I feel sorry for the journalist Johann Hari. Brits know him as a blubbery liberal with manic depression who hates religion. Americans might recognize him from a zillion appearances on the Rachel Maddow show. He’s a divisive figure. A pal once said to me, “I narrowly missed Hari at Cambridge.” I replied, “You mean he graduated before you arrived?” He said, “No, I mean I tried to run him over with a Volkswagen and missed.” This week it was revealed that Mr. Hari has been cleaning up interviews with people by inserting things they've said or written elsewhere into their reported dialogue. For instance, Hari interviewed a gay rugby player (golly!) and quoted him as saying of his sexuality: “I used to visualise it as a little ball. I know it's crazy, but I'd imagine this little ball in my stomach and I'd have an encounter with a man and the ball would just be there. Then from that day to the next encounter, be it one month, two months, three months, all I could see was this gold liquid dripping out of the ball. That was the real me seeping out”. However, in an earlier interview with Wales Online, the same man who leaked gold was reported as saying of his predilection, “I used to visualise it as a little ball. I'd imagine this ball in my stomach and I'd have an encounter with a man and the ball would just be there. Then from that day until the next encounter, be it one month, two months, three months, all I could see was this gold liquid dripping out of the ball. That was the real me seeping out”. To his credit, when he heard the charge, Hari immediately cried mea culpa. There is now an inquiry going on as to whether or not his prestigious Orwell Prize should be rescinded. How many historians, writers or journalists have not accidentally retold a story they heard from someone else? In my own writing I often tidy up quotes, omitting all the “ums” and “ahs”. Certain political clichés are so common that it’s possible to accurately write down what a politician said and, because they’ve said it a million times before to a million other people, accidentally commit plagiarism. Given the way that information is recycled over the internet, it’s probably time that writers collectively rethought the rules of the game. But Janet Daley of the Telegraph is right that the problem isn’t that Hari tidied up quotes: it’s that he tidied them up to make the interviewees sound better. Almost all of his subjects were leftwing and Hari helped them to make their case with a few cosmetic tweaks. Surprisingly, few people have yet pointed out that Hari also has a nasty habit of misattributing quotes from people he doesn’t like. In 2010, Hari went on BBC Dateline and quoted from a 2001 letter written by Cardinal Ratzinger (before he became the better known "Pope Benedict XVI") to every Roman Catholic bishop on the subject of pedophilia. The chubby churnalist claimed that the letter said, “cases of child abuse should be dealt with in the most secretive way, restrained by perpetual silence, and everybody is to observe the strictest secret.” Inferring his complicity in covering up child abuse, Hari demanded Pope Benedict’s immediate arrest. In an open letter to Britain’s Catholics, who were awaiting a state visit by the Pontiff, Hari wrote, “Which side, do you think, would be chosen by the Nazarene carpenter you find on your crucifixes? I suspect he would want Ratzinger to be greeted with an empty, repulsed silence, broken only by cries for justice – and the low approaching wail of a police siren.” (I love it when people who don’t believe Jesus existed challenge his followers to behave more like … Jesus. Isn’t it odd how non-believers use JC as the international benchmark of moral behavior? Perhaps there’s something in this Christianity nonsense.) This was an example of Johann Hari leaping unquestionably on a source, “tidying it up”, and turning 2+2 into 5. The letter was not secret: it was published within days of being sent. The point of the missive was to remind bishops of the particular gravity of child abuse and to make it clear that Ratzinger was determined to drive it out of the Church. The word “secret” does not appear in the letter, although Hari may have translated the prose by his own fashion. It was a sign of how seriously the Vatican took child abuse that it was to be henceforth dealt with solely by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - an elevation of the crime to the status of breaking the sacramental desecration. Ratzinger instructs that individual cases be referred to tribunals and