a generation which believes in nothing except money, and is therefore likely to prove combustible if the current fat economic situation should waste away and the cherished myths of postmodern, central-bank-driven capitalism come apart at the seams, as I think they well might in the next President’s term.
Years ago, in Funny Money , his riveting 1985 account of the failure of Penn Square Bank, New Yorker writer Mark Singer made the following observation: “To hatch and execute a successful disaster demands a sustained level of competence and dependability that is, by definition, unavailable to an average group of would-be conspirators. That is why calculated calamities are rare achievements and why, no matter what many of us often insist on believing, thieving conspiracies can almost never be built to last. Coincidence, meanwhile–four vehicles without headlights, all traveling at different speeds, converging on an unmarked intersection at dusk–gets less credit than it deserves. Entropy, random natural chaos, innate stupidity–all are important sources and forces of destruction, and all are quite underrated.”
If you reverse the voltage of Mr. Singer’s words, changing them from negative to positive, substituting “boom” for “disaster,” say, or “prosperity” for “destruction,” and apply them to the economic record of this country over the past two decades, you are left with much to think about. I have reached the age when two other existential verities have stuck in mind and craw: 1) nothing stays the same, and 2) change takes longer than you think it should or expect it will.
As long as the dollar retains the hegemony conferred on it by OPEC a quarter-century ago and sustained by Japan’s utter mismanagement of its financial affairs, this country’s prosperity, taken all in all, should continue. We will not be brought to book for our indulgences by any other nation or economic collective. It will take another painful decade, at a minimum–if ever–for the managers of the Euro to implement what the market is demanding before the new currency can achieve the market acceptance it would appear to deserve statistically: uniform structural and behavioral reform, across borders, across cultural divides.
But politics is another matter. Because we have to come to believe in the absolute efficacy of prosperity as a social and political nostrum, we tend to discount the possibility of sunny-day upheavals. The Dow Jones may be near its all-time high, which is comforting; the level of national irritation certainly is, which is not. We are over-niched, over-Netted, overworked; we’re ideologically dehydrated, we’re put-upon, we don’t get it. In what we are confidently told is an era of low inflation, everything costs more than we can afford. For many, life has become just one big airport check-in line, a pathway to contumely, frustration, aggravation. A surfeit of choice has made us over-reliant on brand names that are less and less trustworthy. Nothing seems to work as it should. Even Nature seems to have it in for us.
Why this should be so in the midst of affluence is confusing. On a certain scale, confusion can serve as midwife to catastrophe. Just ask any lemming you know.