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Schlock Talk.

"You know" says Hillary Clinton in the premiere issue of Tina Brown's Talk magazine, apropos of her husband's fornications with Monica Lewinsky, "in Christian theology there are sins of weakness and sins of malice, and this was a sin of weakness." When I read this, I had not heard of any such distinction between sins. To subdivide them not on the basis of gravity--venial and mortal--but on the putative state of mind of the sinner sounded to me suspiciously modern and based on therapeutic assumptions about human behavior. Like the president's hate-crime legislation. Had not Milton's Samson thundered the definitive answer to such sophistical pleadings when Dalila asked his forgiveness for betraying him to the Philistines on the grounds that such betrayal was "a weakness/ In me but incident to all our sex"?
 ... If weakness may excuse, What murderer, what traitor, parricide,
 Incestuous, sacrilegious, but may plead it? All wickedness is weakness:
 that plea therefore With God or man will gain thee no remission.

But a friend told me that the more patriarchal church of Rome, unlike the progressive Milton, does indeed recognize Dalila's plea--a fact which Mrs Clinton must have been at some trouble to discover but which must henceforth be regarded as the very foundation stone of Miss Brown's sort of celebrity journalism. For by this principle, not only can all be forgiven, as Milton realized, save unattractiveness, but also larger-than-life figures can be made to seem more attractively human by their little "weaknesses."

Mrs. Clinton's interviewer, Lucinda Franks, spent many weeks of emollient and sympathetic questioning to bring her to the point of voicing this "reaction" to her husband's infidelity, but her real purpose was to confer upon her something of the heroic status of her husband. In the rest of the article we learn, for instance, that Mrs. Clinton is personally responsible for peace in Northern Ireland, for the liberation and employment of the Arab women of North Africa, and for the humbling of Slobodan Milosevic by NATO's bombers ("I urged him to bomb; I supported him," she tells Miss Franks, raising the veil on the First Couple's pillowtalk. "You cannot let this go on at the end of a century that has seen the major holocaust of our time. What do we have NATO for if not to defend our way of life?").

In other words, Lucinda Franks and Tina Brown got "access" to the First Lady's innermost thoughts and feelings by offering her a completely uncritical forum for their expression. That the result is blatant puffery of course hardly matters to the consumers of celebrity journalism--as the success of Miss Brown's models, Hello in Britain and Olla in Spain, suggests. Talk springs to life fully-formed as the magazine that The New Yorker under her tenure could only aspire to be--that is, the new and glitzy packaging for a lot of old-fashioned "women's" journalism of the trashiest sort. For this is a cozy, nurturing milieu in which claims not only that the First Lady is a world leader but also that "as the president has tried to make up for what he has done, we've slowly seen a physical passion come back into their lives" and that "she fell in love with him again" on her mission to Morocco are too good to question.

And the piece comes opportunely, as Mrs. Clinton prepares to announce her candidacy for the u.s. Senate in New York --home of Talk and Tina and Lucinda Franks and her husband, Robert Morgenthau, the Manhattan District Attorney and political enemy of Mrs. Clinton's likely Republican opponent, Rudolph Giuliani. Both she and Tina Brown's new magazine got a lot of free publicity and everyone was happy, except maybe Mr. Giuliani, until the press picked up Mrs. Clinton's elaboration on her husband's "weakness," in which she explained that it was owing to "abuse" in the form of a childhood conflict between his mother and grandmother. At once she realized she had gone too far and, with typical Clintonian chutzpah, both she and her husband denied she had said what she quite obviously had said.

Or had she? James Carville, the Clinton family lapdog, offered a reward of $100,000 to anyone who could prove "that Hillary Clinton linked the president's sexual misconduct with his childhood." Well, I claim the reward. Here is what Miss Franks writes immediately after Mrs. Clinton is quoted as saying that "this was a sin of weakness":
 I tell Hillary I read his mother's autobiography, in which she wrote about
 the atmosphere of alcohol, violence, and chaos that forced her son to be
 the man of the house while he was still a child. Hillary leans over and
 says softly, "That's only the half of it. He was so young, barely four,
 when he was scarred by abuse that he can't even take it out and look at it.
 There was terrible conflict between his mother and grandmother. A
 psychologist once told me that for a boy being in the middle of a conflict
 between two women is the worst possible situation. There is always the
 desire to please each one."

To say that these words in this context do not amount to a "linking" of the sin to the "abuse" is itself an abuse of the language. It is like saying, after you have walked into the Kwik-E-Mart in a stocking mask with a sawed-off shotgun and suggested to the teenager behind the counter that it might be a good idea if he opened up the till: "But I never said, `This is a stickup!'"