it is easy to see how someone unfamiliar with cannon law would presume that equated to a cover-up. But nowhere, nowhere, in the letter does Cardinal Ratzinger tell anyone not to contact the police. The absence of this explicit instruction should not be taken by a journalist to mean that the future Pope did not expect or wish sex offenders to go to jail. Only laziness, or hostility, would make a reporter presume that. Throughout his career, Ratzinger was the scourge of a Vatican establishment that undoubtedly tried to suppress the truth about the scale of child abuse in the Catholic Church. His efforts were continuously obstructed and the delay has sometimes been misattributed to Ratzinger himself. Two examples: the New York Times claimed that while Bishop of Munich, Ratzinger hushed up the crimes of the pedophile priest Peter Hullermann. To quote the Times, “The future pope approved his transfer to Munich.” In fact, Ratzinger sent him to attend psychoanalysis in Munich. It was Hullermann’s local vicar who later, without the diocese’s knowledge, transferred him to a parish. Likewise, it is often claimed that Ratzinger deliberately failed to investigate Fr. Lawrence C. Murphy of Minnesota for sex crimes that had occurred twenty years previously, despite the masses of evidence against him. In fact, Ratzinger’s deputy was in charge of the case, it was the local bishop who neglected to report the assaults, and when Ratzinger did call him to justice, Murphy conveniently died. Hari has cited both of these cases as proof of Benedict XVI’s guilt - distracting those who seek justice from the real culprits for the sake of a little media sunlight. Johann Hari’s plagiarism represents a wider degradation of reportage that should give us all pause to reflect. In my own field, great historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose have been accused of plagiarism, of lifting whole passages from other works and inserting them as their own (in Ambrose's case, he plundered the autobiography of George McGovern). Such theft reflects a view of prose as something functional, without inspiration or poetry. It is purely there to tell a story and, if someone else has already done it better, then beg, borrow, or steal. But Hari’s bigger, more serious crime is the bending of reality to suit a political agenda. It is his plagiarism in the pursuit of personal vendetta that is so distasteful. Conservatives do it, liberals do it and neither should be forgiven easily. I hope the British establishment won’t let Mr. Hari off the hook.
Last night I wandered into the living room, turned on the light, and found a spider as big as the sun crawling across the ceiling. He was carrying his dinner on his back, and his dinner looked almost as outraged as me. Normally, I have a shoot-on-sight policy with arachnids and would’ve massacred him with a broom. But something about the way he stood very still, hoping that I wouldn’t notice him, pretending to be a light fitting, appealed to me. He seemed to be saying, “Nothing to see here, guv. On your way.” I acted like I hadn’t noticed him, got my glass of milk, turned off the light, and returned to bed. In the morning he was gone.I guess that the nightlife in my apartment confirms that summer is finally here. Late June and it’s 74-78 degrees in North Hollywood. It’s ten degrees higher in the valley and ten degrees lower on the beaches … but nobody would want to go there (the coast is populated by retirees and gangs). Venturing outside is risky, riding a bus is suicidal. I’ve stayed indoors almost all of the week, the curtains pulled to give the apartment the feel of a Bedouin tent. Yesterday I walked to and from the supermarket and almost collapsed along Franklyn Ave with heat stroke. By the time I got home, the beers were hot to pop and the ice-cream was slush. How can anything be done in this heat? This is my first year without a summer holiday. Normally in June I stop functioning altogether and just watch Randall and Hopkirk Deceased at Nick Waghorn’s house until the heat passes. One of the tragedies of modern capitalism is that there’s no sense of season when it comes to work. Time is too precious in Los Angeles to waste with cult TV and soda stream, but I still insist that June to August really ought to be written off. It’s the time of year when the gods of summer take over; it should be a Bacchanal of strawberries and beer. But five hundred years of Protestantism have put pay to that. Thank you John Calvin for making us feel guilty about taking a vacation.
