We are the champions, my friends. At least that's the way it appeared two Fridays ago, June 16. Suckers!
Taking a weeklong vacation to Miami in the middle of June seemed like a queer idea to almost everyone of my family's acquaintance, and the prescient Mrs. M thought it a little daft herself, but it was very logical to the kids and me. My wife likes the ocean and swimming; I'm partial to urban retreats; and the boys will go anywhere that has a pool, 89 tv stations, junk food and a flight that's less than seven hours. Besides, Miami's the only city I could live in other than New York in this country: it's relatively cosmopolitan, has the extreme heat and humidity that I crave, and the Latin American scent that permeates the culture is infinitely more fascinating than anything Chicago, San Francisco or Los Angeles has to offer.
And hey, this time around, we went the au courant route, staying at Ian Schrager's art deco Delano Hotel in South Beach, the favored lodging of the idle rich, celebrities, models; its staff must have to pass a beauty test before being hired. Luck was not on our side upon arrival. The penthouse we'd booked wasn't cleaned yet, so the luggage went into storage after the boys changed into their trunks, and we trooped out to the gleaming pool area to kill 90 minutes. No sooner had Junior and MUGGER III jumped into the water, and Mrs. M and I ordered drinks, than a monsoon descended upon the resort, sending everyone with their Speedos and frozen drinks under the bamboo shelter of the bar. My glen plaid suit?just one way that we stuck out in the crowd?got soaked, as did my slippers, and it was a full 15 minutes before the rain subsided to a drizzle and we returned to the chaise lounges.
We spent another hour outside, too long for the boys, whose milk-white skin got burned, and then moved into our spacious suite with its all-white decor, which reminded you of a ritzy beach house, except that it was on the 15th floor and offered a terrace view of the Atlantic. The Delano's signature green apples popped up on silver pedestals everywhere you looked.
Then the trouble started.
MUGGER III was sick as a dog. He'd had the sniffles to begin with, and the combination of sun, excitement and some crummy Continental Airlines food laid him low with a high fever and the shivers. A swell Delano bellboy rushed to a nearby pharmacy for Motrin and a thermometer, and we put the tyke in a lukewarm bath and then wrapped him in a bathrobe while he watched Small Soldiers on tv. Shortly after, the hot water vanished. It wasn't till the middle of the night that he had a long barfing session. Our five-year-old was miserable, but at least a few fart jokes cheered him up. He slept with his mom and dad, and then woke up at an early hour even for him, and said he was fit. It wasn't to be.
I'll return to attack mode below, but in the meantime a few observations. The Delano, absent the distasteful clientele, is a rather interesting hotel. The idiosyncrasies are what make it worth a peek: the dark lobby, punctuated by Philippe Starck-designed furniture; the elevators illuminated by red or green lights; a billiards table near the outside restaurant; a rooftop spa; a David Barton gym; 1500 available videos; flat-screen televisions; and room service food that is actually edible, especially the Cobb and Niçoise salads and the spiced onion rings. It's all rather pretentious, but I chalked it up as an experience?we always choose blue-chip hotels, so this was a switch.
How's this for weird? As a rule, when you buy a local paper in a hotel, in this case The Miami Herald, you pay the cover rate. Not at the Delano, which added 19 cents to the charge. The magazine selection, which Fodor's laughably warned "you wouldn't want your parents to see," is not huge, just garbage like Ocean Drive, Wallpaper, Talk, Spin, Paper, Rolling Stone, Us Weekly, plus a disproportionate number of foreign publications, most of which I'll bet are never purchased. The Economist is for sale, but not Time, and they were out of Newsweek. You tell me that isn't nutso. It was a pleasure to have the New York Post stacked up by 8 each morning, and out by the pool it seemed everyone was reading The New York Times rather than the Herald.
