Everywhere you looked around the Four Seasons restaurant on Aug. 24, there were the liberal media elite and its well-groomed lions: Tom Brokaw. Mario Cuomo. Eve Ensler. Frank Rich. Morley Safer. Arthur Sulzberger Jr. Joe Lelyveld. They’d gathered to toast Maureen Dowd and her new book, Bushworld: Enter at Your Own Risk . Their presence may have signaled a tacit endorsement of regime change, but this crowd had more in common with Republicans from the River Oaks section of Houston than the MoveOn.org types calling for the head of the President across town at the Hammerstein Ballroom that same evening.
I made my way through the party, asking if anyone had anything nice to say about my President, George W. Bush.
“I wouldn’t be able to respond to that,” said David Brown, the distinguished Hollywood producer.
“I could go on and on, but not about liking him,” said his wife, Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown, still super-sexy at age 82. “Something I could say that’s never discussed is that he’s nice-looking. He looks nice. He doesn’t have a tummy. He’s in good physical shape. He’s good-looking. And he doesn’t have a tummy.”
“You’ve made your statement,” said her husband.
“I’m thinking, I’m thinking,” said saucy gossip columnist Liz Smith. “Like Jack Benny-‘I’m thinking, I’m thinking!’ Cynthia, this gentlemen wants to know if you can say anything nice about the President-since you used to know him?”
Nothing popped into designer Cynthia McFadden’s mind.
“At least he likes the right kind of food-you know, trashy Southern comfort,” Ms. Smith said.
“George W. Bush has a wonderful Dad,” said former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who still looks fresh.
“He likes Lyle Lovett-that’s a good thing about George Bush,” said New York Times reporter Abby Ellin.
“I don’t think I want to play this game,” said Vagina Monologues playwright Eve Ensler. “Because you know what? I’m really interested in transforming consciousness.”
“He seems to be an open guy,” said former Times columnist and executive editor Abe Rosenthal, who’s known for being really smart. “He also gave me a medal once, which is very good.”
His son Andrew Rosenthal, a deputy editorial-page editor at The Times, was by the seafood bar. I asked about W.
“He’s funny,” he said. “I haven’t been around him all that much; I’ve met him a half-a-dozen times. I wouldn’t say that I know him. He’s in charge. He seems to be genial. Everybody says he’s the guy you want to go bowling with, or something like that. I don’t bowl.”
Did he think Ms. Dowd and the President might get along if they spent quality time together?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I know his father likes her a lot. Sort of obsessed with her.”
“Uh,” said Morley Safer, the venerable 60 Minutes correspondent. “Good hair. How ’bout that?”
“I do have nice things to say,” said Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., whose nickname is Pinch. “Many things. Many things!” But Pinch was on his way out and didn’t have time to talk.
Investor and amusing financial columnist James Cramer was waiting on a gin drink.
“I’ll say something nice about Bush,” he said. “I think he’s got a smashing good wife. I think the wife is totally legit, and she makes me like him more than I should. The wife impresses me as being someone that all of us should have at one time or another found ourselves with …. I am in awe of her. But I wish she had not said that stem-cell crap .
“I wasn’t a Hillary fan at all,” he added. “I’ve read the various books about Laura Bush, and I just think that she’s an exceptionally good mom. How could he be such a bad guy if he married such a good mom?”
I asked for something nice about the President himself.
“I will say this,” said Mr. Cramer. “I think the President genuinely believes that if you cut the taxes of rich people, they will take that money and do good things with it. And God love him, I know I have. But I’m the only guy I know who has.”
So will he vote for Mr. Bush?
“I don’t know yet. My wife is raising money for Kerry, so it’s very hard. I may choose peace at any price and just vote for Kerry, just to be able to get my goddamn wife off my back!”
“I’ve been a Bush supporter for many, many years,” said the New York Post ‘s elegant Cindy Adams. “I think he’s handsome; it’s nice that we have a handsome President. I think he has courage; I think he did what somebody might have been scared to do. I think he is a good father and a good husband. He looks great in clothes. He looks terrific in jeans. I’m a dog lover. He’s always schlepping along his Scottie, Barney. He doesn’t have an aide carrying the dog; he carries the dog himself. So I love him for that.”
I asked Ms. Adams if she was bothered by the content of Ms. Dowd’s Bush-tweaking book.
“The only thing that bothers me about Maureen Dowd is that she’s such a good writer and she’s so damn good-looking,” Ms. Adams said, “and she wears low-cut dresses with her things hanging out and looks terrific. That’s the only thing I resent about Maureen Dowd.”
The shy, radiant author herself was in the middle of the room.
“I think a good example of how effective Bush can be as a campaigner was on Larry King the other night,” said Ms. Dowd, recalling the moment that Mr. King asked the President about Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi dissident who sold the war to the neocons. “And Larry King says, ‘I pronounced his name wrong; you know how to pronounce it?’
“And Bush just started laughing and said, ‘If so, that’s the only word I know how to pronounce.’ It was charming.”
Ms. Dowd went on about W.: “I think it took an enormous amount of grit and discipline to start so late in life-and when his parents and his whole family were expecting Jeb to be the one who inherited his dad’s political mantle-and turn that around. And his campaign for Texas governor and his campaign for President were very disciplined, and no one thought he could do that-even a lot of people surrounding his dad. And you know, I think he’s got guts and obviously the genial quality that he showed on Larry King. I just think he got led down the wrong paths. My book is about how he should have listened to his own dad more than his surrogate dad, Dick Cheney.”
I made my way to The Times ‘ TV critic, the very pretty Alessandra Stanley. “He’s an incredibly good son,” she said. “He’s an incredibly loyal son. And a good husband.
“You have to admire many, many things about him,” she continued. “A trivial one is how he has mastered brilliantly being, you know, an aristocrat. He can laugh at your pain without guilt. I admire that in a man.”
Dan Rather, the eminent CBS Evening News anchor, was outside.
“I have plenty of good things to say about the President,” Mr. Rather said. “He’s still growing. He’s still learning. He’s good company. I don’t want to pad my part-I haven’t been around him a lot-but he’s the kind of person I at least wouldn’t mind sitting around and having a beer with, whether you agree or disagree with him.
“I think he’s good company,” Mr. Rather continued. “He sticks by people, some people will say to a fault-I’m not among those people-but he sticks by people. There’s a Texas saying: ‘He’s a good man to ride the river with.’ It comes from the times when Indians-now we say Native Americans-but the Indians would frequently ambush along the river, because everybody had to get
Mr. Rather added he wasn’t alluding to the war in Iraq.
“I mean it on a personal level,” he said. “For example, Don Rumsfeld-he’s stuck by him. He’s stuck by any number of people. Stuck with George Tenet, at least up to a point. I’m just saying loyalty is an important trait on a personal level.”
Back inside, I spotted some liberal writers from The New Republic magazine: Jacob Weisberg and Leon Wieseltier.
“He has a lovely smirk ,” said Mr. Weisberg.
“He’s vindictive about the security of the United States,” said Mr. Wieseltier. “Otherwise, he’s stupid .”