The Influence Merchants of Venice
Tony and Heather Podesta represent a culture of rich vulgarity.


Kevin D. Williamson

Political Washington is having a great deal of fun following the contentious divorce of “super-lobbyist couple” (as the Washington Post put it) Tony and Heather Podesta, which should be organized under the headline “Lifestyles of the Rich and Odious.” Matthew Continetti and others have chronicled the usual assortment of high-class problems — skirmishing over the multimillion-dollar Kalorama mansion, allegations of unauthorized lock-changing at the couple’s home in Venice, questions about the disposition of their 1,300-piece art collection (“I don’t know why it is, but I have artworks where the women have no heads,” he says), her new relationship with the cinematic auteur behind the fourth installment in the Griswold family’s “Vacation” franchise (Vegas Vacation, in case you’re wondering), and a great deal more.

Divorce is always a little bit sad, though its sting is diminished by repetition — it is his second marriage, her third — and by the absence of children. The nastiness is sometimes delicious: Mr. Podesta, who brought to the relationship wealth that included not only homes and art but overseas vineyards, archly notes that before taking his name the future Mrs. P. was earning only $55,000 a year: “Ms. Podesta has used Mr. Podesta’s name and reputation to advance her own business and interests,” his legal filings argue. Her own lawyers, not content for her husband’s legal team to make her look like a scheming climber, declared that the two “strategically cultivated their public image, and worked to build the ‘Heather and Tony Podesta’ brand for the success of their shared enterprise.”

The real tragedy here is that Hunter S. Thompson ended his career (by ending his life) too soon. Mr. Thompson, having entered a period of dormancy after Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail in 1972, found his literary exuberance refreshed by the tawdry details of the Peter and Roxanne Pulitzer divorce, allowing him to spin a tale in which, as he put it, “the Filthy Rich in America were depicted as genuinely filthy, a tribe of wild sots and sodomites run amok on their own private island and crazed all day and all night on cocaine,” whose biggest problem was finding “a maid who is smart enough to make a bed but too dumb to wonder why it is full of naked people every morning,” the troubling fact that “any chauffeur with the brains to work a stick shift on a Rolls will also understand what’s happening when you wake him up at midnight and send him across the bridge to a goat farm in Loxahatchee for a pair of mature billys and a pound of animal stimulant.” Here Mr. Thompson is being a bit unrealistic: Why in the world would anybody with a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce sedan choose a stick shift?

Mr. Thompson might have made something out of the Podestas. Instead, we get the drab, dreary, tepid prose of the Washington Post, which in happier times had its galleries columnist, Jessica Dawson, celebrating the couple thus: “In a gray flannel city, Tony and Heather show up in technicolor. Tony arrives in red leather shoes and peacock-bright ties. Stalk-slim Heather, a white streak issuing from a shock of dark hair, favors ensembles by international boutique designers. . . . To keep themselves in pictures, Tony and Heather jet to art fairs and biennials from São Paolo to San Sebastian — often just for the weekend. Theirs is a life led breathlessly, moving from airport to dinner party.” Ye gods.

The problem for the Post is that its editors and the other cultural traffic cops of our formerly staid imperial city have not quite managed to get their heads around Washington’s unique take on high living, a mutant subspecies of glamour that thrives only among those so entirely disconnected from reality that they become unmoored from any real sense of self-awareness — which is to say, among the literally shameless. Outside of Washington, even the most ridiculous offenders against taste have somebody to take them down a peg: When the public was treated to photos of Donald and Melania Trump’s incredibly vulgar Louis XIV penthouse in Manhattan, with its 24-karat-gold fixtures and ludicrous frescoed ceilings, the culture not only recoiled in horror but struck back: Trump was ruthlessly parodied as the murderous real-estate developer Alexander Cullen in the 1997 film The Devil’s Advocate (which is the platonic ideal of B movies), and, not being quite in on the joke, allowed his own ridiculous apartment to be used in the film. Big-money Manhattan and big-money Hollywood have enjoyed a sort of dialectic over the years, each providing the salubrious service of mocking and belittling the other. The real trouble comes when somebody comes along and manages to combine the worst of both worlds: the New York–dwelling Hollywood star, the most obvious case in point being Gwyneth Paltrow.