*** Yes, it is the time of year for watching movies, although the highstreet cinema is to be avoided. James Franco is starring in two misguided remakes (Straw Dogs and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes - both terrible first time round) and the superhero genre has hit a nadir with the Green Lantern. How many more movies about losers donning a g-string and saving the world can we take? One has to turn to independent cinema to see anything good anymore. And so this week I attended a private screening of a new documentary, Bombay Beach at the Creative Artists Agency headquarters in WeHo. Getting into the event was an event in itself. The CAA is the KGB of Hollywood talent agencies: a huge unmarked building covered in security personnel (just in case someone tries to assassinate James Franco). They even sweep your car boot before letting you park in the garage. Upstairs the décor is minimalist, with long sweeping white staircases leading up to glass galleries and, beyond that, to the stars. Actors and writers call it The Death Star, but it’s more like a mental processing plant – it’s what I imagine the Scientologist heaven would look like. Bombay Beach, however, is a town in the California desert on the cusp of the Salton Sea. The Salton Sea was created in 1905 when the Colorado River broke its banks and spilled out over the sand. For a few decades, the landlocked Salton was a huge tourist draw – a cheap place for Westerners to enjoy water-sports and a fantastic array of birdlife. Bombay Beach was one of many towns built to host the predicted influx of people. But the Salton has no run-off or fresh source, so it quickly became over-salted and polluted. Fertilizer spilt from nearby farms poured liquid filth into the water. The Salton is now a site of accelerated, toxic change – a sea that lived and died within a few decades. Bombay Beach is nearly empty and the shoreline is covered in dead fish. At present, the Salton’s salinity is 4%. It is estimated that when it passes 4.4%, everything but the algae will die. Bombay Beach is so far from the nearest gas station that the locals get around on golf carts. Bombay Beach the place is a cruel joke by God. Bombay Beach the movie is an aesthetically astonishing documentary by Alma Har'el about the lives of three people living on the salty dunes. One is a marvelous old loner who feeds himself by selling boot-legged cigarettes. He lives in a trailer park populated by criminals. He could move in with his grandchildren several hundred miles away, but he refuses to talk to his family on account that one of them married a gentleman of color. The stubborn old geezer remembers waking one night and confronting a prowler. The old boy pulled out his gun and the burglar ran away. A few months later the thief returned to buy cigarettes: the place is too damned small to bear a grudge. Some of the best scenes of the movie feature the warhorse driving across the dunes in his golf cart. Towards the end of the film, he has a stroke, falls down and is rushed to hospital. His family takes him to live in Fresno. He doesn’t like the damp or the chlorophyll. So he returns home triumphant in the last reel. I gave him a little cheer from the back row.The second character is an African-American boy who quits Los Angeles and moves to Bombay Beach to escape a gang. It’s a stroke of genius on the part of the film maker that she managed to find someone who actually wanted to live in this dump. What is boredom and death to some is peace and liberty to others. After his cousin was shot in LA, our hero was “scared straight”. He knuckled down to his school work, wowed everyone on the football field, and even got the girl of his dreams. The story is a testament to the endurance of the American Dream – proof that anyone can make it if they try. The third story is by far the complex and tragic. It focuses on a seven year-old boy with ADD who seems trapped in a permanent daydream. His folks went to jail a decade ago because they were caught blowing things up in the desert; the police said they were a militia and took their kids into protective custody. Now on their third strike before permanently losing their children, the boy’s parents are doing their best to eek a normal existence. That seems to involve breeding Chihuahuas and getting drunk. The pappy is a remorseful blowhard – probably an Irishman – who gets into a fight with everyone he meets. The mother lives to be pregnant. Both are terrified of the authorities. So when their son is diagnosed with ADD, they give him all the medication the doctors suggest – no questions asked. Tragedy strikes when the little boy overdoses on Ritalin and has a mild stroke. I won’t give away the ending, but the GOP ought to run it as an ad against Obamacare. Upon leaving the cinema, I dived into the California crowd and was astonished by the response. Many people remarked that the movie was “obviously about poverty” and the need for the government to “do something”, anything to help. A common reflection was that “the wrong people are breeding”; or that life for the little boy was barely worth living and he would be better off in an orphanage. My companion for the night called the mother “fucking stupid” because she fed her child a prescribed overdose. As we chugged our mineral water, lifted drop by drop from some Alpine brook, the gulf between the two Americas never looked bigger. Whiggish liberalism is so very snobbish. It’s all about looking at other people and thinking, “If only you would let me improve you.” I saw Bombay Beach in an entirely different way from the people who “Ooohed” and “Urghhhed” in the audience. To me, the boy and his family were victims of the welfare state. Who cares if they blew things up, if they were in a militia or not? They could be driving tanks or marrying wild geese, it’s none of the federal government’s business. And once trapped in the horrible cycle of carrot and stick that we laughingly call charity (inspections and welfare checks to you and me), they were forced to do whatever they were told – or face the ultimate sanction. The mother only fed her child those drugs because if she didn’t she would have been separated from him for good. "Kill or cure", "leave or die". Such is the cruel logic of the taxpayer’s compassion. This is not to say that the government should do nothing, or that domestic abuse should go unchecked. The family’s household was pretty disgusting and some intervention was obviously necessary, if only to affect a much needed spring clean. But the tragedy of people stranded on Bombay Beach was so enigmatic and all-encompassing as to be beyond systemic. It was Southern gothic. And anyone who loves Southern gothic will tell you that suffering cannot be alleviated, it can only be endured. With a little bourbon, it can almost seem witty. Perhaps the young boy would grow into the old racist, charging across the dunes in his golf cart. Perhaps that wasn’t such a bad way to live anyhow? In this LA summer heat, the residents of Bombay Beach seem heroic rather than pathetic - getting on with their lives out there in the desert. I admire that they have the energy for drinking and changing the TV station, much less birth and bigotry.But then, I too have experienced the misery of the dole queue. I went on benefits for one week after leaving college. I was searched by a policeman, nipped by sniffer dogs, and interrogated by a fat woman with an oxygen mask. After seven days of humiliation, I signed off. I had greater dignity than to live off tax payers’ money. So I moved back in with my parents instead.
