Free John Rocker; Isn't This a New Century?
The lazy, mindless liberalism and attempt at thought control can simply stun an honest man. Consider the John Rocker controversy: A stupid baseball player, 25 years old, shoots off his mouth to any reporter who's willing to scribble his bigoted nonsequiturs and Humpty Dumpty falls down. Rocker was well-known to New York fans last fall during the playoffs; he didn't make a lot of friends here with his ravings about queers, drugs addicts and purple-haired slackers. A cracker from Macon, Rocker is Bill Clinton and Orrin Hatch on triple-dose truth serum.
A feature story by Jeff Pearlman appeared in Sports Illustrated last month, in which the Atlanta Braves relief pitcher ill-advisedly reprised his redneck shtick, and now Bud Selig, the spineless Major League Baseball commissioner, has ordered that Rocker receive psychological testing. I guess Bud missed that day in seventh grade when the First Amendment was explained. There's a lawsuit waiting to happen and I hope Rocker's agent takes MLB to the cleaners. He may be an ignorant fool, but so are Al Sharpton, Hillary Clinton, Alec Baldwin and Richard Cohen, and none of them has been forced to seek therapy. (You'll remember that Baldwin advocated the murder of Henry Hyde; The Washington Post's Cohen suggested that Newt Gingrich be hanged for his adultery; Hillary said she was a Yanks fan; and I haven't the stomach to list Sharpton's list of transgressions.)
C.W. Nevius, writing in the Jan. 8 San Francisco Chronicle, applauds Selig's action, although it wasn't immediate enough in his judgment. He writes: "Now we are hearing that Rocker is 'apologetic.' No kidding. His career is in jeopardy. But what is he apologizing for? Didn't he realize that this kind of behavior was offensive? [Sports Illustrated] is a national magazine, available at virtually every newsstand and dentist's office in the country. Who did he think he was speaking to, Ranger Rick from the Weekly Reader?"
We needn't discuss that fully 75 percent of sportswriters could pass for Nevius' Ranger Rick. But does the reporter really believe that Rocker's career is in "jeopardy"? In the unlikely occasion that the Braves let Rocker go, he'd be signed up in five minutes by another team's general manager, who, until the ink was dry, would join the chorus of sheep denouncing the kid's loathsome slurs.
An Orlando Sentinel editorial on Jan. 8 also trashed Rocker and managed this remarkable conclusion: "Baseball is revered as America's favorite pastime, as wholesome as apple pie. Racist views such as Mr. Rocker's undermine that image." The "apple pie" myth has long been dispelled, probably starting with Jim Bouton's seminal Ball Four. Baseball has traditionally been littered with ugly people, some with very bad habits: Billy Martin, Darryl Strawberry and Ty Cobb come to mind. The drinking and drug addiction problems of players are now commonplace; incidents like David Cone allegedly jerking off in the Mets' bullpen fail to shock. So can we please forget this "apple pie" rot?
The most sensible comments about Rocker I've read recently were written by Baltimore Sun columnist Gregory Kane, a black man, who also dislikes New York. Kane wrote on Jan. 5: "Thank heavens the rest of American society isn't run like major league baseball. How many of us would escape chastisement for opinions unbecoming political correctness? I wouldn't... [Rocker's] Sports Illustrated comments harmed no one. They ticked quite a few people off, but they harmed no one."
Keep Elian in Miami
Bill Clinton was thrilled to pass off the deportation of Elian Gonzalez to Attorney General Janet Reno. (God knows she'll have an unhappy retirement: just think about it, doing Clinton's dirty work and being shit on by him as a reward.) I yield to no one in a father's right to maintain custody of his child, but all the squishy pundits (who'd never advocate sending a six-year-old back to Iran, Iraq, South Africa?in the old days) are forgetting the main reason to keep the boy on American soil, at least for the time being. Elian's dad, Juan Miguel, who didn't speak up until Cuba's dictator Fidel Castro made his son a national symbol, cannot be counted on to have his true feelings known. Castro, who's gotta be running out of gas, is using Elian as a pawn?everyone knows it?but still the Eleanor Clifts, New York Times editorialists and Ellen Goodmans of the world want to send him back to rice & beans Cuba, instead of living with relatives in Miami. Gov. George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain are right: bring the boy's father and new family to Miami, and let him decide then, without fear of Castro reprisals. If what the senior Gonzalez says is true, then the lot should go back to Cuba. More likely they'll stay.
