Saturday, July 21, 2007

I Did Have Sexual Relations With That Woman

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
July 22, 2007

IT’S not just the resurgence of Al Qaeda that is taking us back full circle to the fateful first summer of the Bush presidency. It’s the hot sweat emanating from Washington. Once again the capital is titillated by a scandal featuring a member of Congress, a woman who is not his wife and a rumor of crime. Gary Condit, the former Democratic congressman from California, has passed the torch of below-the-Beltway sleaziness to David Vitter, an incumbent (as of Friday) Republican senator from Louisiana.

Mr. Vitter briefly faced the press to explain his “very serious sin,” accompanied by a wife who might double for the former Mrs. Jim McGreevey. He had no choice once snoops hired by the avenging pornographer Larry Flynt unearthed his number in the voluminous phone records of the so-called D.C. Madam, now the subject of a still-young criminal investigation. Newspapers back home also linked the senator to a defunct New Orleans brothel, a charge Mr. Vitter denies. That brothel’s former madam, while insisting he had been a client, was one of his few defenders last week. “Just because people visit a whorehouse doesn’t make them a bad person,” she helpfully told the Baton Rouge paper, The Advocate.

Mr. Vitter is not known for being so forgiving a soul when it comes to others’ transgressions. Even more than Mr. Condit, who once co-sponsored a bill calling for the display of the Ten Commandments in public buildings, Mr. Vitter is a holier-than-thou family-values panderer. He recruited his preteen children for speaking roles in his campaign ads and, terrorism notwithstanding, declared that there is no “more important” issue facing America than altering the Constitution to defend marriage.

But hypocrisy is a hardy bipartisan perennial on Capitol Hill, and hardly news. This scandal may leave a more enduring imprint. It comes with a momentous pedigree. Mr. Vitter first went to Washington as a young congressman in 1999, to replace Robert Livingston, the Republican leader who had been anointed to succeed Newt Gingrich as speaker of the House. Mr. Livingston’s seat had abruptly become vacant after none other than Mr. Flynt outed him for committing adultery. Since we now know that Mr. Gingrich was also practicing infidelity back then — while leading the Clinton impeachment crusade, no less — the Vitter scandal can be seen as the culmination of an inexorable sea change in his party.

And it is President Bush who will be left holding the bag in history. As the new National Intelligence Estimate confirms the failure of the war against Al Qaeda and each day of quagmire signals the failure of the war in Iraq, so the case of the fallen senator from the Big Easy can stand as an epitaph for a third lost war in our 43rd president’s legacy: the war against sex.

During the 2000 campaign, Mr. Bush and his running mate made a point of promising to “set an example for our children” and to “uphold the honor and the dignity of the office.” They didn’t just mean that there would be no more extramarital sex in the White House. As a matter of public policy, abstinence was in; abortion rights, family planning and homosexuality were out. Mr. Bush’s Federal Communications Commission stood ready to punish the networks for four-letter words and wardrobe malfunctions. The surgeon general was forbidden to mention condoms or the morning-after pill.

To say that this ambitious program has fared no better than the creation of an Iraqi unity government is an understatement. The sole lasting benchmark to be met in the Bush White House’s antisex agenda was the elevation of anti-Roe judges to the federal bench. Otherwise, Sodom and Gomorrah are thrashing the Family Research Council and the Traditional Values Coalition day and night.

The one federal official caught on the D.C. Madam’s phone logs ahead of Mr. Vitter, Randall Tobias, was a Bush State Department official whose tasks had included enforcing a prostitution ban on countries receiving AIDS aid. Last month Rupert Murdoch’s Fox network succeeded in getting a federal court to throw out the F.C.C.’s “indecency” fines. Polls show unchanging majority support for abortion rights and growing support for legal recognition of same-sex unions exemplified by Mary Cheney’s.

Most amazing is the cultural makeover of Mr. Bush’s own party. The G.O.P. that began the century in the thrall of Rick Santorum, Bill Frist and George Allen has become the brand of Mark Foley and Mr. Vitter. Not a single Republican heavyweight showed up at Jerry Falwell’s funeral. Younger evangelical Christians, who may care more about protecting the environment than policing gay people, are up for political grabs.