This is the tale of two revolutions. One is very British, the other is very American. Readers can skip back and forth to which ever applies to them.
Today, for the first time, I felt at home in Los Angeles. I interviewed the writer Lionel Chetwynd, who lives way up in the Hollywood Hills. His house is one of those marvels of LA design – you walk a mile up a mountain, enter through the garage, and then take a lift a mile back down to the living-room. He grew up in London and did a year at Oxford; he even turned out to be the brother of Claire Reyner, the British agony aunt. But it wasn’t Lionel’s spookily good impersonations of Hackney folk that made me feel at home. O no. It was the fact that he offered me a cigar. It was a sweet, spongy Dominican, four inches long with a brazen black nipple.
In most US municipalities there is a fascist guerilla war against smoking going on. People will honk their horns if they see you doing it in public. In a few years time we can expect cigarettes to be banned, yet marijuana will probably be compulsory. In the absence of any decent bars, I’ve taken to relieving the strains of Hollywood-living by smoking one Dunhill a day. I love shocking the Angelinos by hanging around on street corners blowing smoke rings at cars. My favorite place to do it is outside the Scientology Celebrity Center at the bottom of my street. Angry eyes glare out at me from under the blinds: I’m sure I once spotted Tom Cruise giving me the bird from the fifth floor. I don’t know why the Scientologists worry so. Doubtless, L Ron’s mind could lung cure cancer as easily as it could break breezeblocks. I wonder, how many Thetans can dance on the head of a pin?
The cigar threw me into a patriotic state of mind. I’m halfway through my research trip and it’s usually at this point that I start to feel a little homesick. The past few nights, I’ve indulged in a James Bond marathon as a way of getting by. I’ve just completed Goldfinger in half-hourly installments. Of course, these movies are a loving reminder not of Britain as it is – but Britain as it was. The series starts with Sean Connery in a hat (bravo, Sir!) taking on the world with nothing more than a magnetic wristwatch and a potato peeler. It was a better age, in which real men drank in the afternoon and when it came to convincing women to have sex, “no” apparently meant “yes” on the fourth try. By the end of the 1980s, Bond had morphed into Roger Moore – a geriatric superhero giving Mother Russia one for the lads. The first of these movies that I ever saw was Roger’s last: A View to a Kill. To me, Bond will always be a 73 year-old man looking terrified as a naked Grace Jones bears down upon him. After that movie, it was all downhill. Britain was gone and into the wasteland strode a series of Ken Dolls to play its once-archetypal hero. Don’t even get me started on what they’ve done to Dr. Who, which is now Queer as Folk in Space.
In the course of re-exploring the charms of the Old Country, I stumbled upon a very British rebellion going on at Cambridge. The university is electing a new chancellor. As is tradition in post-Thatcher/Blair/Brown/Richard Branson Britain, the post is going to the highest bidder. Barron Sainsbury is the favorite because, frankly, he’s donated a lot of money and promises to give more in the future. Academia desperately needs the cash, so the choice is logical. But some former students have decided to resist the walkover by offering up an alternative candidate. Of course, the rebellious instinct is global; it’s their choice of candidate that is uniquely British. They’re putting up Brian Blessed, a character actor and amateur mountaineer.
