Jerry Della Femina would make a marvelous politician. The famed advertising mastermind seems to have a knack for composing the kind of populist, pragmatic screeds that worked oh-so-well on the campaign trail in ’04. His weekly column, “Jerry’s Ink,” published weekly in his own paper, the East Hampton Independent, contains diatribes on everything from piping plovers to gun control.
On July 27, Mr. Della Femina’s column announced, with an uncertain degree of seriousness, that he would begin racial profiling at his Hamptons restaurant, Della Femina. “Should anything untoward happen on our restaurant premises,” he wrote, “the Muslim perpetrator will be buried with one of my great Chef’s Michael Rozzi’s pork chops in his mouth.”
Later in the same piece, Mr. Della Femina went on to assert that Richard Parsons, the C.E.O. of Time Warner Cable, “must be arrested by the Feds, tortured, and executed.”
Still, the bull in a china shop isn’t too proud to make amends when he thinks he’s gone too far. When the Independent got in trouble with advertisers a few years ago for running an offensive headline about “gays,” Mr. Della Femina hired a gay of his own to pen a column for the paper. “We’re probably the only local weekly paper that has a gay columnist,” he told The Transom yesterday afternoon as he sat back on a couch in his new Flatiron office on Broadway.
What’d you do in the Hamptons this weekend?
“Just stretched my arms around—didn’t do a thing. So-so weather weekend, but I also had to go to a wedding in Rumson, N.J., so I had to drive from East Hampton to Rumson and back to East Hampton, so I took Monday off.”
How’s your newspaper going?
“It’s been great. It’s making money! We’re sort of killing the East Hampton Star. But we have an interesting concept, which is different than anything that’s been done in local newspapers—and our concept is simply that we’re going to do a tabloid front page. It’s a giveaway, so what you’re asking the reader to do is bend down and pick it up.”
A reporter named “Keith” from the New York Post interrupted on Mr. Della Femina’s cell phone. Some 30 seconds later:
What will this week’s column be about?
“This week’s was about profiling. Racial profiling.”
You did a piece on that before, right?
“Yeah, the week before I did that, and the next week I did one on my birthday. And then this one is really based on the head of the [New York chapter of the] ACLU, and the headline is ‘Why Is Donna Lieberman Trying to Get Me Killed?’ I think it’s good, because it’s important. I think it’s horrible that we are not profiling those people and instead stopping 80-year-old women getting on subways and checking them out. That’s meaningless in the long run. You can’t do anything, if you have a limited number of people, if you’re checking everybody. They stopped my grandson at the airport, and they took away his little spoon that was made of metal. His metal spoon—come on! The concept that this kid at the age of 4 was a terrorist, you know …. ”
What was the reaction to the first profiling column, “Guaranteed to Offend Everyone”?
“It did. Hahaha! It did. I get people who send me e-mails—some of them are vile, I must admit. ‘You call yourself a writer,’ the whole thing. I rarely, rarely answer them—I just answer all the good ones. My reaction is always: ‘You know, the newspaper’s free. So it’s not that you could feel that you bought it and got cheated. You bent over and picked it up …. I have no obligation to you; I owe you nothing. I owe you nothing. If you don’t think it’s funny, well, I don’t owe you to be funny. If you think it’s politically wrong, you know, I owe nothing’—and that’s a good place to be. I try to be funny, and every once in a while the paper does something that’s really meaningful in that it helps someone …. It’s really trying to become the New York Post of giveaways.”
And what’s the new profiling column about?
“The new one is really just an update on the first. It brings in the ACLU; it takes a swipe at liberal Democrats because it just seemed like fun to do. And also, the fact that I’m a Republican drives people crazy—just drives them nuts. Most of the mail comes in, and people are just frothing at the mouth.”
Have any Muslims come into your restaurant since the column came out?
“No, we haven’t seen any. I think I’ve lost the Muslim group. Hahaha!”
