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Jewish World Review Aug. 11, 1999/ 29 Av 5759


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I’m in Bermuda and Rick Lazio Isn’t --
I’VE HAD IT WITH THE ABSURD TAX DEBATE in Congress. Let Bill Clinton veto the toothless Republican package, blame it on his granny and table any action until the next administration takes over in January, 2001.

Gov. George W. Bush will reveal his own tax platform later in the year. If he’s elected president, and Congress remains controlled by the GOP, sensible legislation will be passed.

In the meantime, I can’t let a few opinions go without note. I love New York’s Charlie Rangel as much as the next political observer—he’s consistently entertaining, has a Hollywood raspy voice and seems like a hell of a guy—but his Washington Post op-ed piece on July 20 was typical of the demagoguery that Democrats foist on a disinterested public. Rangel writes: “[GOP Rep.] Bill Archer says that if ‘the money stays in Washington, the politicians will surely spend it.’ It’s unfortunate that Republicans have resorted to such a cynical argument to justify his unwieldy tax package. If they are right, it means we are stuck with massive debt, Social Security and Medicare problems forever because, according to their logic, politicians are simply unable to act responsibly.”

Charlie, they’re right. Politicians, on both sides of the aisle, are irresponsible and will spend any money available to them for their pet pork and entitlement packages, instead of returning money to the taxpayers.

And an Aug. 2 Baltimore Sun editorial on the estate tax inadvertently made a very good point. “In reality,” the piece read, “most wealthy people have taken a variety of steps to protect their estates from taxation.” That’s right: because they’re forced to in order to protect their families. Eliminate the estate tax and the result would be not only the fair retention of a lifetime’s earnings, but less billing hours for lawyers and accountants. Sounds quite pleasing to me, if not to the Democrats who count on their campaign contributions.

In Newsweek’s Aug. 16 edition, the Jonathan Alter-mentored “Conventional Wisdom” spouted the same line, proving that the weekly by all rights should have this tagline under its logo: “An Unofficial Organ of the Democratic Party.” The dig read: “Tax Cut: People don’t want it, Greenspan doesn’t want it, but GOP’s gotta have it. Typical.” Typical only of yet another publication distorting the Fed Chairman’s remarks about a proposed tax cut.

Finally, in his syndicated column last week, Bill Buckley cut through the class war rhetoric and delivered some plain facts, according to IRS filed tax returns. Buckley finds that 10 percent of the American population is paying 60 percent of the taxes; 50 percent of the country’s citizens are paying 4.6 percent. He adds that in 1995, “48 million Americans paid zero tax.” Minority Leader Dick Gephardt can rant all he wants about the poor and middle class getting screwed by the Republicans, but the figures don’t add up.

Of course, Gephardt has a new ally in turncoat Michael Forbes, the Long Island congressman who became a Democrat a couple of weeks ago. Forbes, who is bound to be defeated in his 2000 reelection bid—the state and national GOP organizations will make sure of that—wasted no time in ingratiating himself to President Clinton, the man he voted to impeach just last December. On Capitol Hill last Thursday, accompanied by Gephardt and Sen. Tom Daschle (the party’s new hitman), Forbes addressed the person he once said “has almost retreated from any sense of remorse.” Forbes: “Mr. President, your own tireless and dedicated work... has earned the Democratic Party the trust and the confidence of a majority of Americans... You have talked to America about what unites us, while the opposition talks about what divides us. You, sir, have talked about the next generation, not the next election. Thank you so much for your leadership.”

At last count, Forbes had not yet withdrawn his endorsement of Gov. Bush.

Scouts Will Be Scouts

It’s once in a pink moon that I take the side of the New York Times editorial page over its far superior counterpart at The Wall Street Journal, but on the controversy regarding gays in the Boy Scouts, put me in the Times column.

It’s a stupid debate, only made worse by talk-radio hosts like Sean Hannity bleating Gary Bauer-like acrimony on the air.