Only in Britain – only in Britain – would such a worthy cause by championed by such an eccentric figure. It’s as if they chose to fight the War on Terror with selected readings from AE Houseman, or to reduce global warming with hand fans. And yet, Blessed’s nomination makes a certain sense in the British context. He’s beyond politics, so he won’t alienate conservatives or liberals. And he’s fondly remembered by the kids of baby boomers for chewing up the scenery in almost every TV serial going. Blessed’s ridiculous swagger has a touch of the epic. One can imagine him playing the part of a chancellor in a way that Sainsbury could not. Barron Moneybags may well be a very talented entrepreneur, but he looks like an accountant from Surrey.
The question is, should I make the effort to go to Cambridge to vote for Blessed? It’s probably a boring, complicated procedure that involves wearing a gown and kissing a swan. And so, in that very British way, I shall only make my voice heard on this vitally important issue if there’s the promise of an open bar. If that’s in the offing, then Blessed will get my vote. My only real regret is that Roger Moore isn’t on the ballot.
That same degree of bloody-mindedness causes me to sympathize with Andrew Breitbart, the man who broke the infamous Anthony Weiner scandal. I had lunch with him this week in fashionable Westwood. He arrived high on adrenaline after thirty days of storming the media, insulting and being insulted in equal measure. He looked like a prophet, a plumper Russian monk with wild white hair and wide-blue eyes. I told him that I had enjoyed every minute of his journey from madman to martyr. I too thought he was insane when he first told the world that Congressman Weiner had been sending women pictures of his genitalia. His claims seemed too elaborate and too many. He reminded me of McCarthy at Wheeling crying “I have a list of a hundred, nay a thousand names! A Communist in every household!” When Weiner denied it all, I believed him. How could something so ludicrous be true? And when Breitbart stormed the stage at Weiner’s final press conference to demand an apology I – like every other lame-duck journo watching – thought the poor man had flipped his lid. Then Weiner took the podium and said, “It’s all true … and I owe Andrew Breitbart and apology.” And, in an instant, so did we all.
Breitbart and his internet revolution pose two challenges to the mainstream American media. First, Breitbart insists that he doesn’t want to promote one worldview; he just wants to make it possible to openly express as many opinions as possible. The division of ideas into acceptable and “off limits” is regrettable and has reduced a great deal of public discourse to a witch-hunt. Conservatives have to constantly battle inferences that they are racist, sexist, homophobic, or insane. I think that Breitbart and many others see Weiner’s confession as validating the grander libertarian argument for total freedom of information and expression. One man’s sexual disgrace might be an unusual vehicle for that, but seeing the extraordinary energy that it has poured into Andrew Breitbart, I can understand why it might feel like a watershed moment in the battle of ideas.
Second, he wants journalists to be more honest about their politics. It is true that liberals often disguise their liberalism as objectivity – “I’m just giving the facts rather than pushing a political agenda.” In contrast, conservatism is often presented as the product of intellectual bias or base cultural prejudice. One movie producer told me that he was critical of extremism of both left and right, except to say that the left is all the time and everywhere factually accurate. Such opinions – that social democracy is as reasonable a deduction as gravity or evolution – are common in Hollywood and shape the way news is presented. But there really is no objective truth when it comes to politics – just competing claims to the truth. Breitbart is refreshing in that he doesn’t even want to be seen to present disinterested facts. He wants to be a moral crusader, and he wants other journalists to compete with him on equally honest terms.
It occurred to me, as Breitbart darted back and forth between our conversation and his IPad, that he is a genius of the internet age. The mass proliferation of ideas and information, the preference for opinion over cold facts, the triumph of the amateur … all of these have found their culmination in this moment. It was a crime committed by Twitter, leaked by an email, and prosecuted over the internet. But I wonder if the unreality of the process extends to the punishment? Personally, I think that Weiner has committed a form of existential sexual assault. If he had jumped out of a bush and exposed himself to these women, he’d be in jail right now. But the internet lends distance to events, rendering them virtual – like the money we use and the politics we play. As each year passes, our grip of reality loosens. And that, I suspect, caused Weiner to do what he did in the first place. The pixilated little sex pest.