Was that a big group?
“I don’t even know …. They don’t drink—they can’t come in with their wives. If their wives come in, their arms are covered. It’s wrong. It’s wrong. It’s the wrong group of people.”
You had a line in there about how they should be checking people on the buses. Have you been worried when you’re on those?
“I’m worried when members of my family are on there.”
Do you think the Hamptons Jitney or Luxury Liner buses would actually be a target?
“Well, they bombed buses in London. Why don’t [the terrorists] say, ‘Jeez, this is even easier, because they don’t check that well?’ A lot of writing it that way was to make sure they started to check.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that. What’s good about it is that this column …. I get a lot of people reading it, and without exaggeration, I’ll be driving along on the street and a guy in a truck will lean his head out and say, ‘Give ’em hell!’ We reach the most powerful people out there. And I also deliver my column to 10121, which is down Park Avenue. If this was a local paper in Huntington, it would be foolish to run things like that—nothing against Huntington, it’s just that nobody’s gonna change anything.”
A lot of your columns endorse pragmatism, and at the same time you take issue with the government interfering with people’s private lives. Where do you think those two impulses come from?
“I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and I’m a great believer that you can’t have too conservative a President nor too liberal a Supreme Court. So I’m a walking contradiction. I believe that you should try to really protect people’s rights in every way, and also people should be allowed to do what they do. I mean, I don’t know if I’m a libertarian or an anarchist. I’m sort of a Reform Republican versus Orthodox. You can be anti-government—you can be a lot of things. You just can’t be in some mosque in Union City, N.J., telling guys to go out and blow us up and expect us to continue to let you do it.”
Have you ever held any political office?
“No. I ran for political office in the Hamptons once, in a war I was having with the village. I came in, there were four people running, and I came in around third. It was over my food market—they arrested me. I just wanted to go for office because I thought it would be an interesting to do.”
What did you run for?
“I ran for, uh … what was my office? This is terrible. Not only can I not remember the election, I can’t even remember which office I ran for. I ran for one of the village, uh … what’s the description? There’s the mayor and there’s the …. It’s a village-trustee kind of thing; they have about 10 of them. Something like that. The Maidstone—which is sort of the old-line WASP bastion—they got more votes out against me than anyone in the entire town.”
What did you learn from the Dunehampton secession incident and its aftermath?
“Well, they’re still voting on this thing! It’s not over. Apparently, now Sagaponack may separate, and there’s a vote on this.”
When’s the vote?
“I don’t know. My editor would know. I think rich people as revolutionaries is funny. I think a lot of the things about the Hamptons and the people are out there, it’s … it’s a good place to do a humor column.”
Weren’t you one of the people campaigning for Dunehampton?
“I was campaigning for them. But I wouldn’t be affected by it, since I’m in East Hampton. I was campaigning for them because I thought it was funny …. I wrote a column about how they would march on the Candy Kitchen, which is a local luncheonette. To me, it was less about how I felt about Dunehampton and more about how I was desperate to get out a funny column.”
Would you ever run for public office again?
“I live in New York City, which is always a problem. If I could rule on the Internet, it would be fine. So many people think that because of the column and because of the restaurant, they think I live there. I have potential clients coming to me and saying, ‘Aren’t you at the restaurant?’ ‘Yeah, I’m in there stirring tomato sauce’—no! I go there as a guest.”
Would you consider going for political office anywhere—in New York City, for example?
“That would be more interesting. Sure, sure.”
Any idea what kind of position it would be?
“No, I don’t. I just know that it would have to be a position where they wouldn’t go back to my past record in any way. I can’t handle any scrutiny!”
We’re aware that you’re a fan of Mr. Bloomberg, but if you were named Mayor for a day, what would you do?
“In that day, I would change the profiling at the subways. No. 1.”
How exactly would you formulate that law?