Where have we heard such an abuse of language in the recent past? Why, of course when the president denied that he had lied under oath about his relationship with Miss Lewinsky even though the whole world had witnessed the lie. This is obviously the Clintonite's modus operandi: in order to abolish some inconvenient reality you need only deny its existence, repeatedly and emphatically, and eventually fair-minded people may begin to think that those who persist in believing the evidence of their eyes and ears are being "partisan" and unfair. The problem with indiscriminate Talk--where Mr. Carville is counted among the "50 Big Mouths We Hope Will Never Shut Up"--is that its enthusiasm for "the conversation" leaves it unprotected against such an unscrupulous exploitation of the presumption of good faith on which all communication depends.

For example, Miss Franks introduces the sensitive matter of Mrs. Clinton's "emotional health" by quoting her as saying that "The best way to judge an administration is not by the way they feel ... but what they do, how they learn from their mistakes. Personal feelings are not a useful way of judging. Watching people is. That is how I judge people--by their actions." As so often with the Clintons, this is instantly recognizable as the reverse of the truth. If she had judged her husband by his actions rather than what he said about his feelings, she quite obviously would not be giving the interview, or, if she had, would not have been saying the exculpatory things she was saying. Yet both she and the president seem to think that just saying a thing--as for instance that they judge people by their actions--makes it to some extent true. Close enough for government work!

In the same way, near the end of the article, Miss Franks quotes the Clintonian formula for penitence about not having done anything to prevent the Rwandan genocide of 1994. "We could have assembled a thousand NATO troops and gone into the cities and tried to rout the terrorists," the president is quoted as saying. "We couldn't have helped in the villages--it happened too quickly there--but we could have done more and didn't. And I'll never forgive myself for that." Never forgive himself?. He has forgiven himself in the very act of saying that he won't forgive himself! That's the point of his saying it. I'm guilty. I confess. I feel bad. What else is there to say or do? Now it's time to "move on." It was the same pattern of behavior he adopted in the Lewinsky affair after he could no longer deny the relationship.

In other words, the lie is so open, so brazen, that it seems not so much a lie as an attempt to redefine the reality that makes it a lie--like taking endless Mulligans in golf and then exulting that you've shot an 89. There is a sort of boyish charm to this kind of pretense, at least to an age which prides itself on its "compassion" in caring more about people's feelings than the realities that constrain them. That's the therapeutic mindset, which makes it possible for Hillary's falsehood to stand unchallenged as the immediate prelude to that which shows it to be a falsehood, namely her rationale for taking the words and the feelings over the actions in the case of her husband's infidelity--which, she said to Miss Franks,
 "has received an unprecedented amount of attention. You know people have a
 lot of daily problems in relationships. Everybody has some dysfunction in
 their families. They have to deal with it. You don't just walk away if you
 love someone--you help the person."

 She turns to me now with a startling intensity. "I don't believe in denying
 things. I believe in working through it. Is he ashamed? Yes. Is he sorry?
 Yes. But does this negate everything he has done as a husband, a father, a
 president?" She elaborated later: "And what is so amazing is that Bill has
 not been defeated by this. There has been enormous pain, enormous anger,
 but I have been with him half my life and he is a very, very good man. We
 just have a deep connection that transcends whatever happens.

 "Bill has been subjected to so much abuse," she continues. "He doesn't make
 any excuses for what he did. But the reaction was unprecedented and harmful
 to the country.... People are mean. I think it's a real disservice, the way
 we sort of strip away everybody's sense of dignity, of privacy. People need
 support, not disdain."

And who, at least in the pages of Talk magazine, can argue with that? It amounts to her apology for another ludicrous falsehood which precedes it, namely, that "he doesn't make any excuses for what he did" --set in the context of a mass of excuses. The human appeal is meant to make it seem not a lie but a cheerfully accommodating acknowledgment of what the truth should be and perhaps, in some obscure sense known only to her and her fellow Bill-believers, what it actually is. There's "support" for you!

Talk's kind of celebrity journalism depends on such support, as it does on the fact that, to its readers, the First Lady's will to believe must appear more authentic than the president's will to deceive. The latter is half-remembered and merely theoretical in comparison with his wife's human presence to our sympathies, which overwhelms our sense of resentment against not only his lies but also her own. Hillary's rehearsal of her agonies in her marriage and her determination to preserve it at all costs is almost as impervious to criticism as the photo-spread by Peter Beard of John F. Kennedy, Jr. as a boy of eleven which the magazine managed to insert at the last minute on the news of his death in a plane crash.

Coincidentally with the debut of Talk, the Museum of Modern Art in New York presented an exhibition called "Fame After Photography" which consisted of a lot of old and very boring publicity photos (nothing is as tedious as yesterdays celebrity) and bits of portentous philosophizing to explain why everything has been different since the invention of photography in the mid-nineteenth century. "Viewers focused on appearance," explains the wall-card adjacent to a Daguerreotype, "and began to notice that the famous often looked like they did. The gap that once separated the famous from the not-famous narrowed."