It’s a dull grey June here in Los Angeles. Mercury is in retrograde, everything is going wrong. I failed my driving test on Monday for a (record breaking?) seventh time. I didn’t even make it out of the parking lot. Within five seconds of pulling away from the DMV, a truck drove into the side of the car. The examiner was ruder than necessary. I sucked up the abuse for a good five minutes before I lost my cool and said: “The only reason why I couldn’t see the truck, madam, was because your enormous gut was blocking the view.” That was harsh but true. I rode home with my driving instructor in an angry, embarrassed silence. My chauvinist, fatist outburst means I can never return to the Hollywood DMV again. I’ve officially given up trying to drive anyway. I am to spend the rest of my life on buses or on foot, like some juvenile environmentalist.
I spent some time in New York last week. Manhattan is fantastic for underground bars and seedy places that still mix Negronis. But above ground it was stifling hot, with a watery jungle heat that turned every afternoon into a warm bath. My friend, El, lives in a decayed old block in the West Village with marble floors and peeling paint. She described coming home one night to find a water beetle the size of her fist asleep on the bathroom floor. She was too drunk to be frightened, so she gently cupped it in her hands and slipped it back down the plug hole. We spent hours sitting by the air conditioning; watched a few South Parks, had a few laughs.
I was lucky to break out for an afternoon to interview the actor Robert Vaughn at his house in Connecticut. Get out of New York and you are suddenly in New England proper. The temperature dropped, the grey asphalt gave way to green woodland. For miles and miles my train chugged through tiny villages called Hobart’s Corner or Widdlefield St. Martin. I had to get out at something unpronounceable beginning with “K” and take a cab another thirty minutes into the woods. How wonderful it was to see landscape that was made green by God rather than by the Los Angeles Municipal Sprinkler System! How nice to smell something other than petrol and weed!
I arrived early and strolled up the drive in a pale blue jacket and bowtie. Mrs. Robert Vaughn spotted me from the kitchen window and thought I was a salesman. She sent her husband out to accost me.
“Can I help you?” he asked from the porch. He couldn’t hear my reply and shouted back, “We don’t want anything today thank you.”
“I’m here to interview you,” I said. “I’m early.” He smiled and clasped my hand and led me into the house.
His wife’s voice echoed from the kitchen: “Why have you let him in, Robert? We don’t want to buy anything.”
“He’s my guest, honey,” said Robert.
“Is he religious? Is he a Mormon?” she replied, apparently too deaf to understand.
“No, it’s my guest,” Robert repeated, a little louder this time.
“Why do you let these people in? Can’t you tell him you’re a Presbyterian?”
“Please excuse me,” said Robert, and he disappeared into the kitchen.
That left me to do what I always do when alone in famous people’s houses: I ran round the room checking out every book, antique, and photo possible. A couple of surprises on the bookshelves, including a book by Glen Beck. But it was the photos that really caught my eye.
These past few weeks I’ve spent a lot of time discussing great, dead men. Many of them were framed on Robert Vaughn’s wall, shaking the actor’s hand and looking just as star-struck as he. Their politics is immaterial; their character is what still leaps off the wall forty years hence. Their names have come up time and time again in interviews, usually as sources of inspiration. And I wondered, as I later nursed my coke and listened to Robert Vaughn expound upon the origins of the Vietnam War, where have all the good men gone?
This week has been an uninspiring one for politics junkies. Newt Gingrich’s campaign collapsed under the weight of his own impossibility. Anthony Weiner admitted to sending women pictures of his genitalia. Sarah Palin couldn’t identify who Paul Revere was. The Republican field looks wide open only because the current options are so poor. “Why don’t you write something positive about Ron Paul?” a friend asked today. The answer: because he can’t and won’t win, and my editor would rightly be angry if I wasted copy pushing an unsellable product. The good guys are all at 2 percent, the frontrunners are largely goof-offs. Barack Obama is no better. He’s worse than awful because he once looked quite good. Now he’s little more than the Bore-in-Chief. [O how my toes curl whenever he opens his mouth! I have been insulted by professionals in my time as a student and an academic. I am trained to spot the scornful look of a “superior intellect” as it spies a lesser being handing his essay in late. It’s the same look Obama gets when someone tells him he might be wrong about something. The man is the barbed boredom of the academy personified.]
