Jewish World Review August 22, 2001/ 3 Elul, 5761

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Classy GWHB; smug Quindlen; predictable Hertzberg


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- SUNDAY night I switched on Larry King Live, drinking castor oil by just looking at CNN's number-one embarrassment because it was a rerun of a Nov. 2, '99, appearance by former President Bush. The subject was a book of letters GHWB had written over the course of half a century, and when King presented one that described the loss of his daughter Robin to leukemia at the age of three, Bush couldn't read it, the tears welling up in his eyes. My devotion to the Bosox is sheer psychosis, but it's an affliction I chose, and of course their travails can never compare to the tragedy of parents burying a child. Bush mused that perhaps had he shown more emotion during his presidency, he'd have defeated Bill Clinton in '92, but said mixing politics and Gail Sheehy "passages" was just too unseemly.

Perhaps historians, despite being dominated by hurdy-gurdy liberals, will offer a more balanced portrait of this extraordinarily decent man than have the journalists who covered, and often lampooned, his presidency. I hope so, but have serious doubts. The media, especially those in the me-me-me Washington/New York/Boston mutual-admiration bubble, draws the lowest common denominator of nominally educated Americans today. I'm at a loss right now to name even one pundit or reporter who possesses the character of the first President Bush.

It makes me ill to read smug writers like Anna Quindlen (in the current Newsweek), spluttering that the current president ("a robot") ought to see that all citizens take as much time off as he does. Never mind that Quindlen's annual salary exceeds that of George W. Bush (perhaps her net worth as well); for this elitist, like the vast majority of her colleagues, the notion that the President would figuratively flip the bird to vacation spots like the Hamptons, Martha's Vineyard or Malibu is just more evidence that he's a moron not worthy of serious attention. Besides, Al Gore's grown a beard: that's the real news this summer (aside from Clinton's book advance and the crooked Al Sharpton's 19th political rebirth) for the vermin that dominate unfortunately large-circulation publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek and Time.

Quindlen predictably cites the relaxed working schedule of Europeans, and concludes: "George W. Bush has it in him to become the Vacation President, to lead a grateful and very tired nation to a place in which its citizens can stop and smell the onion rings." Even though her column was a feeble attempt at humor, Quindlen's slurs are dead-serious.

I then made a stab at the Aug. 20 New Yorker and couldn't get past Hendrik Hertzberg's "Comment," which once again mucked up "The Talk of the Town."

Hertzberg, a bit out of date after President Bush's flurry of activity, was about the 118th smartass to take the cheap shot about GWB's "extended" vacation in Texas. The utility journalist's real motive, however, was to favorably compare Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy, two young presidents, one of whom lived to reap millions for a memoir that might air some self-serving dirty laundry, the other who died by the same sword he brandished freely at the height of the Cold War.

Assuming this brief essay wasn't ghostwritten by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. or Ted Sorenson, Hertzberg comes up with a doozy of a postpresidential life for JFK had the libertine rich-kid served out a likely two-term administration. He writes: "Health permitting [a huge assumption, given Kennedy's history of life-threatening illnesses and reliance on Dr. Feelgood's medicine bag], Kennedy would have remained a power through the nineteen-nineties and beyond. 'Clear it with Jack' might have become the Democratic mantra. If he were alive today he would be eighty-four-just right for a pinochle game with Saul Bellow, Nelson Mandela, and the Pope."

I realize Hertzberg is stuck in Outer Limits quicksand, but I don't think the Pope would be seen in the same company as the philandering ex-president. Maybe, in the unlikely scenario that JFK were still alive, he'd be playing strip poker, hookers on the side, with Clinton, Jesse Jackson and (given Kennedy's good-natured cynicism) Newt Gingrich. Besides, as Camelot collapsed in the succeeding decades, I don't think "Clear it with Jack" would be heard too often, aside from clambakes on Cape Cod. The more interesting questions are whether Bobby Kennedy-who'd be unable to run for president in '68 with JFK alive-would've had a successful political career (my guess is yes) and saved many of his children from their self-destruction, and if Teddy Kennedy could've avoided his assorted dates with destiny (probably not).

There's no telling on what note JFK would've left office in '69, but with the sheaves of modern investigative reporting (Times writers might not have been on the payroll) during the 70s and 80s, it's valid to wonder if he'd been a welcome figure at Democratic conventions for years after he completed his tenure in the Oval Office. In fact, the revisionist biographies-his qualities outweighing the scandals-probably wouldn't have started appearing until the late 80s.

Hertzberg, on the wrong side of 50, has too much hair growing in his ears to hear today's political truth. In any case, after reading his "Comment" and then seeing a "Talk" piece by the awful Adam Gopnik, I tossed the magazine aside and confined my reading for the next several days to a collection of H.L. Mencken's columns.


JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press (www.nypress.com). Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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© 2001, Russ Smith