This may or may not be true. How can we possibly know? On the face of it, it would seem that the fact that the famous looked like other people was unlikely to have come as such a surprise as all that. On the contrary, photography has always been more a matter of selection than of representation. It was because these ordinary-looking people had been singled out for attention by having their photographs published that the world learned to regard them as famous, whereupon people began to look for reasons why--a piercing eye or a beautiful nose--fame had smiled on these and not on others. That is to say that the gap between the famous and the not-famous never narrows at one point but it widens at another, since the phenomenon of celebrity depends on a dynamic tension between remoteness and familiarity.

Nowadays, buried as we are under an avalanche of images of the famous, we are more likely to single out for distinction those who successfully avoid the camera--or almost avoid it or die trying to avoid it, like Princess Diana. Fame has become so promiscuous that the top celebrities establish their claim to our regard by disdaining their own celebrity--or at least affecting to do so. That was the burden of many of the eulogies for young John Kennedy. "He loved to travel across the city by subway, bicycle, and Rollerblade," said his Uncle Ted at the funeral. "He lived as if he were unrecognizable, although he was known by everyone he encountered. He always introduced himself, rather than take anything for granted. He drove his own car and flew his own plane, which is how he wanted it. He was the king of his domain."

Such paradoxical anonymity of this commoner-king seems to have made him also a sort of democratic saint, like his father, for although he was distinguished from the common herd by wealth and fame and power he nevertheless managed to seem like other people who had none of these things. Thus People magazine noted that at the Caldwell Flight Academy "He'd hang out like everybody else and talk about flying." It had been so since childhood when, we learn, "John never lacked the common touch. Even as a boy, `when he was on [Onassis's yacht] the Christina, he liked to eat in the kitchen with the crew,' says Kiki Moutsatsos, Ari's longtime secretary." The story might remind us of Lucinda Franks's assurance in Talk that "the locals" in Ireland "are still remarking about the meeting with Irish women at a fish and chips shop, when Hillary declined a fancy china cup and like everyone else drank tea from a chipped mug."

But, unlike Hillary, who is said by one of "the locals" to have made "the boys" of the IRA "think twice about planting the gelignite," poor John Kennedy had few other accomplishments in life to boast of, save for his hard-won achievement of normality. In Time, the stablemate at Time-Warner of People, which for years now it has been striving to emulate, Nancy Gibbs wrote that, "If you believe his friends, the most famous son in the world wanted nothing more than to be a normal guy, to put people at ease." Hugh Sidey, another Time correspondent and long-time friend of the Kennedy family, wrote that "The special quality about young John Kennedy then may have been simply that he was so normal, so much like our own kids, allowed a childhood because of the insistence of his mother Jackie Kennedy and in spite of the formidable environs of the presidential mansion." Indeed, as Sidey does not add but as Uncle Ted came near to suggesting, Kennedy was just like us even in his joining the cult of celebrity-worship with the founding of George magazine. This could have been construed as an excellent, self-deprecatory joke, fashioned out of the celebrity that he had been dealt, unwillingly, at birth, but it was also and inescapably a way of reaffirming his own identity as one in the fraternity of celebrity. What small degree of viability the magazine ever had (and the probability is that it will now be closed by the end of the year) depended on the fact that JFK, Jr., unlike other journalists, could always depend on having his phone calls returned.

Tina Brown's own celebrity may not be of quite this order of magnitude, but it was great enough to overawe Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post, who feebly put forward for her consideration the proposition that "some see a certain coziness toward the Clintons" in a magazine with so many tics to the Friends of Bill. A certain coziness? Anyone who reads Lucinda Franks on Hillary Clinton and thinks she demonstrates no more than "a certain coziness" is a near-illiterate. As Kurtz is obviously not that, we must suppose that he, like most of those who write about Miss Brown, is simply paying respect to her enormous power and importance in the media world on which he reports.

At the same time, he is engaging in exactly the same sort of celebrity journalism as that by which she has achieved that importance. The bigger the celebrity, the more you have to flatter her with questions like this, which she can easily bat down, in order to gain her cooperation. Tina Brown's understanding of this principle (and presumably her own place in the hierarchy of celebrity) is what got her the interview with Hillary Clinton. But Tina Brown is no mere sycophant. The tone of Talk from beginning to end and in respect of great celebrities and small--and even those of almost no celebrity at all--is almost as fawning and "supportive" as Lucinda Franks is of Hillary Clinton. The great insight on which the magazine is based, and which might save it from the fate of George, is that the Warholian future in which everybody is a celebrity for fifteen minutes has already arrived.

