The Unquiet Americans

“It’s a topic of conversation over every meal,” said Betsy McCaughey Ross, the former lieutenant governor of New York. “It’s No. 1 on the list.” “I’ve seen dinners break down over it,” said author Erica Jong. “You really know it’s going to be bad if they do the dinging-the-side-of-the-wineglass with their spoon,” said Christopher Buckley, the editor of Forbes FYI . “People react the way Quasimodo reacted to the ringing of the bells: ‘Oh shit, here it comes.'”

The topic, of course, is the war.

If the Bush administration’s war march toward Iraq has split the United Nations Security Council and NATO, it has also started to shatter the social and emotional unity that New Yorkers embraced post–Sept. 11. Until recently, one could say that a default anti-war view sufficed: There was an assumption that everyone could agree to disagree with George W. Bush. But in the past few weeks, that gentle dissent has become louder, leaving those whose anti-war feelings were in the lukewarm range now suddenly standing out in the cold. Try as one might, hanging on to a “principled ambivalence” puts you at risk for cocktail-party terror at every turn. And if you support Mr. Bush’s position and speak out in favor of invasion, as New Yorker editor David Remnick did recently in his magazine’s pages, you’ll stand out as a strange artifact, the lone Bulgarian at the dinner table.

“The first time it hit me, I was at cocktail party Tina Brown gave for Arianna Huffington’s book,” said Steve Brill, Newsweek contributing editor. “All the toasts came back to war and how horrible Bush is. My wife said, ‘This room is so unlike the rest of the country. It’s like being on a different planet.'”

Mr. Brill-who said he leans pro-war, with “issues of timing”-said he’d felt like a bit of a pariah recently.

“Listen, I don’t have any trouble telling people my opinion in the middle of a conversation, but it seems it’s become really, really fashionable to say it’s an awful thing,” he said.

Indeed, the anti-war social hum is so loud, some people have found themselves considering the other side, if only to satisfy their inner contrarian. Radio host and novelist Kurt Andersen-who said his views on invading Iraq lie somewhere “between the ‘tomorrow’ of George Bush and the ‘never’ of Jacques Chirac”-said, “I had to consciously suppress my anti- anti-war feelings. Being pissed off by anti-war idiots is not a reason to be for the war.”

One thing is certain: There’s no avoiding the subject.

“Personally,” said Mr. Buckley, “my idea of a good time is not a screaming argument over the crème brûlée over the Iraqi civilian casualties. On the other hand, it’s a dead mouse on the living-room floor if you don’t-a dead mouse the size of California.”

A major flash point in the citywide dialogue was the anti-war march near the United Nations on Feb. 15. “Are you going to the march?” became rote in any conversation that lasted more than 30 seconds, and often became a chilling “Are you with us or against us?” litmus test. That weekend, you’d have thought not a single soul on the isle of Manhattan was for war.

“My two daughters are 8 and did not want to march. They’re the only people who were not vociferously against it,” said author George Plimpton, who called an Iraq war “lunacy.”

“Everybody’s anti-going-to-Iraq,” said Elaine Kaufman, owner of Elaine’s. “You just hear all the buzz around here. Nobody wants to go to war.”

At least not in public. Among her liberal set, “the peer pressure is just so intense,” said Marisa Bowe, a writer who works at a left-leaning nonprofit organization. But, she said, “after Bush’s State of the Nation, I realized I can’t really rule out the fact that he might be right, even as much as I think he’s a crook. As much as it is entertaining to bash him, it is scary at the same time, because which consequences are scarier: him being right or him being wrong?”

Ms. Bowe, who described herself as generally against the war, said that toying with her tiny bit of doubt felt “almost naughty.”

“I think there’s a desire to not be ambivalent,” said Noah Feldman, an assistant professor at the New York University School of Law. “If you’re not sufficiently anti-war, then people will say, ‘What are you, a dupe?’ People will say, ‘Obviously, it’s all about oil’ when it’s not. They just want to have an opinion.”

The war debate is strikingly personal for New Yorkers, most of whom live with the awareness that, war or no war, New York City will be targeted-either by terrorists further inflamed by a U.S. war on Iraq, or by terrorists supplied with weapons from a Saddam Hussein who is allowed to remain in power.

“Considering the terror alerts, people are really, really on edge,” said Doug Pepper, a senior editor at Crown Publishing who edits right-wing personality Ann Coulter. “Talking about it in polite company, people are on edge-so when you bring it up, they’re going to respond even more viscerally to the whole thing. You have one of these discussions, and then you walk through Grand Central and you think there could be a suicide bomber. It’s a personal issue-it’s about your safety and your own way of life.”

For all the anti-war ruckus, there’s been a notable lack of anti-war talk among elected officials and those in power.

“My crowd is blood-hungry,” said author Gay Talese. “I go to blood-hungry dinner parties. It’s a pretty right-wing town-at least on the East Side. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a West Side Democrat anymore …. What most offends me as a New Yorker, and as a person who used to be in the newspaper business, who grew up in the 1960’s-what I’m most aware of is the lack of dissent. I do not hear anybody who is outspoken. If I was forced to identify the individual who was the contrarian in politics, I couldn’t think of one. Privately, they may think, ‘This is horrible-this war is going to kill a lot of innocent people,’ but I don’t hear, across the table, any of that. I think that we’ve been harnessed by a new definition of patriotism. The new definition of patriotism is jingoism. We are bloodhounds-we are out for blood. Never in the history of our city have we seen two buildings obliterated. Someone has to explain that. They are defining who the villains are, who the villain is, and so we do not have anybody quarreling with the White House …. There’s no Eugene McCarthy now.