Last Wednesday, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts can’t exclude gays from its ranks. Sounds fair to me. The Scouts argue that it’s a private organization, even though it’s had 87 million members in its history, and that it’s having its First Amendment rights violated. Seems to me that we’ve been down this road before, years ago, with racial disputes. What private club today would have the balls to publicly say, for example, “We exclude blacks, Asians, Jews and Poles”?

The Journal’s editorial, which appeared last Friday in its “Taste” section, reads: “Parents want their sons to be Boy Scouts not because they are bigots but in large part because of the moral values this private organization stands for. Surely families have rights too—notably the right to freely associate with whomever they wish.” What baloney. I was a Boy Scout for years, as were my four brothers, in Huntington’s Troop 12. My parents didn’t encourage scouting to instill “moral” values; that was their job.

Rather, they wanted us to have another outlet to meet new people, one that would include hiking, learning to tie knots, identifying flora and fauna and writing essays on citizenship and history. Besides, as my mother used to say, one more extracurricular activity would help on college applications. I didn’t care for the militaristic tone of the Scouts—in the late 60s, it was deemed a pretty uncool group—but I made a lot of friends, some of whom were probably gay. I wouldn’t have known or cared.

Obviously, any scoutmaster who molests or harasses his charges needs to be dismissed—same as any teacher or anyone else in the workplace. Otherwise, I just don’t see the problem. As the Times wrote on Aug. 5, “The organization would serve its mission better by ending its ugly prejudice against homosexuals, and adding to its list of Boy Scout qualities the virtue of tolerance.”

The Last Word on Talk

The first impression I had of Talk’s debut had nothing to do with the magazine itself, but rather with the rush of other periodicals to fawn over editor Tina Brown and showcase her de facto assassination of Hillary Clinton without even reading a copy of the monthly first. And of course the lack of imagination: Newsweek, The Washington Post, the Daily News, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, the New York Post and too many other hinterlands newspapers to mention all had the identical headline, “The Talk of the Town.” What, did Tina Brown once work at The New Yorker?

I’ll bet that in about 18 months she’ll wish she still did.

I obtained a purloined copy of Talk last Monday afternoon, two days before it went on sale, but too late for last week’s deadline. A fellow from London’s Guardian asked me to write a quick analysis of the issue, but I was tuckered out and told him to fetch the dictaphone, which he did.

After all, where does one begin? Certainly the most embarrassing element of Talk’s first number was Brown’s “tb notebook,” the essay on the final page. That the magazine’s editor-in-chief is a crummy writer is no secret; you just have to remember her schoolgirl ooze in The New Yorker over Bill Clinton’s dashing appearance in the midst of the Lewinsky scandal. The closing paragraph makes it clear that none of her subordinates have the balls to actually edit their boss: “So here’s Talk. We hope you enjoy the conversation. An editor can see only the flaws, but she’s our baby and she’s breathing.” No wonder executive editor David Kuhn is rumored to be sending his resume to other publications all over Manhattan.

Danny Hellman
Describing Talk’s look, Brown writes: “Of course, we needed a new format, one that would reflect the accelerated boom and flash of modern American life. Our editorial ideas drew us to the slightly over-size look of the European ‘news-yellows,’ with their multiple-image covers and glossy photo reportage, along with the tactile, rollable pleasure of their thin, color-saturated pages. That’s what seemed right: a portable magazine, designed to be read over a coffee or rolled up and stuffed into a gym bag rather than placed on a coffee table to be admired from afar.”

Even if you ignore the obvious slap at rival Vanity Fair, what a load of hooey. Talk, aside from the vapid name, does sport a handsome logo (I especially like the red background behind the “t”) and it’s well-designed, with top-flight illustrators and photographers. But spare me all this Euro talk of “news-yellows” and the “tactile, rollable pleasure” of putting the magazine in your back pocket. In fact, Talk looks remarkably similar to The New York Times’ Sunday magazine, with a nod to Britain’s Hello! The initial heft of the issue (I love how publisher Ron Galotti’s declaration last spring that he was limiting ad pages to 100 went by the wayside) makes it impossible to roll up; and I imagine Talk will appear robust commercially through the fourth quarter. Perhaps in the winter months, when the hype has vanished and ad budgets are slimmer, the magazine will be easier to fold into whatever shape you wish.