“Oh, I’d be a dictator for a day! Uh, basically, the law would include that those people who in the past have been the perpetrators of acts of terrorism would be those that would be first checked. Again, I think that 99 percent of the Muslims would want them to be checked, too. They’re just as terrified of these idiots as I am. I don’t know anybody who is Muslim who frankly should object.”
If you could run for Senate in New York, how would you run a campaign against Hillary Clinton?
“I dunno—I think Hillary Clinton’s done a great job. I’m very impressed with her. She’s done well, and frankly, if she should be running against Bill Frist, she’s got my Republican vote.”
As The Transom gathered its things, it felt strangely at ease. In fact, Mr. Della Femina had been completely winning. Plush Sesame Street toys were strewn on the couch—an adorable Bert and Ernie set, upon which Mr. Della Femina had thrown his red tie after our arrival. Family pictures adorned his shelf. A commendation from The Wall Street Journal; a cabinet full of fine wine. This was not the office of a raving lunatic. This shit was Presidential.
Ramsey At Rest
On Monday, Aug. 8, an Iraqi judge ruled that Saddam Hussein would be tried within two months. And Mr. Hussein’s eldest daughter dissolved his legal team, effectively showing his highest-profile U.S. advocate, Ramsey Clark, the door.
“He’s got a lot of work to do, and they’d better get started,” said the former U.S. Attorney General from his Greenwich Village apartment, already sounding a little detached. His favorite Beethoven piano sonata, the “Pastoral,” tinkled in the background. “He’s got to have a large team, and it’s got to be predominately Iraqi and Arabic speaking.”
He had received word earlier that day that his services would no longer be needed through a statement from the daughter, Raghad, via “fax or e-mail—it could have been both,” he said. Its relevance left him puzzled.
“It has no application by its own terms to me in any way. I’ve never received powers of legal representation,” he explained. “What has just been issued is a statement that the only lawyer the family is recognizing at this time to speak for Saddam Hussein is Khalil al-Dulaimi,” Mr. Clark added, drawling on the name. But: “No one else could speak for him, because no one else could speak to him. How can you speak for someone who can’t speak to you? Do you just make it up? Do you understand?”
He said that Mr. al-Dulaimi has met with Mr. Hussein “about four times.”
Mr. Clark continued: “I think he trusts Khalil al-Dulaimi—and I do—but that doesn’t begin to reach the level of choice of counsel or preparation of a defense. The court’s bragged about going to two million documents and the 17,000 individual interviews, and the defense hasn’t been given a single document. How can you begin to interview witnesses until you’ve developed a strategy about a defense, and talked to the president and been appointed by the president, and have the resources and security to function in Iraq without getting killed?”
Had he not been a member of the reportedly 2,000-lawyer-strong team ready to wield their knowledge of case law and international treaties in defense of the deposed Iraqi leader?
“What you had are apparently several thousand lawyers—I don’t know—who expressed the desire to help,” Mr. Clark replied. He said he hadn’t been a member of the official legal coalition, Isnad (Arabic for “support”).
“I’m supportive of what they’re trying to do, which is to see that there are fair trials for the accused of Iraq, because I think it’s of historic importance,” he said, adding that he could have advised on topics such as international law. “I don’t think I can represent him in any meaningful sense. I mean, you’ve been around long enough to know that I can’t walk into a strange court, a strange language and a strange culture, and stand up and start talking in English and make any sense to anybody.”
Finally, Mr. Clark dismissed a claim by a former Hussein lawyer, Ziad al-Khasawneh, that Americans had been urging the Arab lawyers not to publicly express their criticism of the war and sympathy with the resistance, for fear that it might hurt their case.
“Of course it’s not true,” he sniffed. “You live in this country—if you’ve watched the peace movement, you know I’m one of the leaders in bringing the troops out now, immediately. Everything I’ve ever written has said the American troops have to be withdrawn immediately. That they were there by virtue of a crime, a war of aggression, and there has to be reparations for the damage they’ve done.”