Daily News columnist Lars-Erik Nelson is rather blasé about the controversy. In a Jan. 7 piece headlined "Family Values Gone Awry," Nelson used Elian to take digs at Bush and McCain. "Both need right-wing votes, and in a Republican primary, all you have to do is mention the name Castro and all rational thought goes out the window?along with considerations of morality and the law... How many days does Castro have? I bet that Elian and his father and their country will be free before the boy turns 10."
Granted, GOP Sen. Bob Smith and Rep. Dan Burton competed for airtime when they criticized the INS decision to send Elian home, but they happen to be correct.
Al Gore can't seem to make up his mind on this issue. How surprising.
Once again, the United States' policy toward Cuba should be relegated to the attic time capsule, along with items like the hula hoop, Beatles trading cards and Tupperware parties. All sanctions should be lifted?damn the human rights violations, like the U.S. has done in China?and let insurgents chase Castro back to the hills where he can die in peace; then a democratic leader, just waiting to emerge, can shape the country with America's aid. Some fear that mass riots will engulf Cuba if Castro is defied, but he's too old, and the true adherents of his communism are either dead or disgusted. When Castro is forced to go, it'll resemble the final scene from The Wizard of Oz: the uniformed henchmen, charged with capturing Dorothy and her friends, cheered when the Wicked Witch finally melted. That's Fidel, baby, gone like a puff of smoke.
A Weekend at Bernie's, Sen. McCain?
I have a friend who insists the new year doesn't really begin until Jan. 20: his birthday. That's Baltimore folklore, but in politics the 2000 race has changed dramatically during the first two weeks of January. First, Sen. John McCain's presidential fantasy is all but busted; the reporters he'd thought were permanently schmoozed are by and large filing more critical articles on the faux-"maverick." As Gov. George W. Bush gains more confidence in the debates and directly challenges McCain on core GOP issues like taxes, accurately accusing him of presenting a Democratic agenda, the Arizona Senator's always-corny sense of humor wears thin, and he doesn't even crack himself up. That's what happens when your main issue?campaign finance reform?blows up after revelations of greasing the wheels for contributors.
On Jan. 6, the liberal Boston Globe editorialized: "A McCain spokesman said, 'It gets down to appearances, and there's nothing beyond the appearances.' But that's the problem. With public confidence in the balance, appearances count enormously. Under the existing system, unfortunately, it would be folly for a presidential candidate to run without aggressive fundraising. But candidates running as reformers would do well to avoid overt actions that tarnish their position."
What McCain and his advisers, besotted by the most remarkable example of a fawning mainstream media in at least a generation?don't tell me about Bruce Babbitt; the two campaigns aren't even comparable for press sycophancy?must not understand is that no one ever wins the GOP presidential nomination by running to the party's left. Because the media is so clueless, they've concentrated on McCain's "straight" talk and ignored the other candidates. Thus, no one to the right of Bush gets attention and the Texas Governor gets a free ride. As I've said for months, luck is a key ingredient of a winning presidential campaign.
As a result, Joe Klein's behind-the-curve profile of McCain in this week's New Yorker notwithstanding, the Senator's campaign is now on life support.
I suspect McCain, now that the impossible bubble has burst, isn't all that disappointed. After all, before the inexplicable media rush to record every one of his words, to extol the physical courage he showed in Vietnam, McCain was really set on one position: defense secretary in Bush's administration. That's a fine spot for him: during the Kosovo intervention last year, McCain appeared more presidential than the poll-driven Bill Clinton and won over conservatives like Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol and Wall Street Journal board member Dorothy Rabinowitz. I think their infatuation with McCain was misplaced?did they forget his tax-increase tobacco bill and teaming up with Democrat Russ Feingold on campaign finance reform??but perhaps understandable as Bush, for a short but rough patch, got the Quayle treatment from the media.
Last Thursday, in a column that signaled where The Wall Street Journal stands on the election, editor Robert Bartley wrote that McCain would be better suited for a ceremonial role, American Hero Emeritus. To me, that was a message that the Journal has now completely joined forces with Bush (its favored candidate Forbes was such a washout this cycle that the paper lobbied in vain that he run for the open New Jersey Senate seat) and will editorialize vigorously against Al Gore in the coming months.
