¡VIVA LAS VEGAS! I was in Las Vegas this weekend. I lost some money. Well, that’s not quite right; I know exactly where that money is. Vegas is simulataneously the worst place in America and the representation of what is best in America.
The dark side of the coin is pretty obvious to anyone who’s been there. In every sense, and Vegas is very much a place of the senses, this desert town is a debasement of Civilization.
Everywhere the pillars of human accomplishment are parodied, or worshipped in kitsch. I stayed in the Luxor, which is inspired by the pyramids of ancient Egypt. The walls of the elevators are decorated with hieroglyphics and the rooms have portraits of Pharaohs along the walls. There is a mini-New York and a mini-Venice. There is a hotel-mall complex based upon Caesar’s Rome, and a dinkier complex inspired by King Arthur’s Court. The new Bellagio, which I did not visit, is at least festooned with real art rather than imposters. Still, that hotel’s accomplishment is that it managed to spice its fare with a bit more authenticity, just as “the good shrimp” makes a buffet seem classier.
When I walked through the doors of my casino with its hotel appendage, I thought back to a comic book from my early childhood. In it Godzilla, yes that Godzilla, is transported back in time to the age of the dinosaurs. “As Godzilla breathed deep the hot sulfuric air,” I vaguely recall the omniscient narrator saying, “as he cast his gaze across this unforgiving land of tooth and claw, Godzilla felt the faint stirring of something familiar.” Again, as best I recollect, the narrator continued to describe Godzilla’s visit to this horrible world of long ago. “The scent of blood and the chorus of life and death bleating all around him called forth a dormant memory in the great lizard’s mind. It could be summarized in a single word: ‘Home.’”
Now, I’m not talking about me. My natural home is, in fact, my home, drenched in take-out food, television and newspapers. No, I’m talking about a giant lizard we all know well. I am talking about a man who represents all that is wrong with a place like Vegas (although there really is no place “like” Vegas). As I walked amidst the all-the-seventh-cavalry-can-eat buffets, as I assiduously noted, but avoided, the sex-in-the-champagne-room strip clubs, when I paged through the escort section in the Las Vegas phone book, when I saw the thousands of gum-snapping college girls in high heels my daughter won’t wear on Halloween when she’s fifty, I thought of one man who would be more than merely comfortable in this place.
But it wasn’t until Christopher Buckley escorted me outside to a small fair, that I could give a name to that man. Buckley pointed out a woman the size of Secaucus, New Jersey, scooping ladles of raw cookie dough for anybody to eat cold if they wanted, or baked if they were willing to wait. It was then that it struck me: This is Bill Clinton’s America.
Remember, Bill Clinton is a child of Hot Springs (not Hope), Arkansas. Hot Springs is town born of corruption, decadence and sex. It was a retreat for Chicago gangsters like Al Capone who wanted to escape Windy City winters. The Vegas mob may be on the sidelines now, but everyone knows that the place is standing on the shoulders of Bugsy Siegel, and is paved with the speed-bump sarcophagi of many a union reformer and crusading journalist.
Well, Bill Clinton has outgrown Hot Springs. But not even he could outgrow Vegas. In its dark aspect, it is a city of instant gratification and delayed responsibility. At any hour, you can order 75 double-cheese quesadillas to your room and have them served on the belly of an “intern” (or a “milkmaid” or a “Filipino houseboy,” for all anyone cares). In this, Bill Clinton’s Valhalla, the kitchen is never closed and there are always willing thong-snappers to be found. Migratory herds of fat Americans who are still awed by outdoor elevators and the world’s biggest rhinestone perpetually graze from one free buffet to another. These are Bill Clinton’s people.
Forget Dreamworks; our soon-to-be-ex-president should be working the door of the Bellagio. William Clinton is a man of round-the-clock talk who prizes the late hours more than any President in recent memory. Indoor Vegas is a world of perpetual night which literally exists without clocks. Who better to meet and greet the nouveau riche of the world than the consummate schmoozer-in-chief?
But then there is outdoor Vegas. At ground level it is hard to appreciate sometimes. But from an airplane one can grasp the miraculous accomplishment of human will and indiscriminately applied capital that it truly is. Las Vegas is quite literally an oasis, built from sand. It was built with the sole motivation of giving the people what they wanted. And in America, if the people want something, they will have it. Remember, government arrived a distant second in Las Vegas.
In a very odd way, Vegas is one of America’s last great universal institutions. The greatest was, of course, the draft-era military. The P.T. Boat on which JFK sank his way to heroism was manned by blue-collar East Coasters and poor farm boys. These men all shared the common bond of fighting shoulder-to-shoulder. Well, the draft is gone, and the public schools are far from the melting pot they once were. Rich people live in gated communities and stay fairly clear of areas that require them to mingle with the fly-over people. But in Las Vegas a plumber’s assistant can sit next to a Wall Street banker and they can form a common bond by screaming at the petty scribbler at the end of the table who hit against a dealer’s six. Seriously, not even in the bleachers of a football or baseball game do you find as many diverse people of all races from different parts of the nation striving cooperatively toward a common goal — beating the House — than you do around a craps table. It may not be the most noble purpose, but it is still something few other institutions, public or private, could ever dream of accomplishing.
You don’t have to like Las Vegas, but you must respect it. It does a bad thing extremely well. And, by the way, this is a free country. Nobody is forced to go there. Bugsy Siegel was right: if he built it, they would come.
And now that I wrote about my trip I can write off my meals.