Nowhere is this cultural revolution more visible — or more fun to watch — than in the G.O.P. campaign for the White House. Forty years late, the party establishment is finally having its own middle-aged version of the summer of love, and it’s a trip. The co-chairman of John McCain’s campaign in Florida has been charged with trying to solicit gay sex from a plainclothes police officer. Over at YouTube, viewers are flocking to a popular new mock-music video in which “Obama Girl” taunts her rival: “Giuliani Girl, you stop your fussin’/ At least Obama didn’t marry his cousin.”

As Margery Eagan, a columnist at The Boston Herald, has observed, even the front-runners’ wives are getting into the act, trying to one-up one another with displays of what she described as their “ample and aging” cleavage. The décolletage primary was kicked off early this year by the irrepressible Judith Giuliani, who posed for Harper’s Bazaar giving her husband a passionate kiss. “I’ve always liked strong, macho men,” she said. This was before we learned she had married two such men, not one, before catching the eye of America’s Mayor at Club Macanudo, an Upper East Side cigar bar, while he was still married to someone else.

Whatever the ultimate fate of Rudy Giuliani’s campaign, it is the straw that stirs the bubbling brew that is the post-Bush Republican Party. The idea that a thrice-married, pro-abortion rights, pro-gay rights candidate is holding on as front-runner is understandably driving the G.O.P.’s increasingly marginalized cultural warriors insane. Not without reason do they fear that he is in the vanguard of a new Republican age of Addams-family values and moral relativism.

Once a truculent law-and-order absolutist, Mr. Giuliani has even shrugged off the cocaine charges leveled against his departed South Carolina campaign chairman, the state treasurer Thomas Ravenel, as a “highly personal” matter.

The religious right’s own favorite sons, Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee, are no more likely to get the nomination than Ron Paul or, for that matter, RuPaul. The party’s faith-based oligarchs are getting frantic. Disregarding a warning from James Dobson of Focus on the Family, who said in March that he didn’t consider Fred Thompson a Christian, they desperately started fixating on the former Tennessee senator as their savior. When it was reported this month that Mr. Thompson had worked as a lobbyist for an abortion rights organization in the 1990s, they credulously bought his denials and his spokesman’s reassurance that “there’s no documents to prove it, no billing records.” Last week The New York Times found the billing records.

No one is stepping more boldly into this values vacuum than Mitt Romney. In contrast to Mr. Giuliani, the former Massachusetts governor has not only disowned his past as a social liberal but is also running as a paragon of moral rectitude. He is even embracing one of the more costly failed Bush sex initiatives, abstinence education, just as states are abandoning it for being ineffective. He never stops reminding voters that he is the only top-tier candidate still married to his first wife.

In a Web video strikingly reminiscent of the Vitter campaign ads, the entire multigenerational Romney brood gathers round to enact their wholesome Christmas festivities. Last week Mr. Romney unveiled a new commercial decrying American culture as “a cesspool of violence, and sex, and drugs, and indolence, and perversions.” Unlike Mr. Giuliani, you see, he gets along with his children, and unlike Mr. Thompson, he has never been in bed with the perverted Hollywood responsible for the likes of “Law & Order.”

There are those who argue Mr. Romney’s campaign is doomed because he is a Mormon, a religion some voters regard almost as suspiciously as Scientology, but two other problems may prove more threatening to his candidacy. The first is that in American public life piety always goeth before a fall. There had better not be any skeletons in his closet. Already Senator Brownback has accused Mr. Romney of pushing hard-core pornography because of his close association with (and large campaign contributions from) the Marriott family, whose hotel chain has prospered mightily from its X-rated video menu.

The other problem is more profound: Mr. Romney is swimming against a swift tide of history in both culture and politics. Just as the neocons had their moment in power in the Bush era and squandered it in Iraq, so the values crowd was handed its moment of ascendancy and imploded in debacles ranging from Terri Schiavo to Ted Haggard to David Vitter. By this point it’s safe to say that even some Republican primary voters are sick enough of their party’s preacher politicians that they’d consider hitting a cigar bar or two with Judith Giuliani.

A Woman Who’s Man Enough

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
July 22, 2007


Things are getting confusing out there in Genderville.

We have the ordinarily poker-faced secretary of defense crying over young Americans killed in Iraq.

We have The Washington Post reporting that Hillary Clinton came to the floor of the Senate in a top that put “cleavage on display Wednesday afternoon on C-SPAN2.”

We have Mitt Romney spending $300 for makeup appointments at Hidden Beauty, a mobile men’s grooming spa, before the California debate, even though NBC would surely have powdered his nose for free.