That is, after you’ve finished reading “The Hip List,” only the most astonishing snippet of anachronistic window dressing in the first issue. With no explanation, these are a few of the items the Talk staff, aping Egg magazine circa 1990, thinks are way cool, bay-bay: “Earth tones,” “Scabby knees,” “Vietnamese food,” “Thick-cut bacon,” “swordfish,” “Science” and “Potted meat.”

The headline writing is poor: what smart editor would let the following groaners go by without calling an executive meeting: “Fur Sure!,” “Reach Me at the Beach” and my favorite, “The Houseguest From Hell.” Then again, when a magazine heads a group of short articles with the phrase “The Conversation,” cliches elsewhere should be no surprise. Aside from Frank DeCaro’s funny piece “Krav Maga, Talk’s resident fat guy fights back,” in which he describes his discomfort at a training center, there wasn’t much of interest in “The Conversation.” (DeCaro cracked me up with this paragraph: “For one thing, my outfit was all wrong. I was the only man between there and West Hollywood wearing a lavender surfer-boy T-shirt emblazoned with a row of hibiscus flowers. I wasn’t dressed for a fight, I was dressed for a luau at Harvey Fierstein’s.”)

Whiner-for-hire James Atlas mines the same material he’s been peddling for years now: how it’s just not fair that professional journalists and authors aren’t as affluent as in decades gone by. He complains, in half-jest (and that’s giving Atlas the benefit of the doubt), that his agent is “far richer and more famous than I am.” Go into another line of work, Jimbo: you and the reading public will be happier. The New Republic’s Dana Milbank, relieved temporarily of carrying Al Gore’s water for TNR owner Marty Peretz, calls in a story about the anchor of New Hampshire’s WMUR, Karen Brown, who, surprise!, is schmoozed by presidential candidates and their minions. NYPress’ Bill Monahan contributes a throwaway Fodor’s travel short on Gloucester, MA; Roger D. Friedman, a hack writer whose presence contradicts Brown’s ballyhoo about attracting fresh and vital literary voices, has a stinker of a publicity tear-out for the Huvane Brothers, who’ve gone into the talent representation business. Friedman’s best line, in the first paragraph yet: “Either way, if your musical sequel to Bad Lieutenant hurts Ms. Talent’s career, you’ll find the answer on the double-quick. You’ll never eat anything, at all, in this town again.”

Before taking a look at the two main stories, Lucinda Franks’ nauseating exercise in Hillary Clinton hagiography, and Tucker Carlson’s dated-but-studded-with-firecrackers essay about his travels with Gov. George W. Bush, a few other minor quibbles. Galotti was up-front from the start that there would be no Chinese wall between edit and advertising in Talk; and indeed the ads disguised as “Pocket Fashion” shorts in “The Conversation” prove him as a man of his word. Martin Amis’ review of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal is three months too late and 3000 words too long; the fake letters to the editor section, “channeled through Christopher Buckley,” is a frightful effort worthy of another defunct magazine, Fame; the full-page photos of male celebrities like Hugh Grant, Ricky Williams and Harrison Ford are the sort you’d expect in a prototype, not an actual issue; and the gatefold spread “The Best Talkers in America: Talk Presents 50 Big Mouths We Hope Never Shut Up” is another derivative feature, say from Esquire circa 1999. What a waste of three expensively produced pages to shine up the likes of Alec Baldwin, Martin Scorsese, Ted Turner, Gloria Steinem, James Woods, Barney Frank, Beck, Barbara Bush and Arianna Huffington.