In fact, on Saturday morning, while the boys were swimming with a new friend from Washington, DC?a Bush supporter, by the way?I read a curious headline in the Times that gave me a slight shiver: "Putin Discovers A New Rapport With Germany." I'm hardly an alarmist, and I understand the Times' bias better than most readers, but the second paragraph of the front-page story was creepy. It read: "[T]here was no mistake that the summit meeting that ended today [with Putin and Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schroder] produced a vigorous rapprochement between Russia and Germany. Mr. Putin seemed entirely serious when he added, 'Germany is Russia's leading partner in Europe and the world.'" Putin's a scaly guy to begin with; add the historical aggression of Germany's leaders, stilled at least militarily for more than half a century, and that leads to a combustible combination down the road. All the more reason that George W. Bush's missile defense system makes a lot of sense.
It must've been the humidity that day, but I found myself actually agreeing with most of Frank Rich's op-ed column about liberal and conservative hysterics. He's right: All these calls for censorship and boycotts on both extremes of the political spectrum are noisome and indicative of a populace with too much free time. So while I think that Bruce Springsteen's "American Skin" is a naive and offensive song, I don't give a hoot if it hits number one on the pop charts; similarly, let Dr. Laura Schlessinger, with her obnoxious 19th-century views on homosexuality, get full airing on television, and hope her show flops. Same with John Rocker, Eminem, Charlton Heston, Bob Barr, Tim Robbins, Al Sharpton, James Dobson, Hillary Clinton and Rich himself. Let freedom ring!
Anthony Lewis, on the other hand, is a man out of time. It's just a hunch, but I imagine Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. has told the butlers who work for him: "Make sure nothing happens to Tony while my father is still alive." I concede it's the duty of that newspaper's brain trust to distort Bush's record while performing the Herculean task of promoting Al Gore as a sensible choice for president, but Lewis can't find his way out of the cobwebs when he writes about the Texas Governor. On June 17, in aping the anti-Bush gambit of the month?capital punishment?Lewis once again raises the spurious question of Bush's intellect, wondering about his "depth and seriousness," and calling him "shallow and callous."
Must I repeat this drill? Okay, just for you, Tony: While Bush might not possess the intellectual gifts of, say, David Dinkins or Patrick Kennedy, two Democrats you admire, it takes more than a dumbo to defeat an incumbent governor in Texas, especially the dirty and streetwise Ann Richards, as Bush did in '94. And once again, on the subject of executions, we never hear in the liberal media about how many death row inmates met their maker on Richards' watch. The number is 45, by far the most in the country at that time. In fact, during the absurd vigil for Gary Graham last week, the name of Ricky Ray Rector, the retarded man Bill Clinton ordered executed during his '92 campaign?to prove what a tough hoss he was?was barely mentioned.
Anyway, our honeymoon with the Delano was short-lived. Like most of South Beach, which had its heyday in the mid-90s, the luxurious hotel (opened in '95) should probably shut down for six months for a serious spruce-up. Sort of like the tubby models by the pool who've gone to seed. (Junior couldn't take his eyes off the New York gals who were pretending they were sunning on the Riviera, chucking the tops of their bikinis.) The all-white wooden floors are chipped, some of the beach chairs are kind of ratty now, marred by holes small and large, just the normal wear and tear from an occupancy rate over the years that's the envy of most hotels.
In our case, though, it was worse than that. The hot water didn't return for three days, making normal bathing a difficulty. The Delano's clerks are fairly accommodating, so when I went to the front desk to complain, and insist that adjustments be made on our bill, there was little argument. I pointed to my hair, all askew, and said, "You know, this isn't a new style I'm sporting." The woman laughed, and it reminded me of the old Baltimore saying that you can catch more porcupines with honey than rotten chestnuts.
As I found out later, it was simply a brush-off, and more dark clouds were on the way. Like the theft of Mrs. M's wedding rings, probably swiped by one of the maids. When MUGGER III was sick, and we were ankle-deep in puke, my wife took off her rings and set them aside on the sink while cleaning up the mess. Several hours later, while at the pool, she noticed her bare finger. When a cop arrived on the scene, he told my distraught wife that the likelihood of seeing the jewelry again was almost nil. He gave us a report and said to get on the phone with our insurance agent, adding that such incidents are very common along the South Beach strip of hotels.
