Jewish World Review Nov. 10, 2005/ 8 Mar-Cheshvan 5766


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The last liberal comedian: A toast to Michael Wolff | It's an unassailable fact that I'm the only person in the world who reads Michael Wolff's Vanity Fair column, which is a shame because the former A-list media critic (when he dominated the pages at New York) is still very funny and very honest, attributes that separate him from his earnest, but equally Republican-hating colleagues who publish on a more regular schedule. I doubt that VF editor Graydon Carter, who sanctioned a lucrative contract for Wolff back when he wasn't considered a pariah, even remembers that the man who could once snap his fingers and Rupert Murdoch would appear, is on his roster. Wolff represents Vanity Fair's own Kevin Brown.

(In fairness, Carter can be hilarious as well, if unintentionally. In the December issue, he wrote that Iraq is not only worse than Vietnam, it's the equivalent of Little Big Horn.) Six months ago, when Wolff's audience was at least in the hundreds, I suggested that Vanity Fair insist he begin a blog (just as pop culture critic turned political pundit James Wolcott—Frank Rich with a sense of humor—has), not only to earn his keep but, more importantly, to beat today's impossibility of remaining relevant with a monthly deadline. This is all too apparent in Wolff's December column, written in mid-October, which speculates with contagious zest the Bush administration's downfall.

The man who for several years made certain that the word "mogul" appeared in his pieces just as often as "schadenfreude" does now in the Times' sports section, was in the unfortunate position of not yet knowing who'd be indicted in the Valerie Plame molehill, but he was refreshingly upfront about his glee. What other Bush-basher would admit the following: "The 48-hour timeline [referring to the frenzy of gossip just before special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald announced his findings] has now passed. Let it run. I'd live in this moment forever—with the chickens coming home to roost, and the sons of b***hes twisting in the wind. I do so hope we're not imagining this. I call around to see if I can get any buy-in, and possibly move a rumor, about Libby rolling on Cheney."

See, if Wolff had a blog or weekly outlet—I still believe Newsweek is incredibly chickens**t for not replacing political science choirboy Jonathan Alter with the equally partisan but more insightful Wolff—he'd be able to cry in his merlot or designer vodka of the moment or diet Coke and let the public know that he's righteously bummed that, contrary to what he was "hearing" in October, the "breathtaking" possibility that 21 people in the White House would be "named as having been involved in the Plame discussions," didn't pan out.

Just like those early exit polls a year ago when the now-forgotten political consultant, or campaign-wrecker, Bob Shrum was begging John Kerry to let him be the first to call the NASCAR-lovin' Democrat "Mr. President."

Still, it's clear that Wolff deserves a bigger stage. Sure, he's as conspiratorially minded as every other Boston/Washington journalist about the Iraq war "spin," and is probably doing a transatlantic rubberneck at the riots in France, rooting for the arsonists, but who else will admit that he's not an expert on the law?

This passage is vintage Wolff: "I get another bulletin: Rove will be indicted for mishandling classified documents. That doesn't sound so sexy. That might not even be a felony.

"If you think about it, this is all really cheesy stuff. Tom DeLay, for instance, the indicted House majority leader, has pretty much moved into that category wherein his undoing seems preordained, but I could not really tell you, even after some careful study, what the prosecutor in Texas has indicted DeLay for."

No one else can either, except that DeLay's a despised figure in the media and if his old nemesis Ronnie Earle wants to cook up some penny-ante charges and lasso the GOP symbol of greed, white trashiness, awful taste in pop music, well, that's cool. (DeLay, off his game, sealed his own fate with fiscal conservatives for his idiotic comments on federal budget cuts, so he's exhausted the patience of almost everyone, if for different reasons.)

But it's not only monthly columnists like Wolff who are undone by the radically transformed media industry. In the Nov. 7 issue of The New Yorker, for example, David Remnick's lead "Talk of the Town" piece about Bush ("Hell Week") was instantly dated when it appeared on newsstands. I happen to believe Remnick, despite his status as true-blue Chuck Schumer Democrat, is one of the country's finest editors and the weekly he runs remains vibrant, even as almost every other periodical has a musty smell about it.

A few weeks before Tony Blair (a pet of liberals back in the Clinton "Third Way" years, before he sided with Bush on Iraq) stood for reelection in Britain in May, Remnick wrote an extraordinary profile of the beleaguered prime minister, notable not only for its excruciating detail but also willingness to let Blair explain his support for a war that the editor clearly didn't agree with.

Anyway, in "Hell Week," in which Remnick summed up the President's skein of political stumbles, particularly the revolt from conservatives over Harriet Miers, he solemnly, perhaps falling prey to fervent hope, delivered the last rites to Bush's presidency. Remnick says, "In his anger, and after all his many failures, the President, quite suddenly, seems unpopular, alone, and adrift. Thirty-nine months—five months more than John F. Kennedy's entire Presidency—remain in the second term of George W. Bush."

Never mind the heart-tugging reference to Kennedy—can you imagine what journalism will be like when its opinion-shapers have no living recollection of Camelot?—and think about Remnick's sweeping statement. Surely he knows, as was demonstrated the day his article was published when Bush rallied his base with the nomination of conservative Samuel Alito, that the entire political landscape could change before next summer and be more favorable to Bush and Republicans. Or it might be a lot worse.

You can't read a major daily newspaper this fall without seeing a long story about the parallels between 1994—when the GOP stunned the Beltway with its takeover of Congress—and midterm elections of 2006. Bush's polling numbers really stink—unlike Bill Clinton's at a similar period in '93, by the way—and GOP incumbents are getting nervous. The Washington Post last Sunday ran a front-page story on this subject, taking samples from the poll it conducted with ABC, and provided numerous examples of a pissed-off electorate. One extract: "Republicans may find solace in the fact that 60 percent of those surveyed approved of the job their own House member is doing—but that, too, was the case one year before the 1994 election. Then the percentage declined throughout 1994; if the same happens next year, Republicans will be in serious trouble."

Thanks for the prescient heads-up, guys, but let's also remember that 11 years ago no newspaper, lacking the precedent of Newt Gingrich's "Republican Revolution" to cite, was even close to predicting that the Democrats' decades-long rule in the House would fall. In fact, it wasn't until two weeks before that election that even a minority of political handicappers (meaning most reporters and columnists) would commit to the possibility of a major upheaval.

It could be that the GOP won't take stock from the Democratic showing in '94, but that's doubtful. In addition, back then the media was practically in the stone age, without the Internet to stir up support or resentment, raise money quickly for candidates or debunk stories in the mainstream press that at one time went unchallenged.

Meanwhile, here's a lonely toast to Michael Wolff, a left-winger who deserves better.

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

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