At least everybody worth reading about. At least for five minutes, which is about how long it takes to read each of the items in "the conversation," Talk's showcase for fine writing about minor or intermediate celebrities, or those who ought to be celebrities. "When you walk into Isaac Tigrett's house in Sherman Oaks, California," writes Peter Maas of one of the co-founders of the Hard Rock Cafe chain, "you feel you are entering a church whose pastor has a spiritual version of multiple-personality disorder. Tibetan prayer flags hang from the rafters of the living room, not far from a trio of Buddhas, placid and golden, that stand like sentries beside a large oil painting of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Across the room is a bronze plaque from Myanmar inscribed with gold-lettered Sanskrit prayers. If you look outside, through the windows, you will notice an ancient Egyptian statue of Sekhmet, the lion-headed warrior goddess, presiding over Tigrett's swimming pool."

I don't know anything about Mr. Tigrett beyond what Mr. Maas tells me, but my guess is that he's not going to be objecting to this representation of himself. In fact, a man who puts up such a collection of artefacts and icons around his house is probably hoping that they will be noticed and remarked upon in just the way that they are noticed and remarked upon here. In the same way, someone using the cute pseudonym of Vox Talkuli (could it be Tina herself?.), retails an old and almost certainly apocryphal anecdote about the late A. J. Ayer, the diminutive philosopher, who once claimed to have confronted Mike Tyson, the boxer, as he was in the process of attempting to rape Naomi Campbell, the supermodel.

The way I heard the story, it was Tyson's then-wife, Robin Givens, the actress, and he was not raping her but knocking her about, but either way the point of the story is the same and equally flattering to Ayer. "Do you know who the f*** I am?" Tyson is supposed to have said to him. "I'm the heavyweight champion of the world."

"And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic," Ayer is said to have replied. "We are both preeminent in our fields; I suggest we talk about this like rational men." Mr. (or possibly Ms.) Talkuli continues: "A conversation ensued, and Campbell slipped out unharmed. A conversation! If simple talk can prevent a brazen old aesthete from being beaten to death by a hotheaded young heavyweight, surely there is something to it. And yet so often in the telling of history, conversation is overlooked ..." Well, conversation by which a B.O.A. is prevented from being beaten to death by an H.Y.H. at any rate. Other sorts of conversations do from time to time make their appearance, sometimes with even more plausibility, "in the telling of history."

To describe Ayer as an "old aesthete" suggests that this self-mythologizing anecdote may be the only thing that Vox Talkuli knows about him--though brazen he certainly was. The "conversation," we are thus given to understand, is pretty superficial, an impression which the rest of the articles in the section do little to dispel. The point of them isn't to tell us anything not apparent on the surface of these self-defined lives but simply to make us feel that we are acquainted with them--and that they are worth being acquainted with. That is Tina Brown's contribution to the celebrity culture: to reassure us that we know not only the big celebrities like Hillary Clinton and JFK, Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow and George W. Bush, all of whose images appear on the cover, but also the demi-celebrities whom those less closely attuned to the fashionable world haven't even recognized yet.

These include Kenny Mayne, a sports commentator on ESPN who has distinguished himself in the view of Jonathan Mahler for coming up with new ways of telling people that a home run has been hit --for example, "I am the king of the diamond! Let there be an abundant clubhouse feast! Bring me the finest meats and cheeses in all the land!" William Monahan's tribute to Gloucester, Massachussetts shows that places can be celebrities as well as people: "There is probably not a single place as critical to the development of American visual and literary art as Gloucester, Massachusetts," he begins, and continues to make his point not just in terms of old-fashioned civic boosterism but also in those of literary criticism, as when he criticizes Kipling's Captains Courageous for not having enough about Gloucester in it.

The point is that we wouldn't know, if it weren't for Miss Brown's invaluable magazine, that Gloucester was hip, if not necessarily "the artistic omphalos of the United States." But the relentless superficiality of such writing finally wears us down. By the time we get to "Book City" ("Life Between the Covers") at the back of the magazine, even those of us who are still well-disposed to Martin Amis, for example, are unlikely to welcome his thoughts on Hannibal, the new novel by Thomas Harris--though in fact these thoughts are sharp and well-written and justly appraise the latest if not the earlier rubbish from Harris's pen ("Harris has become a serial murderer of English sentences, and Hannibal is a necropolis of prose"). But in this context, it wouldn't have mattered if Amis had liked the book or not. On the same principle that all publicity is good publicity, all reviews in Talk are good reviews--and, sure enough, Amis himself acknowledges in his conclusion that Hannibal is a novel of "profound and virtuoso vulgarity." Perfect, in other words, for the readers of Talk.

James Bowman is the American editor of the London Times Literary Supplement.3
COPYRIGHT 1999 Foundation for Cultural Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Talk magazine
Author:Bowman, James
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 1999
Previous Article:Valhalla by the Bay.
Next Article:Supporting the indispensable.

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