Bartley wrote, in what was the most significant article about McCain in months: "You can argue about how well Mr. Clinton has performed as head of government. My own view is that the system worked because the electorate sent him a GOP Congress as a balance wheel, but clearly the republic does enjoy prosperity and what passes for peace. There is little room for argument, though, that as chief of state Mr. Clinton has proved a total embarrassment, a lecher and a liar. The people are hungry for a better king.
"So our sensitive political system has found the one American best cast as king. A hereditary military hero, who proved his personal bravery as a prisoner in Hanoi while Bill Clinton was protesting at Oxford (along with a lot of present-day McCain supporters)... McCain for chief of state! Head of government is another matter. Without in the least denigrating symbolism, some of us believe substance is even more important. Good kings, despite the fame of some of them, are not necessarily good political leaders. The first requirement of a leader is a vision of where you want to go. George W. Bush has assembled a team of leading issue experts and offers a road map of what he would try to do as president. By contrast, Sen. McCain tends to turn each issue into a matter of character. What matters is not policy goals but personal honor?the royal approach."
I think Bartley is far too kind to McCain, especially with that "character" bit, and I believe Clinton was correct in protesting the Vietnam War, but for the most part the Journal editor sums up the Arizona Senator's quixotic candidacy quite neatly.
As for the Democrats, I'm afraid that Gore will win the nomination, despite all the miscues his campaign continues to roll out every week, fucking up at every opportunity. The reason is simple, and it was demonstrated most aptly in last Wednesday's debate in New Hampshire: Bradley looks and speaks like he's 20 years older than his opponent. No doubt the rigors of the campaign have caught up with him, but the former senator is given to long, laconic answers, often slurs his words, has bags under his eyes that stretch down to his size-32 shoes, and still refuses to attack Gore in the cutthroat manner that's both required and deserved. He communicates reluctance and fatigue with his body language and appearance. I don't care much for Bradley's politics?he's a Big Government liberal who'd set back America's economic and cultural advances 25 years?but I do get the sense he's a decent human being.
Gore's a weasel who now resembles the unholy progeny of Bill and Hillary Clinton, with about 18 dashes of James Carville thrown in. There was Gore last week, flip-flopping on the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy he said he'd abolish, until the military criticized him. There was Gore, defending his racist campaign manager Donna Brazile, even after she issued an inflammatory statement condemning the GOP for insensitivity to blacks and insulting Colin Powell and J.C. Watts for good measure. As Gore should know, you don't mess around with Powell: he's attained godlike status in this country, and I imagine this slur has only strengthened his resolve to accept Bush's expected offer to be his secretary of state.
Gore hammered away at Bradley during the debates last week about banning all commercials for the duration of the primary season, all the while taking no blame for the illegal activities of the Clinton-Gore '96 campaign. This sanctimony is sickening, even worse than the prospect of Bill Clinton pathetically considering a Senate or House run from Arkansas in the future. Gore continues to bait Bradley with the line that the latter left politics after the Gingrich revolution in '94 while Gore himself stood and fought the good fight with buddies Dick Gephardt, Charlie Rangel and David Bonior. Please. Gore was vice president: was he going to resign and throw away his political future?
A Sunny Afternoon
I was in San Luis Obispo, CA, this past weekend attending the formal memorial service for my brother Doug. The proceedings were held at Margo Dodd Park, at Shell Beach, overlooking the Pacific, with waves gently splashing on the boulders and seals swimming off in the distance. The sun was brilliant during the two hours the 100 or so guests sat in this almost biblical setting. My brothers and I all gave eulogies, followed by colleagues and students who recalled his hiking adventures, the gourmet meals at camping sites, gay rights activism and Third World traveling. In fact, with all that extracurricular activity, I don't know when the heck he had time to teach classes at Cal Poly. But I suppose there are more dishonest ways of taking money from the state of California.