Robbery is the way of the world, and I can see the attraction of a diamond ring, but to lift an inexpensive wedding band, with an inscription no less, is pretty skunky. Hotel thieves are a constant hazard. I remember one morning in Nevis when a pair of my wife's earrings were missing. The manager at the Four Seasons hotel stuck up for the staff and said we should be more careful. By dusk, the ruby studs magically reappeared. I'll bet the in-house detective grilled the cleaning staff of our room and said they'd be fed to cannibals if someone didn't cough up the merchandise. A friend of mine, staying at the Ritz in Paris, bought his wife a one-of-a-kind bracelet across the street; two hours later it was gone. The piece was never recovered, but at least the Ritz had the class to knock a night's charge off the bill. At the Delano, we weren't of much concern to management. I mean, really, wasn't Julia Roberts due to check in soon?
Adding to a vacation gone slightly kerflooey, MUGGER III couldn't keep a morsel of food down; in fact, he was puking even after drinking water or small sips of cranberry juice. When we went to the Bal Harbour mall on Sunday morning (looking for Crazy Bones) and found that none of the stores opened till noon, all four of us were about to scream. (Maybe it's weird blue laws, but more likely just a sleepy and lazy work ethic.) While our younger boy kept out of the sun with his mom, Junior and I walked around the Collins Ave. environs for a spell. He liked the veggie Whopper at the near-dilapidated but still cool art-deco Burger King, I loved the Cuban coffee at a small dive along the way, but most of the strip was pretty cheesy?all souvenir stands and electronic stores. If this is the Soho of Miami, something was lost in the translation. We sauntered up and down the outdoor pedestrian-only Lincoln Rd. mall, only to find a third of the stores boarded up, and not much else of interest. Even the Baskin-Robbins soft ice cream tasted funny, as did the fountain Cokes at another takeout joint. I think it's the tap water in Miami: just about the worst I've ever tasted, reminding me once again how fortunate New Yorkers are, even in this age of watering your plants with Evian, for drinkable liquid coming out your home faucets.
By Sunday night all notions of civility between the Smith family and the Delano's commandos had broken down: still no hot water, occasionally no water at all, and a pack of lies about getting every company in Miami in on the repair operation. We were offered a $600 rebate for our troubles. I told the manager to shove it. This is one bill that AMEX won't have trouble arbitrating.
Despite our difficulties, one feature of the Delano was a constant winner: the pool. We all had a splendid time chasing each other around, Mom and Dad catching the boys when they performed cannonball dives, meeting other kids (although they're scarce; this isn't a children-friendly institution, sort of like in France), lazing away the morning hours before the sun became too strong. You get used to the attendants sticking their hands out for tips?though it seems to me it's the Delano's job to pay them for fetching towels and umbrellas?but if you lay a Hamilton on Frank, Victor or Jorge, the service is first-rate. Especially since most of the crowd dig into their wallets for a crumpled dollar bill.
Matt Drudge, whose growing empire is now housed in a Miami high-rise, stopped by for a delightful lunch on Monday afternoon, and I offered wholehearted congratulations for his reporting on John Connolly's aborted Talk/Miramax book The Insane Clown Posse. Make no mistake about it: this screed, which dished dirt on Ken Starr and his staff, as well as other enemies of the Clintons, would've been published had Drudge not received the first five chapters through, I suppose, a double-agent at the beleaguered Talk bunker. Clinton apologists like Joe Conason are moaning that vast-right-wing conspiracists like Drudge, Lucianne Goldberg and Ann Coulter can't take a hit of their own medicine, but I doubt that's the case. After all, Conason and Gene Lyons published a long defense of the Clintons, The Hunting of the President, and hardly a peep was heard, except from the authors, who complained about the choice of reviewers at The Washington Post and New York Times. (Funny, you didn't hear the same self-righteous squawking when Peggy Noonan's The Case Against Hillary Clinton was lambasted in The Washington Post by Jane Mayer or in The New York Observer by Nina Burleigh, the former Time chick who famously said she wouldn't mind giving Bill Clinton some energetic head.)