Cast your imagination back to 1968 and survey the talent on display on Robert Vaughn’s walls: Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Gene McCarthy, Ted Kennedy, George Romney, and Ronald Reagan. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in a hotel in Memphis; Bobby Kennedy was murdered in a parlor in LA. William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal debated police violence during the Chicago convention. Norman Mailer and Pat Buchanan watched the chaos from a hotel balcony. The politicians of that age were flawed men, no doubt. But they had eloquence and wit that is sorely lacking today. They had an aura of the epic – like they carried the weight of history on their shoulders. All of these men damn-well knew who Paul Revere was. Presumably, none of them mailed photographs of their wieners to young ladies they had never even met.
Perhaps interesting times produced interesting leaders. But today is interesting too. Indeed many of the issues of ’68 are germane – an unpopular war, a poor economy, a sense of decline. Perhaps those men were moral weaklings and the sympathies of the establishment press only made them look good. There’s something to that argument, after all biographers have alleged that even Martin Luther King Jr. was unfaithful to his wife. But I could take Bobby Kennedy’s dirty tricks and wandering eye in exchange for a little of his compassion for the poor and his ability to silence a crowd of thousands with a few word of Aeschylus.
Last month was the centenary of Hubert Humphrey’s birth. Humphrey was ridiculed by many formidable people during his lifetime. He often seemed like the weakest of the men I listed above. The right thought he was a spokesman for outdated ideas, the left saw him as a shallow careerist. To Hunter S. Thompson he was the Great Windbag – “Martin Bormann in Drag”. Had I lived in 1968, I might have hated him for his refusal to oppose Johnson’s policy in Vietnam. Now, we can look back on Hube and sigh wistfully for a “better-man-than-I”. It was Humphrey who pushed through the Civil Rights plank at the 1948 Democratic Convention, who kept up the momentum for the Great Society in the 1960s, and who tried to commit the Democratic Party to a full employment economy in the 1970s. He was a real person – gabbing on in his endless, joyful way about peace and jobs and a chicken-in-every-pot. In the black-and-white photos on the wall, you can smell the cigarettes of the union label heavies standing behind him and feel the sweat of the crowds of poor-folk crowded round to hear Hube’s gibble-gabble about ideas and ideals that seem hopeless dreams now.
Robert Vaughn gave me a ride back to the station in his black limousine. “You may recognize the car,” he said. “It’s the exact same model that President Kennedy was shot in.” I trembled appreciatively. “Of course, it’s too expensive to park. So you’ll have to jump out when I shout.” He swerved into the station beginning with “K” and I leapt onto the train and hurtled back home to the hot, grey world of the here and now.
What a very American flight that was. From Los Angeles to Charlotte, I sat between a lady carrying a poodle and a United States marine. The marine was a refreshing break from California – a loud, brash, masculine ball of fun and conservatism.
“Did you like California?” I asked when I learned that he has just been visiting from North Carolina.
“No, sir, I did not. I did not like the desert and I did not the Democrats.” He also missed his motorbike, which he had left in the care of his platoon. I shared his pleasure at heading eastwards. I was becoming tired of the effeminacy of the Pacific coast, where the men are prettier than the women and their dogs wear clothes. “The terrorists want to kill us all,” said the marine as we hit a rough patch that could’ve been turbulence, could’ve been a hijack. “That’s what these Democrats don’t understand,” he said. “It’s kill or be killed. We gotta wipe those mother fuckers out.” He wore a baseball cap with a Confederate flag printed on it, accompanied by the misnomer: “Proud To Be An American Sportsman”.
Sitting up front was a large black lady in a cowboy hat. “I know you didn’t just pour me a diet coke,” she said to the stewardess. And we pitched forward into the black night towards North Carolina.
Last week I took a well earned break from Los Angeles and drove to Las Vegas for the weekend. I’m proud that I made the 600 mile journey there and back by car because it proves that those petty driving license people back in Britain were wrong to fail me five times. I actually failed my US test just before I went out too, but there’s a Californian loophole whereby the written exam certificate counts as a permit to drive while accompanied by an adult. That’s a fine example of America’s can do spirit. Letting someone drive to Vegas and back who has failed his test a grand total of six times is yet one more reason to love this country.
