The Influence Merchants of Venice

by Kevin D. Williamson
Tony and Heather Podesta represent a culture of rich vulgarity.

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.

But Washington does not really have a cultural counterpoint to put it in its place. In Washington, you can have Wall Street money and Hollywood celebrity, the less vulgar but equally worldly pleasure of Ivy League intellectual pretense, and at the same time enjoy something that no Hollywood A-lister prostrating himself at the feet of Fidel Castro or Hugo Chávez will ever really understand: real power, Henry Kissinger’s “ultimate aphrodisiac.” Manhattan and Hollywood have a kind of dialogue, but Washington is very much a monologue, rather like the so-called conversation at one of those hated Georgetown parties that talk-radio guys are always accusing their rivals of living to attend. In an ancient essay on the art of name-dropping, a writer for Esquire documented a beautiful example of one-upmanship offered to a Hollywood-insiderish party guest who spoke knowingly and intimately about “Warren.” His interlocutor paused, looked at him sideways, and replied: “Oh, you mean Warren Beatty! I thought you meant Warren Buffett. I wish I had more time for things like movies.” But there’s pretty much just the one “Barack.”

The weird unipolarity of Washington is made concrete in the city’s physical environment, from its hideous monuments and brutalist architecture to its dictatorial motorcades and Sun King entourages. The presidency has become an institution that is only one gold-braided epaulet away from being the sort of thing that would have embarrassed Francisco Franco, but the broader imperial culture sits upon the city like Prufrock’s yellow fog on London. If Donald Trump’s living room calls to mind a cracked would-be Medici, what to make of the Napoleon Bonaparte–meets–Hello Kitty home that Mary Matalin and James Carville — near cultural relations of the unhappy Podestas — share upon the banks of the Potomac? (Look if you dare: The house was profiled a few years back in Architectural Digest.) Despite having the vision of a professional reader on the wrong side of 40, I recently chalked up a perfect score in a test requiring the ranking of very finely gradated differences in standardized colors, but even my Pantone-perfect eyes had not known that there were so many shades of pink. Or so many shades of hideous.

A local culture capable of producing that living room is capable of anything, and thus it is with some trepidation that I wonder exactly what it is that Mrs. Podesta means when she, in the course of demanding that the marital house become her sole property, declares that she had worked hard “to create a uniquely beautiful architectural space for the dual purposes of having a wonderful home in which to live and promoting their shared interests, both professional and personal.” Imagine the sort of mind it takes to produce that sort of English, and then for comparison recall that William F. Buckley Jr. once described his wife’s enthusiastic decorating as converting his sun room into “the bordello the Shah couldn’t afford.”

Donald Trump is an excellent reminder that the words “barber” and “barbarian” derive from the same root, but whatever his personal, aesthetic, moral, cultural, televisual, architectural, and coiffure-related transgressions, the man has undeniable business acumen. Gwyneth Paltrow has a unique talent for transforming ordinary women into would-be ax-murderers, but she also gave us all a great deal of pleasure getting her head lopped off in Seven. And I am in general not ill-disposed toward ridiculously wealthy people: A financier I know a little was the subject of what was intended as a devastating exposé of his personal extravagances, with sheets on his bed that cost more than your car, but in truth it made me smile a little. But the royal Podestas did not build any apartment towers or hotels. They did not make any popcorn-friendly movies or even practice the occult arts of complex finance. How did they pay for that weekend home in Italy? “The prix fixe includes the Select Committee on Intelligence for the first course,” Mrs. Podesta told an awestruck Washington Post, “followed by your choice of Appropriations, Judiciary, or Rules Committees.” And so it is: the influence merchants of Venice.

If only we could divorce them.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.