From what I've heard, and not from Drudge, the book was given the green light as far back as December, with Tina Brown's and Disney chief Michael Eisner's approval. This makes sense: Brown, not yet off her pink cloud from the barrage of publicity at Talk's debut last August, was no doubt thrilled to help the Clintons out. What she didn't bargain on was that Connolly would be such a creep, hiring private detectives (and I doubt the Talk/Miramax advance would cover his expenses; do you smell the work of James Carville and Sidney Blumenthal here?) to find out who on Starr's staff was gay and whether Goldberg was a "fag hag." When Connolly started delving into the sex lives of Brown's dinner companions, that's when the ruckus started.
Junior and I had a great time at the Marlins-Brewers game on Monday night, even if it was eerie, less than a week after being packed like rodents into the sold-out Bombers-Bosox game at Yankee Stadium, to see most of the Marlins' Pro Player Stadium empty. We had terrific seats: fourth row right behind home plate, and if not for the net we'd have scored a couple of foul balls. Here are the pluses of a modern facility like Pro Player: decent food and no lines at the concession stands. That's where it ends.
It seemed as if there were more ushers than fans, making it impossible for us to sneak into empty first-row seats behind the Marlins dugout. In fact, entering one section, an employee stopped us and said no one was allowed back in until the batter had finished his turn at bat. This kind of holiness wouldn't play in New York: it's not the opera we're talking about, remember. It was stunning, from our vantage point, seeing the entire upper decks vacant, just an orange expanse of seats. I don't care for the National League to begin with, but I do love seeing baseball at any time of the day, in any city, and chatting with some of the fans, who were disgusted by the Floridian attitude toward baseball. "It's an immature sports community," said one New York expat, "at least where baseball is concerned. Even when the Marlins won the World Series it all seemed fake. People clap as if they're in church."
But Junior was all smiles, especially while tracking the Marlins' mascot, Billy, one of those corny attractions that losing teams need to keep their small number of fans amused. During the seventh-inning stretch my boy skipped over one section and high-fived Billy on top of the home team dugout. It was his thrill of the trip, especially since for an instant he was on the scoreboard screen. I'd never have allowed him to scamper away like that at Yankee Stadium or Shea, but here I had a perfect view of him; it was like when he was at a street carnival a few years ago and Barney the Dinosaur showed up. The game was inconsequential: Brewers winning two-zip, with a paid attendance of 7612.
The next day was a flip-flop for the boy. He had a difficult time sleeping?the excitement from the game I figured?and in the morning registered a temperature of 103 degrees. It wasn't long before he was upchucking his Marlins hotdog and cotton candy, and moaning with stomach pains. It didn't help one bit that the illness his brother had passed on would cause us to forgo the dog races in Little Havana that day. Instead, while MUGGER III and Mrs. M went out for a ride to Bal Harbour, our seven-year-old, who can get a touch dramatic when sick, watched Nickelodeon while I read the morning papers. Which almost made me sick. The June 20 New York Times editorial was hilarious. It praised Al Gore's copycat "retirement plan" for Americans, saying it was the "safer" alternative to Bush's market-driven partial privatization of Social Security. This is just more evidence that the Texas Governor is driving the campaign: two months ago, had Gore proposed that the government give Americans tax credits, the paper would have said it was a "risky scheme." But no, now that Gore's campaign is in disarray, with labor potentially a bigger problem for him than the right-wing Christian base is for Bush, anything goes with the Times. Frankly, I agree with William Safire's opinion in the Times on June 26: raise the retirement age. The life expectancy of the country's citizens is many years longer than when the entitlement was first introduced by FDR; it only makes sense that people work a bit longer before going on the dole.
The Wall Street Journal, also on June 20, offered some common sense in its editorial on the same subject: "It might have been different. Bill Clinton, after all, made political hay by breaking with his party's orthodoxy on welfare, trade and a balanced budget. Mr. Gore could have shown his independence and foresight by proposing a similar breakthrough on entitlements. Instead he decided he only had to change his clothes."
