Friends, you may recall that, a couple of years ago, I wrote a piece called “Ashcroft with Horns.” It analyzed–or attempted to analyze–the hysteria and unreason that the attorney general induces in some people. I quoted an old Washington hand who said, “There’s some Ashcroft mooma-jooma–some mo-jo, some karma, some vibe–that drives liberals nuts. It makes otherwise sane people say crazy things.”
Well, as you don’t need to be reminded, the Ashcroft mooma-jooma is alive and well. Come with me to Zankel Hall, in New York, where Thomas Hampson (the baritone) is giving a master class. Hampson is known as one of the most thoughtful and intelligent people in the business, a reputation that is justified. So he’s giving this class–full of soundness and wisdom–and then he says the following: “People will always sing, and will always write poetry, and it will always piss off John Ashcroft.” Then he covers his mouth, as though he’s said something bad and might get in trouble for it.
The audience, of course, roars, and applauds maniacally. As one. There is no dissent in the hall. It might as well be Nuremberg. It doesn’t occur to anyone, as far as I can tell, that Hampson has said a dumb and defamatory thing.
You can say that people should not stray from their fields of expertise, but Hampson is a well-rounded guy. He goes to golf camp, for heaven’s sake! It’s just that he’s caught Ashcroft fever, has absorbed the prejudice. He may not know anyone who approves of Ashcroft, or knows anything (real) about him. And he made that remark safe in the assumption that everyone present would agree with him. It was the cheapest kind of shot.
Do you think that Hampson knows that the AG is a singer (of sorts)? Do you think he knows that the greatest threats to speech in the last generation or so have come from the left? It’s not conservatives who are imposing those speech codes on campus, believe me. It’s not conservatives who have made it practically a lynchable offense to say “stewardess.”
I might have told you, several months ago, about being at a dinner party on the Upper East Side. A woman–who has just regretted that President Bush wasn’t killed on 9/11, by the by–says that the country is going to hell. “Oh, in what respect?” I ask. She says–reflexively–”Patriot Act.” Needless to say, she doesn’t know the first thing about the Patriot Act. Nothing. If she did, of course, she couldn’t oppose it. But “Patriot Act” is a scare word, just like “Ashcroft,” and there is no logical content behind them, just ignorant emotion.
Incidentally, I left the Hampson master class after that Ashcroft crack, and the audience’s sickening–and 100 percent predictable–reaction. It’s just hard to take seriously anybody who would say such a thing, no matter what his main subject is. Tommy Hamp has got the Ashcroft mooma-jooma. But then, who, in his environment, doesn’t?
‐There is much to say about WMD and David Kay, and Charles Krauthammer and John Podhoretz have said a lot of it well. But I will try out on you only a little medical metaphor: If you operate to excise a tumor and it turns out to be benign, are you wrong to have operated? Should you have left it alone, hoping for the best?
Okay, the doctor is out (you’ll be glad to know).
‐And I will remind you of what Jack Straw said, in Davos: The U.N. issued 173 pages of “WMD concerns” (as Straw put it). Those pages included the “strong presumption”–those were the U.N.’s words–the “strong presumption” that Saddam harbored 10,000 liters of anthrax. “Were we to do nothing?” asked Straw. “Nothing?”
‐The New York Post reports an interesting item, cribbed from New York magazine (so mine is a third-hand blurb, you might say). An actress named Gaby Hoffmann–no, not Abbie Hoffman, Gaby Hoffmann–overheard two people in a café talking about voting Republican. Apparently, they were thinking about it. She went up, pounding her fists on the table, and called them “a**holes,” pronouncing herself an “eco-socialist.” She stormed away screaming, “Capitalism is destroying the world.”
The Post contacted the lady’s rep, who said she was merely “urging [the diners] to vote Democrat.”
Okay, but isn’t the Democratic party supposed to be a capitalist one too? Isn’t it?
‐Let me give you my favorite part (so far) of Joe Eszterhas’s Hollywood exposé, at least from what I was able to glean from a Post article about the book. Glenn Close was hesitant to take that part in Jagged Edge because the character commits a murder in the final scene. According to the Post’s report, “Close told Eszterhas ’some of my friends in New York’ would see it as a ‘vigilante movie’ with right-wing tendencies.”
No, that’s more Charles Bronson, darling. And, hey, those friends in New York? I think I know them!
‐Do you mind if I dump on the New York Times a bit? I didn’t think so, you fringy Impromptus-ites. Granted, I’m a partisan and a Times critic, but I do expect to learn a thing or two from the paper. And I simply couldn’t read Saturday’s lead story on the economy, because it was so laden with spin–with commentary meant to negate any positive economic news, lest it benefit the administration. I mean, I couldn’t even get the facts–facts necessary to profit from any commentary. (This was a news story, mind you–the paper’s leading one that day.)