And that’s the basic problem, and the reason for Talk’s probable downfall: the magazine and Brown are caught in a time warp. There’s no demonstrable reason for this publication to exist, other than Brown’s urge for a new project (whether it was her choice or not to leave The New Yorker is still open to debate). Recycled writers and artists, pretty pictures, a naughty Gwyneth Paltrow, “The Unsolved Mysteries of Princess Diana,” a nod to redneck culture and that’s it. There’s not a shred of evidence that Brown understands she’s in a rapidly changing media environment: this magazine could’ve debuted at any time in the 90s. In fact, looking at Talk for the first time since last Tuesday (I never finished the magazine once Vanity Fair, with its David Maraniss book excerpt on Vince Lombardi, arrived), it already seems like an artifact of a decade that’s about to turn over. Brown will go the way of the duo she’s so closely identified with: the Clintons.

No one is better at creating hype than Tina Brown: the last two weeks are ample proof of that valuable skill. But once the buzz has died down, once the original staff turns over, what will become of Talk? Not much, I imagine, because as Michael Wolff pointed out in an excellent Aug. 9 New York column, co-owner Hearst won’t be nearly as indulgent of Brown’s expensive whims as her previous employer, Conde Nast. Sure, the first issue of Talk sold out everywhere (especially in New York and Los Angeles), and it probably will for the second issue as well, even though the projected cover star Johnny Depp doesn’t match Hillary Clinton’s sick newsstand appeal. I’ll be very curious to see next March’s issue: either Brown will get a grip and concentrate on the magazine’s actual content instead of hype, or it will ultimately fail. Bet on the latter.

As for Franks’ piece on Hillary and her husband’s tortured childhood, it’s safe to say that this Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist won’t be taken seriously again. In an article that was obviously approved of, if not actually vetted, by the White House (Sidney Blumenthal is at last let out of the doghouse!), Franks’ work is shot through with hyperbole and embarrassing adoration. As well as with mistakes. For example, she writes: “The only people who have not lashed out at [Bill Clinton] in public are those he has hurt most deeply, his wife and their daughter, Chelsea.” What about Al Gore, the last victim of the scandalous Clinton regime? Yes, after great urging by his campaign staff, he recently condemned the President’s moral behavior. But after Clinton was impeached, Gore said his boss would be remembered as one of America’s greatest presidents. Franks boosts Hillary’s supposed common touch with the recollection that in Ireland she drank from a “chipped mug,” just like the locals. The following quote could be my favorite: “In the Middle East, throngs of villagers come out to cheer her. Hillary’s popularity is rooted in something more than her celebrity status: she has actually changed people’s lives.” Like whose?

As Brown said on Good Morning America last week, “What you feel is this is a couple who share the passion for the world, for doing good for politics, for making life better for other people. This is their great bond, and it really has brought them together with almost a sort of spiritual intensity.” Maybe Tina’s right: Sexy Sadie, where did you go?

Luck is a key component to any winning presidential campaign, and George W. Bush has a truckload of it. Had Carlson’s feature on him not been eclipsed by Franks’ idolatry of Hillary, the tabloids would’ve made sport of the Texas governor for using the “f” word so frequently with a journalist. But with all the First Lady psychobabble hoopla (you’d think Baby Bill was the victim of a two-way strap-on session with his mother and gran), the story was mostly ignored. Not in the Bush camp, however.

You can be sure the candidate was given a stern dressing-down by the organization’s leader, Karl Rove. Don’t get too comfortable with reporters. Watch your mouth. Don’t make too many funny jokes. In reality, it was a good lesson for Bush: he might’ve been cocky after Lois Romano’s and George Lardner Jr.’s seven-part series in The Washington Post didn’t lay a glove on him and actually lifted his profile. For example, Hardball’s Chris Matthews was approving: praising Bush for quitting drinking cold-turkey, saying that a lot of men have the same problem and will admire the governor for his tenacity. And besides, said Matthews, an inebriated Bush was just sticking up for his dad when he verbally attacked Al Hunt in a Dallas restaurant in 1986.

That’s family, the talk-show host implied. Rev. George Will, never a fan of any Bush, was clucking in his priggish way on This Week last Sunday, complaining that GWB’s language wasn’t presidential; never mind that he and countless colleagues rush to bend over for Sen. John McCain, who’s probably a lot more profane than Bush.

But don’t expect any more close-up and personal pieces about Bush in the future.

JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and publisher of New York Press. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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©1999, Russ Smith