Later in the day, MUGGER III and I took a quick spin into Little Havana, stopping for Cuban coffee and grape soda and buying a bunch of knickknacks at a $1 store, including some ancient and dusty transformer toys that interested him a lot more than anything from FAO Schwarz. It's incredible sometimes, how money is relative with kids. The smallest things, like his film canister collection, or a rock from the beach, hold a lot more value. This one's a puzzler. I remember when I was kid, using a buck of the money I earned mowing lawns to buy a deli sandwich at the park for lunch instead of eating some humdrum leftover at home, and looking at a buddy's penny-Tootsie Roll pop and thinking he'd made the wiser choice. Anyway, at the same store I bought a little figurine of a bride and groom at the altar for Mrs. M, which at least momentarily made her feel better about the skunk who nabbed her wedding ring. I also got a couple packages of dried Quijote chorizo and two Cuba keyrings.
One thing that sucks about Miami, and it's easy to forget, is that it's a Sun Belt city, where you have to drive almost everywhere. It's almost as bad as L.A. So from South Beach, it's a $40 cab ride to the Marlins' stadium; $25 to different malls; and $30 to Little Havana. There's no real concentration of shops or neighborhoods like in New York. Not to mention that hailing a taxi requires more than a mere wave of the hand.
By Wednesday morning, we'd had it with the Delano, Miami, cars, room service, busted elevators and $12 ballpoint pens at the gift shop. By this point, the chlorine in the pool had given Mrs. M a headache, so we kept our morning jaunt there short. Reading about Pedro Martinez losing to the Yankees in The Miami Herald, a crummy daily, meant I couldn't even open the Times till later in the afternoon, and I just stuck to the Journal. Naturally, it's almost impossible to find The Weekly Standard in Miami, but I had a copy Fed Exed along with some business documents and that's what I read before taking a siesta: a fine article by Geoffrey Norman advocating the secession of Vermont from the U.S. Suits me. In 10 years, Cuba and Puerto Rico will officially be part of the United States, so why not lose Ben & Jerry-land?
Chicken Run had opened in selected theaters, which, as Junior pointed out, meant that Burger King was giving out new come-on toys for the movie. After the kids ate, we walked around, went to an anonymous Cuban restaurant for lunch and had a pretty good meal: rice and black beans, roast pork, breast of chicken and ice cream that neither of the boys touched. I'm not too picky about Cuban grub. It's one of my favorite cuisines, but the range between sublime and horrid isn't as expansive as it is in Italian or French. Give me the beans, ropa vieja, Cuban coffee and shrimp in garlic sauce, and I'm happy. At this place there was a really cool lollipop machine that played a 15-second round of carnival music after you deposited a quarter. Even though the candy was pretty rancid, we still popped a lot of quarters in that contraption.
We returned to New York on Thursday, with Mrs. M vowing never to step foot in Florida again. Apparently, the boys agreed: after lugging our bags into the apartment, they both kissed the map of the world in their room, thrilled to be home. I think it was just a bad-luck vacation, but in the democracy of our domestic unit, my pro-Miami vote has been defeated at the polls. The weekend was relaxing, with Junior completing his Downtown Little League season and Mrs. M taking them to the park for a massive water-gun fight. Later on we all started a coin collection, dumping the contents of some 15 piggy banks. Any coin that was minted in 1970 or before was kept, along with the new state quarters, plus nickels and pennies from the boys' years of birth. Kind of corny, a Norman Rockwell diversion, but it beats staying at the Delano.
Gore's in Trouble? Nah, Just Remember Mike Dukakis
There was a lot of curious hocus-pocus-dominocus in the presidential race last week, proving once again that the Ivy League-educated reporters who claim this is a snoozy election year either don't know what they're talking about or are still in McCain-denial. Probably both. Much as I enjoyed the sight of Al Gore squirming about the prospect of an independent investigator to probe what were certainly his lies in the '96 campaign finance scandal, I'm with The New York Times on this one: skip the hearings and just let the voters decide. Gore's newsletter editorialized on June 25: "Because of her brazen dereliction of duty as attorney general, Janet Reno has now stirred up a political mess for herself and Vice President Al Gore and created an electoral quandary for the public." The New Republic's Marty Peretz has nothing on the Times when it comes to desperate cheerleading.