The drive took us through Death Valley, up three thousand feet into the hot, sandy mountains of the Mojave. Once you pass the last gas station, you’re on your own up there. We pulled over at the top to smoke cigarettes and count cacti. The desert imparts its own sort of wisdom. “Stay here too long and you’ll die,” it says. It’s a reminder that parts of this planet are still alien worlds that defy colonization – a happy reminder that man has his limits and can only take so much. God’s mystery is multifaceted, and often cruel. For want of a gallon of gas, we might have stayed up there all week, lying beneath the motorcar waiting to die, evaporating into the dust.
If we had done so, we wouldn’t have discovered Victoriaville at the bottom of the mountain. Victoriaville comprises a vile Denny’s restaurant and the historic Royal Hawaiian Motel (long abandoned and covered in whatever passes for a weed). Above the gas station is a model UFO; silver and round with a cone top. Coming over the ridge in 90 degrees, it looks for a moment like it might be the real thing hovering on the horizon looking for a place to get a beer. The guy at the pump says it dates back to the Sixties, “When UFOs used come here all the time.” Perhaps the decline of the Royal Hawaiian was due to falling demand among little green men for water beds on Route 15.
After another hundred miles of nothing, Vegas suddenly erupts from the desert with an Eiffel Tower and a circus tent. Las Vegas is an antidote to Los Angeles. Vegas is camp but not gay; it’s the adult heterosexual’s Disneyland. The fantastic architecture is another example of that American “can-do” 'tude. Want a shopping mall with a river in it that you can ride gondoliers on? You got it. Want a pyramid, a castle, the Champs Elysee, and a giant Coke bottle that lights up at night? Buddy, you got it! In an hour’s walk, the pedestrian passes through eight different centuries, five continents, and half a dozen capital cities. Yet, beyond the occasional shark ballet or electronic Beethoven tribute band, every fantasy offers the same thing: gambling, sex, and cocktails. The best casinos are those that provide all three at once. We spent several hours in Treasure Island watching girls in pirate costumes serve drinks to Chinese men playing poker, their cards dealt by a Russian model in a bikini.
There is no time and space inside the casinos. It’s either permanent dusk or artificial midday, and the floors are built in concentric circles that make it very easy to get lost, give up looking for the exit, and stay for another 12 hours at the same table. Each casino is connected by indoor walkways, so it is also possible to exit one casino only to find yourself lost in another. We went from Venice at six pm to a Roman forum at 11am in five minutes. The only thing to do is wait uselessly by a machine until a lady dressed in period costume offers you a drink. I looked upwards from the poker table in the Bellagio and my reflection was refracted back at me in several hundred silver balls of glass. It was like being voyeured by a fly.
I love Las Vegas. It has an energy that is unique – a sense that people are determined to enjoy themselves whatever the cost; that anything is possible, that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, that it’s all right so long as the police never find out. All the windows are barred from the third floor up to prevent suicides. The topless dancers have degrees from LSU; the hustlers came from the east and didn't quite make it as far as Hollywood. For Anglo-Saxon/Irish drunkards like myself, it posses the thrilling challenge of “and what would you like to do next?” Chug beers in a paddling pool? Drink champagne from a Gucci shoe? Take a bath in a Margarita? If the desert that surrounds city is the world drained and bleached of life, Vegas is the huddled masses of humanity drawn together by the warm glow of the polystyrene sphinx - an electronic, supersonic, whizz-bang, roll-em high Hell. All are equal in their sin. Some people walked around in shorts and t-shirt, but not an eye was batted at the hungry looking gentlemen in black tie who dashed from floor to floor in search of fresh flesh.
Las Vegas is a cathedral to Capitalism, celebrating the best and worst of that system. Its potential is unlimited; its willingness to serve is admirable. But it feeds hungers that could never, should never, be sated. I drove back to Los Angeles hung-to-the-over, reeking of gin and nicotine. We stopped at Victoriaville, sat on the bonnet of the car, and threw pebbles at the flying saucer. I tasted pleasure and all I wanted now was a cup of PG tips.