We have Elizabeth Edwards on a tear of being more assertive than her husband. She argued that John Edwards is a better advocate for women than Hillary, explaining that her own experience as a lawyer taught her that “sometimes you feel you have to behave as a man and not talk about women’s issues.”

We have Bill Clinton, who says he’d want to be known as First Laddie, defending his woman by saying, “I don’t think she’s trying to be a man.”

We have The Times reporting that Hillary’s campaign is quizzical about why so many women who are like Hillary — married, high income, professional types — don’t like her. A Times/CBS News poll shows that women view her more favorably than men, but she has a problem with her own demographic and some older women resistant to “a lady president” from the land of women’s lib.

In a huge step forward for her, The Times said that “all of those polled — both women and men — said they thought Mrs. Clinton would be an effective commander in chief.”

So gender isn’t Hillary’s biggest problem. Those who don’t like her said it was because they don’t trust her, or don’t like her values, or think she’s too politically expedient or phony.

There is a dread out there about 28 years of Bush-Clinton rule. But most people are not worried about Hillary’s ability to be strong. Anyone who can cast herself as a feminist icon while leading the attack on her husband’s mistresses, anyone who thinks eight years of presidential pillow talk qualifies her for the presidential pillow, is plenty tough enough to smack around dictators, and other Democrats.

John Edwards and Barack Obama often seem more delicate and concerned with looking pretty than Hillary does. Though the tallest candidate usually has the advantage, Hillary has easily dominated the debates without even wearing towering heels.

When she wrote to Bob Gates asking about the Pentagon’s plans to get out of Iraq, it took eight weeks for an under secretary, Eric Edelman, to send a scalding reply, suggesting that she was abetting enemy propaganda. But Mrs. Clinton hit back with a tart letter to Secretary Gates on Friday and scored something of a victory, since he issued a statement that did not back up his own creep.

Maybe Hillary has had her tear ducts removed. If she acted like a sob sister on the war the way Mr. Gates did, her critics would have a field day.

Even in an era when male politicians can mist up with impunity, it was startling to see the defense chief melt down at a Marine Corps dinner Wednesday night as he talked about writing notes every evening to the families of dead soldiers like Douglas Zembiec, a heroic Marine commander known as “the Lion of Falluja,” who died in Baghdad in May after giving up a Pentagon job to go on a fourth tour of Iraq. “They are not names on a press release or numbers updated on a Web page,” he said. “They are our country’s sons and daughters.”

The dramatic moment was disconcerting, because Mr. Gates, known as a decent guy who was leery of the Bushies’ black-and-white, bullying worldview, has clearly been worn down by his effort to sort out the Iraq debacle. He and Condi, who worked together under Bush I, have been trying to circumvent the vice president to close Gitmo without much success, while the president finds ingenious new ways to allow torture.

Mostly, though, it was moving — a relief to see a top official acknowledge the awful cost of this war. The arrogant Rummy was dismissive. The obtuse W. seems incapable of understanding how inappropriate his sunny spirits are. And the callous Cheney’s robo-aggression continues unabated. (What could be more nerve-racking than the thought of President Cheney, slated to happen for a couple of hours yesterday while Mr. Bush had a colonoscopy? Could it be — a Medal of Freedom for Scooter?)

Mr. Gates captured the sadness we feel about American kids trapped in a desert waiting to be blown up, sent there by men who once refused to go to a warped war themselves.

Words May Have Power, but Gossip Is a Firing Offense

This Land
The New York Times
July 22, 2007


Six somber members of the Hooksett Town Council, men with faces set as if in granite, trooped into the public library’s basement the other night to convene what was advertised as a special meeting. The agenda did not concern tax rates or zoning issues, but rather that most public of commodities: words.

Of particular concern: That among the deluge of words released daily in the Hooksett Municipal Building, words about everything from dog licenses to the lunch specials down at Robie’s Country Store, a lingering few uttered months ago concerned the relationship between the town administrator and a certain town employee. You might call it gossip.

The accused gossipmongers, two women whose expressions were also as inflexible as the state rock, sat across from the town elders in plastic chairs that constituted a makeshift dock. Fired from their town jobs for gossiping, they were appealing for reinstatement to the very body that had dismissed them without any semblance of due process.

Also in attendance were two dozen or so local residents, some of whom killed time until the call to order by discussing the persistent failure of an acquaintance to take care of himself. You might call it gossip.