Presiding over the service was the Rev. Ann Hines, a lovely woman who didn't actually know Doug, but as the mourners spoke, she jotted down notes, and then summed it up at the end, taking phrases from each one of the 10 of us, an hour's worth of fond reminiscences. How different this was from my father's memorial in New Jersey back in '72. That was held in a musty church, with a rent-an-hour minister opening and closing the affair, and if he wasn't looking at his watch or asking an assistant, "What's the name of the dead guy?" I'd be surprised. Doug's send-off, or, as many people in the audience might prefer, lift-off, was so superior, not only for the extraordinary setting but for the care that went into its planning.
A reception was held afterward at The Cliffs at Shell Beach hotel, which was kind of creepy since you had to wade through Kiwanis luncheons, wedding parties and the like, but I met a lot of Doug's contemporaries at Cal Poly, and marveled at the collection of photos his companion Dan Vasquez and wife Barbara Bailey had painstakingly arranged, resembling an Eastern shrine. New York Press' production manager Jeff Koyen was kind enough to blow up the MUGGER pages from last week, with its scrapbook of early family photos, and FedEx them out for the wake. I met one fascinating woman, whose life intersected with Doug's, I think through their children, and she told me about her philosophy of living three years at a clip in one place. "That's the only way to get to know a place," she said reasonably, and spoke fondly of Seattle, San Francisco and San Luis Obispo, while bashing St. Louis, Los Angeles and Chicago. When her daughter is a bit older she promised to pull a three-year stint in Manhattan.
By nature, I'm not very good at schmoozing: I'm polite but have trouble with small talk. This is hardly an attribute. My brother Jeff's a born diplomat who should've entered politics. He can speak to anyone, even a statue, for half an hour at a clip. In fact, during dinner that night, at an Italian seafood joint on Pismo Beach, Jeff was as full of blarney as I can remember. We were talking kids' names and he lamented that his first daughter, Jenny, born in '69, had to endure a generation of "Jennifer"s because of Love Story's popularity the next year. Kind of like unimaginative parents naming their children Chelsea or Dylan. Until that point, Jeff ranted, "Jennifer was an extraordinarily unique name, a perfect match for Smith." When several of us countered he was nuts and letting the merlot talk, he challenged us to name 10 Jennifers over the age of 30; that task accomplished in about 30 seconds, he still refused to give in. I felt that Doug's cantankerous spirit had commingled with Jeff and the rest of us were being bludgeoned by an uncompromising preacher.
But maybe that was the case. Going to the lobby that evening to meet my family, I saw from a distance a man at the reception desk with a beard, glasses, jeans and sneakers, and it was like a mirage of Doug. I turned my head just for a second and he was gone. How glorious it would be if in fact there were ghosts and heaven and reincarnation and all that mystical or religious jazz that people believe in. Unfortunately, I suppose, I've always trusted my father's maxim: "When you're dead, you're dead."
It was a wonderful surprise seeing Joan Mankin, a lifelong friend of Doug who kept in touch with him over the years. In high school, they were inseparable, going to hootenannies, working for the 1960 Kennedy campaign, pulling pranks and, most of all, laughing at and with each other. Joan's brother Dan, now a circus entertainer, was in my class at Simpson Junior High and he was a pretty cool guy. I remember once he and Paul Dunkling got into an afterschool fight that spilled into the park. Paul mopped Danny up, giving him a bloody nose and a worse ego blow, and while the crowd of 50 was mostly in Paul's corner, Dan took it all with dignity and didn't shed a tear.
That, of course, wasn't the case at Doug's memorial, but for the most part, friends and family tried to be as upbeat as possible, recalling my brother's most endearing attributes, ignoring his foibles (except in joke-telling) and filling in for the crowd different aspects of his life that most of them missed. It was a full 52 years, everyone agreed, and if I hadn't kept my eyes focused on his daughters Xela and Kira, and Dan and Barbara, with their youth brimming, I'd swear this was a farewell for a man who died at 85.
Sadly, that wasn't the case, but Doug did more with his life, touched more people and had more fun than the vast majority of people his age. That, amidst the mourning, is a comforting thought.