“I don’t want to see a war, because I don’t think that it’s going to do anything,” Mr. Talese added. “Personally, I don’t think there’s any chance of bringing democracy to that part of the world. I don’t see that bombing the hell out of Iraq, bombing Afghanistan off the map-I don’t see any possibility of wonderful things happening, even if it is a triumph in the military sense.”

New York Republicans, of course, are accustomed to holding unfashionable opinions in Manhattan.

“Usually, I just keep my mouth shut,” said Richard Johnson, the New York Post’s Page Six columnist. “I feel like I’m being asked to perform for liberal friends. They’ve never heard any of these views; they can’t believe you would be such a heretic. It’s like having the wrong handbag.”

Jeffrey Stevenson, managing director of media banking firm Veronis Suhler Stevenson, said that while most of his business cohorts were for the war, they avoided discussing the subject directly, mostly because it’s difficult to discern who thinks what. “It’s not like sports-people don’t bring it up casually,” he said. Except, of course, if (as happened to him recently) the clients happened to be French: “They said, ‘If there’s anything you want to talk about with the war, let’s get that out of the way up front.'”

Meanwhile Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the right-wing think tank, the Manhattan Institute, is that somewhat rare breed, an anti-war Republican. Among the “pro-war fanatics” she dines with regularly, she said, “you’re confident in your opinion, but why bother when it’s a futile gesture anyway?” So she mostly keeps quiet.

“I have a friend who works at The Wall Street Journal on the editorial side,” said Ms. Mac Donald, “and he’s anti-war and he won’t even mention it, because there the unanimity is so strong.”

One sometimes gets the sense that all over the city, conversations about Iraq are flaring up, but somehow flaring out before any satisfying conclusion.

“If you’re exhausted with the conversation, you look to put a fire hose on it and put it out,” said Ken Auletta, a New Yorker staff writer who said he generally lines up behind Mr. Remnick on the war. “On the other hand, if people are saying things you think are idiotic and you haven’t had an exhausting day at the office, you kind of gleefully take them on. It can be fun.”

But just who drops the conversational bomb can be telling, said Mr. Buckley. He said he’s noticed that those who instigate the Iraq conversation have an opinion cocked and ready to fire.

“I find that people who bring it up, they tend to be people who are not in the business of opinion-giving,” he said. “If you’ve got 10 people who are all chatting happily over what are you doing this summer, or what are your kids doing in school, or the new Degas exhibit, or what is your new S.U.V., or what about the new Byron edition, and someone says, ‘What about Iraq?,’ I think it’s a desire to be an attention-getter. That’s code for, ‘Now I’m gonna tell you what I think of Iraq.’ It’s a counterfeit invitation.”

R.P. Eddy, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who was also, according to the institute’s Web site, “Director of Terrorism at the White House National Security Council” under Bill Clinton, said that in his experience, a lot of people are simply playing to the crowd.

“People want to be aligned with points of view,” he said. “Joe Smooth-Talker goes out with a bunch of girls and is all for peace. Then that same guy goes to play poker with a bunch of guys and there’s an ex-Marine there and he’s all for war. People play to their audience.”

Some audiences are tougher than others-for example, the sort of wonkish folks who might find themselves at dinner with Jim Hoge, editor of Foreign Affairs magazine. “People who know and care about the subject don’t tend to break off with conversation-closing emotional blasts,” said Mr. Hoge. “They stick at it because they’ve got facts and opinions to marshal-and do.”

There are also moments of unintended comedy. At a recent meeting of the French-American Foundation, vice chairwoman Elizabeth Fondaras, an Upper East Side hostess and socialite, tapped her glass and asked fellow board members to write letters to newspapers complaining about the rampant “French-bashing.” The chairman of the board responded with a weary, “This is not the time, Liz.”

Perhaps the oddest wrinkle in this whole serious business is that many people find that they can take either position and still feel a sense of passion about it.

“I’ve had shouting arguments on both sides,” said Mr. Andersen. “Frankly and sincerely on both sides, because of the way the other person has drawn the line. At this party the other night, I was talking to somebody who thought it was a good idea, and the other person thought it was a bad idea. I sort of weaseled my way into not having an argument with either of them.”

The ability to throw one’s glove down on either side of the argument may derive from the simple fact that when you come right down to it, no one-not even the most well-informed New Yorker-knows anything about what will happen if we invade Iraq, or what will happen if we don’t. Of course, neither do George Bush, Colin Powell, Jacques Chirac, Kofi Annan, Thomas Friedman, Maureen Dowd, Ted Koppel, George Clooney or Sheryl Crow.

“I think there’s a body that’s building of, ‘Let’s get it over with,'” said Mr. Hoge.

Once the war starts, of course, that will be a whole other conversation.

The Unquiet Americans