The council chairman banged his gavel and led everyone in the Pledge of Allegiance. Then the lawyer for Hooksett explained that the dismissed employees had 90 minutes to offer their proof of innocence, but they could not call witnesses or ask questions of the council.

“Speak louder!” an audience member shouted.

Jon Meyer, the lanky lawyer representing the two fired employees, stood to begin his argument. But first he said that in his many years of representing public employees at termination hearings, he had never participated in or even heard of a proceeding such as this. “This is like jousting a ghost,” he said.

Then came another shout: “Can’t hear!”

When the spotlight comes to Hooksett, a town of 13,000 along the Merrimack River, it usually shines on historic Robie’s, where needy presidential candidates come to feign folksiness. But lately that light has been trained on the old, red-brick Municipal Building, where human nature, in the form of gossip, unfolded.

The town administrator and that employee often worked late together, it was said. Behind closed doors, it was said. Their cars the last two in the lot, it was said. Not kosher, it was said.

Word about those words and others reached the administrator, David Jodoin, who is said to be happily married, with children. Extremely upset about the untrue implication of those words, he complained to the Town Council, which dispatched a lawyer to begin a hurried investigation.

The lawyer, who works for the law firm that represents the town, conducted interviews and checked phone records to track the wispy trail of those words — past the “Watch Your Step” sign on the Municipal Building’s front door, down the hall and, finally, to the offices of the town assessor and the code enforcement officer.

She concluded that the conduct of the four employees warranted discipline, and the council agreed. Without publicly stating why, the council promptly fired the assessor, Sandra Piper, a town employee for 27 years; the code enforcement officer, Michelle Bonsteel; and two assistants, one of whom would later admit that she had once referred to Mr. Jodoin as a little you-know-what.

The four women became the Hooksett Four, their firings became national news, and cheap gossip regarding two private people in a small town was shared with an entire country. But Hooksett still had more to say.

After holding a special meeting to consider — and dismiss — the appeal of the two fired assistants, the Town Council issued a statement saying that the gossip reflected “a conscious and concerted effort to damage reputations, to spread untrue stories with the knowledge that they were not true and evidently to retaliate for some perceived preferential treatment.”

Although the statement clearly conveyed outrage and righteousness, it also reflected the council’s struggle with the concept of objectivity. After all, two of the Hooksett Four, the department heads, had yet to appeal their case at a special meeting. Until this night.

Ms. Piper, short and in blue, and Ms. Bonsteel, tall and in black, sat with mouths shut tight, though perhaps a little too late. They left the talking to Mr. Meyer and to Lauren Irwin, the lawyer who conducted the gossip-sleuthing.

Mr. Meyer said his clients never talked of a romantic relationship, but rather were speculating about the favoritism their supervisor was giving a subordinate. Ms. Irwin countered that the four women were clearly implying an affair was taking place; their knowledge that it was baseless only underscored the malice of their words.

Ms. Irwin said the town administrator was so distraught by the gossip that he was “having difficulty functioning,” and feared that his career and family life would suffer. Mr. Meyer countered that this was irrelevant to the proceeding, and that he could just as easily have laid out the profound ways in which the fired employees had also suffered.

And yes, in retrospect, he said his clients should have shared their concerns with Mr. Jodoin, but it was an awkward subject to broach. At the same time, he said, the administrator could have handled the matter internally, rather than complain to the council.

The council announced that it would consider the matter in a “nonpublic” meeting, which is a benign way of saying in private. Then a gavel banged to end this very special meeting, sending people into a thunderstorm-wet Hooksett to contemplate governance, gossip and the awesome power of the word.

A Phillie (Briefly), and Now a Jackal, but at Age 37, Still a Boy of Summer

Our Towns
The New York Times
July 22, 2007


A lot has happened to Joel Bennett since he was chosen by the Boston Red Sox in the 21st round of the 1991 baseball draft.

There were the brief stops in the bigs in 1998 and 1999 with the Orioles and Phillies. Could they have been longer? Doesn’t matter now.

There was the Arizona Fall League in 1994, where he played on the same team as Michael Jordan (on Sundays, Mr. Jordan rented out a gym so they could all play basketball); the 221 Carolina League strikeouts in 1993, behind only Randy Johnson and José Rijo in all of organized baseball; his Kevin Costner moment in the New Jersey Jackals’ miracle championship in 2004.