There's Always Next Month
The February issue of Vanity Fair is a stinker. Having another pregnant woman on the cover?Annette Bening, carrying her fourth child?might be a send-up of the old Demi Moore pics, but I doubt it. A little more smelly is the gatefold ad for the universally acclaimed The Sopranos, at God knows what cost, and then a positive article inside by James Wolcott. Coincidence? Not likely. A feature "Gotta Paint!" by Ingrid Sischy is downright embarrassing; why VF would want Sischy to contribute when she edits the puffy Interview is beyond me. But, despite some terrific photos by Todd Eberle, there's this awful conclusion about fledgling artists in New York: "It's important to stress that these artists are all quite different from one another. They don't represent a new ism. Rather, a development in the old tradition?that of artists coming to New York and finding their voices. Think of it as the hour just before dawn, when you hear the sparrows start to sing."
That's simply shameful writing, more likely to be found in a downtown booster glossy like Paper than Vanity Fair.
Peter Biskind's sugarcoated cover feature on Bening and her husband Warren Beatty was a similar affront on quality journalism, but I did like this Bening quote about Hillary Clinton. She said: "She always appears to be doing what's politically expedient in the most transparent way. That whole thing about the clemency with the Puerto Rican terrorists and how she claimed that she hadn't spoken to [Bill Clinton] about it, that was an example to me of just how you feel like there's prevaricating, there's lying. You just don't trust them."
But when Biskind slips in Beatty-worship, which is about half the piece, it's tough sledding. For example, the author clearly isn't well-acquainted with politics. He writes that Gary Hart, Beatty's close friend and adviser in the 80s, appeared in 1987 likely to win the '88 Democratic nomination. That's silly. Sure, he was the frontrunner, but Donna Rice killed his candidacy 18 months before the general election. In addition, Hart was just one of many hopefuls that year; whether he would've prevailed, even without the Rice scandal, is highly speculative.
And what do you make of this silly statement? Biskind: "Politics for Beatty has always had about it something of the fatal embrace. In his lifetime, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated." That makes Beatty unique? Some sort of martyr? All those icons, for better or worse, were murdered in my lifetime as well, just like all Americans born before '63. What is Biskind's point? The rest of us are chopped chicken liver? That Beatty has suffered more, in his wealth, than the millions of people who feel the same way about Martin, John and Bobby?
Beatty, whose films I've liked?especially Bugsy and Reds?got suckered into this presidential trap by the increasingly strange Arianna Huffington, a sixth-rate Madame Defarge who masterminded one of the most expensive Senate campaigns in history on behalf of her former husband in '94, and now flits about the social circles of DC and in and out of different political camps. Beatty tells Biskind: "I feel good about speaking up. I wouldn't feel good if I hadn't. It seems to me that the effect has been positive; that I've not yet made too much of a fool of myself?at least I don't think I have."
Warren, you've made a tremendous fool of yourself, especially with that cryptic New York Times op-ed piece a few months ago about your possible candidacy that closed with the words "STAY TUNED." No, you don't look Alec Baldwin-stupid, but stick to siring more children and making movies. The country, at least those who are interested in politics, will thank you.
Finally, in the February Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter, in his "Editor's Letter," has either written the funniest parody of redesign explanations or is completely off his rocker. I opt for the former, especially since when talking about a new typeface for the magazine, several years in creation, he writes: "This month we have integrated VF Sans and VF Sans Condensed into the columns and?is this just too, too boring for words??the mastheads, table of contents, and so forth." But don't trust me: Vanity Fair, on Carter's approval, just signed a 52-week full-page advertising commitment with New York Press.
The Voice (As You Know It) is on Borrowed Time
Good golly, I've felt like Cecil Adams the past week with countless journalists asking, "So, now that the Voice chain of weeklies is sold, what's it all mean?" In the short-term, a whole lot of nothing: just more predictable left-wing term papers in the tabloid's news and entertainment sections, paint-by-numbers anti-Giuliani articles and essays from Richard Goldstein that make Frank Rich look like Mark Steyn. Plus the spin from the new owners, a crazy-quilt corporation (Village Voice Media) that has the money management firm Weiss, Peck & Greer fronting the cash; former Voice publisher David Schneiderman as the chain's CEO; Art Howe, a newspaperman from Philly who couldn't put together the financing for a much smaller deal in Detroit in late '98; and the now-partial owners of the Nashville Scene, one of the better weeklies in the South. Schneiderman's full of bluster about how the new group will concentrate on new alternative newspaper acquisitions, radio properties and the requisite Internet presence.