Obviously, Reno made a huge mistake by ignoring the advice of Charles La Bella and Louis Freeh a few years ago, when Gore should've been strip-searched about his Buddhist temple adventures, but the country's beyond that now. As if the Veep didn't know what the purpose of the '96 White House coffees were. That's why, despite the prosperous economy and absence of war, Al's in for a tough fight against George W. Bush: Americans are plain sick and tired of the scandals, lies, obfuscation, hypocrisy and perfidy of the Clinton-Gore administration.
The Beltway media's doing all it can to prop up Gore?just wait for those debates!?but there's a reason that Bush is leading nationally in every single poll. (Newsweek's latest survey shows the closest contest, 42-40 percent in favor of Bush over Gore?that's with Buchanan and Nader, too?but I think it's just a glitch. Look at the state-by-state data, via the nonpartisan Voter.com poll, and you'll find that Bush is even in Connecticut and close in California. That's disastrous news for the Democrats.) The Los Angeles Times, in reporting on June 16 their own poll showing a 10-point lead nationwide for the Governor, chose this headline: "Bush Leads, but Abortion Issue Could Mean Trouble."
Gore just can't tell the truth. He's a flip-flopper who hasn't an iota of his boss' political skill. Clinton, despite his low moral standing in the country, would find a way to defeat Bush, although not as handily as he did the hapless Bob Dole. As Paul Gigot pointed out in the June 23 Wall Street Journal, Gore partisans point to Michael Dukakis' lead over Vice President Bush in the summer of '88, after holding which he was soundly defeated by the Republican that November. But this election is not a rerun of 12 years ago, as I've written for more than a year now.
Dukakis frittered away his misleading advantage in the polls, attending to his duties as governor of Massachusetts, thinking a smart photo-op was of him mowing his own lawn, an image that was almost as ridiculous as the one of him popping up in an Army tank. (By comparison, Gov. Bush appears with GOP icons like Colin Powell and Henry Kissinger; that's one reason why he's sewn up the Republican base, while Gore still hasn't even convinced Big Labor that he's worthy of their vote.) Also, Dukakis was still battling Jesse Jackson, even after he'd won the nomination. Who can forget the sham Reverend meeting with the Governor and complaining about the food he was served? After snubbing the New England clam chowder, Jackson went out for some fried takeout. And while Bush might not be a forensics champion like his opponent, Mr. Love Story/Love Canal/Tobacco Farmer, he'd never make the mistake Dukakis did when asked by the liberal CNN shill Bernard Shaw what his gut reaction would be if his wife were brutalized by a criminal. Dukakis meandered into a wonky discussion of the law; Bush would say, like most Americans, "I'd want to cut his heart out, Bernie."
Getting back to Jackson, was there a more sickening spectacle in recent memory, aside from the raid to snatch Elian Gonzalez, than the millionaire con-man comforting convicted killer Gary Graham in Texas until he was pronounced dead? Jackson said he "wept uncontrollably" and that Graham's execution was a "state-organized murder," acting as if it were the Pope who was put down for his crimes. This capital punishment debate is a media-driven frenzy, one more sign that the liberals in Washington are very nervous that Bush might actually be elected.
I attempt to take things at face value, at least at first, but it strikes me as somewhat odd that Illinois' Gov. George Ryan, a Republican who's in some ethical trouble right now, all of a sudden put a moratorium on executions in his state. Maybe he had a conversation with God, but you can't discount the idea of Terry Lenzner or another White House thug waving a pardon in front of his nose if he'd open up the capital punishment can of worms, knowing that the focus of attention would go straight to Bush's Texas.
But maybe I'm all wet. That's the result of seven years of Clinton. He's been like a second-degree sunburn or a flashback acid trip: anything's possible; you just don't know what's real and what is not.
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