At 37, Joel Bennett is not Roger Clemens. In the end, he’s just a phys ed teacher from outside Binghamton, N.Y., who pitched 19 innings in the majors, with a 2-1 record and an 8.53 earned run average. Still, if (big if) this turns out to be his last season in baseball, how many players have had a nicer run than Mr. Bennett, a reminder that, at least in the minor leagues, there’s still some truth left in those dappled “Field of Dreams” images.

“He said last year was the last one, and he said it the year before that, but he starts doing his version of spring training with the high school kids, and then here he is,” his wife, Jennifer, said as she watched the Jackals beat the Can-Am Grays, 12-5, on Thursday night. “It’s in his blood.”

It’s a long way from the majors to Yogi Berra Stadium at Montclair State University, where the Jackals play in the Can-Am League, which used to be the Northern League and the Northeast League. It’s an independent league, so the players tend to be former college athletes who didn’t get drafted or veterans hoping to get a second or third or fourth look in someone’s minor league system. Grabowsky Development advertises on the foul poles; Catholic Cemeteries, Archdiocese of Newark, on the outfield wall. A couple of thousand fans is a nice crowd. No one is getting rich.

But then Mr. Bennett’s sons, Jonah, 9, and Jesse, 7, come to all the home games as the Jackals’ ball boys. He gets to travel to Canada to play against the Quebec Capitales, where the fans spend the game singing in French. His family — the boys, his wife and their daughter, Jaylen, 6 — come along for the more desirable road trips, like the one this weekend against the Brockton Rox in Brockton, Mass., where they went whale watching last year. He’s lost a little on his fastball, which seldom got to 90 m.p.h. anyway, but he was always a curveball pitcher and can still strike people out. And in a league where players tend not to last more than a year or two, he’s a venerable star sought out for autographs.

He’s seen minor-league friends — Tim Wakefield, David Eckstein, Nomar Garciaparra — end up rich and famous. Like most of us in whatever we do, he shakes his head at some he saw in the minors who made it big but didn’t seem any better than he was. If he got to pitch more with the Phillies, where his appearances were few because Curt Schilling started every fifth day, who knows? But Mr. Bennett, who takes his Christianity seriously, just shrugs.

“Of course, it gets to you at the time,” he said. “You go from being in the big leagues to no one being interested in you. But I think it was a reward for work done well, and the Lord wanted me to have that pedestal to stand on for my life around kids now. You try to figure it out, but like my wife says, the one thing you know about baseball is that you never know.”

When he caught on with the Jackals in 2001, it must have seemed like a last shot, but six years later, an eternity in the minors, he’s still there. His greatest moment came in 2004, in the league championships against the North Shore Spirit of Lynn, Mass. The Jackals lost the first two games of a five-game series. School, the real world, was starting back home. He had pitched Game 2. He figured the season and maybe his career was over, said his goodbyes.

But the Jackals won Games 3 and 4, and his manager begged him to come back to pitch Game 5. He said he couldn’t because it was the first day of classes, but he finally got permission from his principal.

He and his wife got up at dawn on a Monday and drove the six hours from Binghamton to Lynn, and he pitched seven innings on three days’ rest. The Jackals won, 5-3.

“When you’re playing for the championship, it’s the best feeling in the world, no matter where you are,” he said back then.

“I don’t care if I’m in the major leagues, Triple A, Double A or Single A or independent ball. Every championship is a special feeling.”

Then they drove through the night, got home at 5:30 in the morning, and he left for school an hour later.

So some things don’t change. Box seat: $9.75. Hot dog: $2. Taking that championship from the North Shore Spirit: priceless.


Eight Strokes Behind, Woods Aims to Be Sharper

Sports of The Times
July 22, 2007

Carnoustie, Scotland

When Tiger Woods swung his 2-iron on the first tee Friday, he was two under par for this 136th British Open after a 69 in the first round. But his ball hooked wildly, bouncing left of the fairway past the out-of-bounds stakes and into the water known as Barry’s Burn.

Burn indeed. Burn is the Scottish term for stream, and with a double-bogey 6 there, Woods received a severe burn to his ambition to be the first golfer to win a third consecutive Open championship since Australia’s Peter Thomson half a century ago.

Over two rounds at Carnoustie since then, Woods has been unable to get back to two under for the tournament. Despite a 69 yesterday after a 74 on Friday, he was on a tedious treadmill at only one under, eight strokes off the lead held by Sergio García and behind 13 other rivals going into today’s final round.