Here's their problem, in Dr. MUGGER's diagnosis: the Village Voice, whose revenues comprise perhaps 38 percent of the group's total in '99, has a low profit margin: 18 percent for public consumption, probably lower in reality. For a mature weekly paper, which runs an average of 200 pages a week with 75 percent advertising (the legal limit for a newspaper that's sent through the mail), that's a dismal return. Weiss, Peck & Greer, who are in business to make money, no doubt want a return of 35 percent, so how are puppets Schneiderman and Howe going to deliver those numbers? They could cut the Voice's press run by 30 percent, a significant savings; they'll undoubtedly rid themselves of all the nonunion dead wood that's accumulated at Cooper Square; and they'll probably be ordered by the new owners to buy out existing large contracts of "star" writers, people like Nat Hentoff, Goldstein, Robert Christgau and Guy Trebay, who've been at the paper forever and have seen their salaries increase every three years. Don't expect much in the way of replacements. My bet is more syndicated material of the Ted Rall variety, along with a slew of earnest young graduates from Columbia, for the time being preferably black, female and gay, who'll work for $25,000 a year producing the same knee-jerk copy we've all been accustomed to in the Voice for some 20 years.
More importantly, it's clear the paper will have to raise its advertising rates. When the Voice switched to free circulation in '96, its Merlin-like management assumed New York Press would go out of business and they'd be able to charge whatever they wanted, especially with a jacked-up press run. But it didn't work out that way. In fact, their profits suffered as they whored the rates for local advertising. Weiss, Peck & Greer, one would assume, won't stand for such sloppy work. Schneiderman might've been able to persuade the group to shell out approximately $160 million for the seven-paper chain, a feat in itself, but the fantasy won't last forever. I'd be surprised if Schneiderman, who was undoubtedly given a minor piece of the action, isn't gone in a year; Howe probably sooner.
People in the weekly newspaper industry had mixed reactions. Voice "Press Clips" columnist Cynthia Cotts told me: "David's both very shrewd and a stand-up guy, and personally I'm glad that he stays in the picture. I have faith that he'll preserve the editorial integrity of the Voice.
"If New Times, Inc. had succeeded in buying the Voice, it would have been an entertaining spectacle to watch, but a disaster, because it would have signaled the end of competition in the alternative weekly world. Instead, with the Voice getting a new infusion of money, we can look forward to a spirited battle royale between Village Voice Media and New Times."
I'd say the "battle" is more like one between a t-ball team and the New York Yankees, but who knows, maybe Howe and Schneiderman will bankrupt New Times.
Tim Keck, publisher of Seattle's Stranger, which competes with Village Voice Media's Seattle Weekly, said: "When the Seattle Weekly was sold in 1997 the new owners had three goals: increase circulation, lower its median age and put the Stranger down. The Weekly's circulation has fallen by 20,000 copies, they have the oldest median age of any Voice Media newspaper and last week The Stranger was 16 pages larger than the Seattle Weekly. The Weekly is a publication in midlife crisis and it looks ridiculous."
In Monday's New York Times, media reporter Felicity Barringer, with a piece about alternative newspapers, proved just how inept she is at performing her job. The article is headlined?I kid you not, for this is about the 1000th variation on the same theme in the past five years?"Alternative Press Takes on a New Gloss: Capitalism Finds Value in the Old Voices of the Counterculture." Never mind that The Wall Street Journal ran a story about the Chicago Reader with the exact same theme more than 20 years ago.
Let's start with a few Barringer cliches: "The sassy fringe of the newspaper industry is now getting attention." Perhaps from Felicity, but there are more millionaires sitting in the offices of "alternative" newspapers than in the newsroom of The New York Times. But my favorite is this corker: "It's not the times, but the cash-flow multiples, that are a-changin'." And who said the Times was hard up for clever stylists?
Barringer also quotes Robert Broadwater, of Veronis, Suhler & Associates, the firm that handled the sale for Leonard Stern. He said: "Historically, free circulation was denigrated. But I believe free circulation is a growing trend across all media. The Web is training the next generation that you don't pay for content." What editor at the Times allowed this nonsense to be printed? Free weekly newspapers, at least those that are efficiently managed, have been cash cows for more than 15 years. That Broadwater's recently been clued in to the fact just shows what a crummy media broker he is.