Then there was this delicious bit. You know how they refer to partial-birth abortion as “what opponents term ‘partial-birth . . .’” or something like that? Get this, from a story on John Edwards: “. . . business groups that support what they call tort reform . . .”
Do you love it?
And when they refer to Ahmad Chalabi–as in this article–they say, “Ahmad Chalabi, a Governing Council member with strong backing from the Pentagon.” Perfectly true. But so what? This is simply a Times attempt to taint him. I support him, too, and I don’t work for the Pentagon. Do you?
And this isn’t political (particularly), but check out this headline from Saturday: “New Yorkers Can’t Beat Death / But Data Says They’re Gaining.” I wonder if the Pentagon is a strong backer of data as a plural word.
‐More dumping on the Times? Well, let’s do it through the International Herald Tribune, which might as well be the Times. And let’s do it, specifically, through Alan Cowell, one of their star reporters.
While in Davos, he wrote the following, in a news story: “At his previous appearance in January 2003 . . . Ashcroft faced wide criticism of the harsh measures he had taken to combat terrorism.”
Now, I don’t think the United States has taken harsh measures–in fact, I think that we have taken extraordinarily mild measures, given the magnitude of the attack on us, and the threat outstanding. But you can make an argument that these measures are harsh.
Still: In a news story? In what should be a straight, neutral description?
Cowell also reported an Ashcroft quip, one that “apparently referr[ed] to questioning in the United States about the extent to which civil liberties have been subjugated to security measures taken in the name of pre-empting terror attacks.” You can almost hear the writer chanting “Not in our name”! I mean, his words are loaded with spin, with a bias, an attitude. And that’s fine, of course–Impromptus couldn’t live without it. But these are news columns, mind you, and the difference ought to be obvious and strenuously maintained.
‐For all of you who lament the mushiness of the Bush administration, I give you a comment from Philip Stephens, in his Financial Times column. He refers (not flatteringly, believe me) to the “radical conservatism of the US administration”–and that is a common view in Europe, and in the left regions of the United States, remember. So comfort yourself with that, next time you think of W.’s reign as a time of virtual Rockefellerism.
And you might swallow, too, this George Will column, which explains, as well as can be done in a brief space, what this administration is accomplishing, to conservative–even libertarian!–ends.
‐Another curiosity from the Financial Times. An article about Conrad Black described his wife, Barbara Amiel, as “a vocal Zionist.” I wonder what the paper meant by that. Traditionally, a Zionist is one who supports the reestablishment of a Jewish homeland in Israel. And a “vocal Zionist,” I suppose, is one who speaks her mind.
Such a strange thing, that: “Zionist.” And who are the non-Zionists (vocal or not)? Those who oppose the right of Israel to exist?
‐A couple of weeks ago, Jerry Nachman died. He was a veteran journalist, something of a character, a bit of a legend, a fixture in New York and a national presence as well. I liked him a lot. Got a kick out of him. Thought he was interesting and fair. He was producer–or whatever they’re called–of the Bill Maher show for a while. (This was the old one–Politically Incorrect.) I remember he sat me down in the green room and said, “Now Jay, your job is to sit in the Hitler chair. You have to be the bad guy. But someone has to sit there, and you can accomplish some good in it, so have fun.”
And when I was on his MSNBC show later–Nachman’s show, not Maher’s–he would tease me about how retrograde NR was, and I would reply that it was even more retrograde than he knew. His teasing was good-hearted, unlike (that of) some. You have to miss that.
‐And at Carnegie Hall, it was a hard, hard weekend. Robert Harth, the executive and artistic director, dropped dead at 47. Just like that. Marilyn Horne said before her master class on Saturday afternoon, “Everyone’s in kind of a daze, thinking about him, about how much we loved him, how kind he was to everyone, how he made everyone feel good. And he was just hitting his stride here at Carnegie Hall.” So true. That night–Saturday night–Vladimir Feltsman, who had given a piano recital, played an encore in his honor (the C-sharp-minor waltz of Chopin). He played it fittingly well, too.
I interviewed Harth last October, I think, and found him a gentle, intelligent, and pleasant man–maybe a touch New Agey, but full of realism and savvy. He was doing superbly.
But Marilyn Horne said something important on Sunday afternoon, before the gala concert that celebrated her 70th birthday, and the tenth anniversary of her foundation (the Marilyn Horne Foundation): It was a relatively short life, yes. But a good one. A very good one.
‐Before I go, I want to make sure you know that Nat Hentoff–the often studly Nat Hentoff–has “renounced” (his word, “renounced”) an award he received from the American Library Association in 1983. Why? Because the ALA, of course, won’t stick up for imprisoned independent librarians in Cuba. They’re in thrall to Castro and the myths of his dictatorship, like most everybody else.
But not Hentoff. And not you, cool ones. Catch you later.