“I’m just not quite as sharp as I’d like to be,” he said after the round. “Hopefully, tomorrow I’ll be a little bit sharper.”

In winning 12 majors, Woods has always been sharp — sharp with his tee shots, sharp with his short game, sharp with his putter. When he won the Open twice at St. Andrews, he overpowered the course, and when he won at Royal Liverpool a year ago, he underpowered it, using his long irons off the tee to keep the ball in the fairway and short of the deep bunkers.

Under the gloomy clouds of Carnoustie, he’s correct. He simply hasn’t been sharp. After a three-putt bogey at the second hole, birdies at the fourth and fifth took him to even par going to the 578-yard, par-5 sixth — always a birdie possibility for him. But from the fairway, Woods pushed his second shot high and far to the right, striking a woman in the gallery.

“It was terrible,” he said. “I saw the ball bounce out and figured it had to have hit somebody. Unfortunately, I went over there and the lady was bleeding all over the place. I felt really bad. You have kind of a pit in your stomach and, hopefully, you didn’t hurt someone too bad. She was smiling. I don’t know how she was smiling. I apologized the best I could.”

The guilty club was the same 2-iron that had hooked his opening tee shot on Friday into the burn.

“I stuck my 2-iron straight in the ground,” he said, “and that helped shoot it to the right into the gallery.”

Ricocheting off the woman, Woods’s ball found the rough. He pitched on but missed a 15-foot birdie putt. Another birdie at the seventh got him to one under for the tournament, but a bunkered tee shot led to another bogey on the 10th before a birdie 4 at the 15th lifted him to one under for 54 holes. That’s respectable, but Woods expects to be better than respectable.

And maybe he would be more than respectable if that 2-iron tee shot Friday had not veered out of bounds and into the burn.

“It was such a poor shot because the commitment wasn’t there,” he said. “If I hit a low one like I’ve been practicing on the range for the first tee, I can run the ball in the right bunker. So all of a sudden I throw this ball up in the air a little bit. I wasn’t really committed to throw the ball up in the air, and didn’t back up. It was basically a lack of commitment.”

With the weather forecast for today predicting “dull and cloudy with some patchy fog and drizzle at first, becoming dry and bright with some sunshine in the afternoon,” look for Woods to try to get off to fast start.

“You can probably make four or five birdies through the eighth hole if you’re playing well,” he said. “The back nine is a different story. There’s a lot of long clubs coming in. The only really good birdie chance you have is 14.”

Barring a dazzling comeback, that 2-iron tee shot into the burn will be Woods’s haunting memory of Carnoustie, just as his missed birdie putts on the back nine at the Masters kept him from overtaking Zach Johnson, and his inability to birdie any of the last three holes of the United States Open at Oakmont kept him from overtaking Ángel Cabrera.

He hasn’t been Tiger sharp at Carnoustie or in any of the majors this year, and he knows it.

“It’s horrible,” he said. “It’s a major, and the conditions have been a little bit frustrating. If you’re off, you’re going to be penalized. I’ve got to be playing a little better than I have been, that’s for sure. But at least I gave myself a chance going into tomorrow. Paul Lawrie came from 10 back in ’99.”

With a 67 that day, Lawrie leapfrogged only 12 golfers in catching Jean Van de Velde (whose meltdown on the 72nd hole wasted a three-stroke lead) and Justin Leonard, before winning a four-hole playoff. Tiger Woods has to leapfrog 14 golfers, and do it with a 2-iron that can’t be trusted.

Stewards of Sport Need a Lesson From the Pit Bosses

Sports of The Times
July 22, 2007


The pit boss sees all on the casino floor as a trained trouble spotter amid this high-roller’s paradise where the Mirage is a hotel, not a way of self-policing.

Is someone cheating the system? Is there suspicious activity? The pit boss knows.

There are also security chiefs roaming each pro sports league whose business it is to be the nosy neighbor, the Gladys Kravitz of their universes.

Is an insider on a shady path? Has one of their own drifted wayward? Well, they are apparently the last to know.

These internal cops are wearing costume badges these days. They have seen nothing and caught no one before the integrity of their leagues has been breached by one scandal after another.

The feds are the only enforcers with any snooping powers, having materialized with the ubiquity of Zelig on the league scene. They are serial spoilsports by trade. They are the sleuths who are chasing Barry Bonds as he pursues Hank Aaron and the authorities who illuminated the sadistic underworld of dogfighting through an indictment of Michael Vick.

The feds are on the scent of the N.B.A. now, investigating whether the veteran referee Tim Donaghy shaved points to fix games that he or his associates bet on in a case that threatens to disgrace Commissioner David Stern if it unravels the core of the league’s credibility.

Was Stern clueless or duplicitous when, for much of the playoffs, he defended N.B.A. referees to the point of deification after an academic study found that white and black officials blew whistles at different rates against white and black players?

His reaction was more revealing than the analysis: No group of employees in the world is more parsed, inspected and scrutinized than our dutiful refs, Stern crowed to every microphone within his reach.

Now each sound bite rings like a shameless pre-emptive P.R. strike by Stern when the F.B.I.’s investigation of Donaghy has been going on for months. Now it seems that Stern’s impeccable stat geeks couldn’t — or wouldn’t — detect a statistical anomaly of a referee if an odd number bit them in their hard drive.

What a commissioner doesn’t know — whether it’s selective naïveté or true ignorance — can ruin him.

Somehow, N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell never heard a whisper about a dogfighting subculture that investigators of the illegal operations say exists among athletes and, authorities contend, has long enveloped Vick.

Against all evidence, Commissioner Bud Selig claimed ignorance of a blooming steroid era in baseball even after Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa wrapped their biceps around Roger Maris’s record in 1998, even after the Balco raid of 2003.

The lapse of oversight is epidemic. Odd how that these pristine leagues have not dared to rub shoulders with Las Vegas by relocating a franchise to the Strip even though they could learn a lot from its what-happens-here-stays-here philosophy of self-inspection.

Any strange swing on a betting line. Any aberrant pattern of wagering. Any whiff of an irregularity. Any rumors of a fix. And the Nevada regulators — think of them as pit bosses of the state’s desert floor — act to stop the problem before it mushrooms into an industry crisis.

“In my old life as a criminal defense lawyer, I represented a lot of alleged fixers,” Mayor Oscar Goodman of Las Vegas said Friday. “And they all got in trouble as a result of the casinos spotting something that was unusual. They called in the gaming regulators. They called in the F.B.I. A wiretap went out, and the culprits were caught. Without Nevada looking at it, I don’t know how those activities could be prevented. That’s why I say, as far as I’m concerned, we’re a blessing.”

Goodman submitted a pitch for a team to the N.B.A. last spring even after a rowdy All-Star weekend in Vegas left some in the community soured on the league.

He still longs for a team to unite his ever-expanding city — and, in fact, Las Vegas deserves serious consideration from all leagues — even though the N.B.A. has found itself immersed in point-shaving allegations.

To others along the Strip, the N.B.A. is in danger of becoming damaged goods. By late afternoon Friday, as word spread about the F.B.I.’s investigation into Donaghy, one sports-betting operator mentioned in an aside that in this anything-goes town, there was only one real taboo: point-shaving.

Imagine the N.B.A. with an unseemly image Vegas wouldn’t embrace.

The feds have the league twisting — again. They are also the investigators who discovered a tax-evasion scheme that left several N.B.A. referees facing indictments after they were charged with exchanging first-class tickets for coach and keeping the change.

And yet the league never detected this cheating gene within. What good is a security force if it doesn’t safeguard a league’s image? It’s a mirage — not the hotel, merely the illusion.


Beckham Is About Money, Not an Investment

Sports of The Times
July 22, 2007

Carson, Calif.

It took one injured ankle to demonstrate what a healthy economy we have here in North America. Great batches of money were already in the till from all those sold tickets and all those sold Beckham 23 jerseys before the great one ever took one whack at a soccer ball.

Master David Beckham was hoping to make one cameo hobble onto the field last night, if only to justify all those television cameras trucked in for the occasion of his debut with the Los Angeles Galaxy against the English power Chelsea.

Beckham’s inconvenient sprained ankle — sustained in his final glorious moments with Real Madrid — seemed to indicate what a dicey business it is to sign any athlete, since they have a tendency to get hurt.

In a way, though, it didn’t matter. People from Southern California to Toronto had already bought Beckham gear, lured by the whiff of some presumed glamour beyond talent, the same way Americans seem besotted by Paris Hilton, perhaps, or Donald Trump. We don’t know exactly what they produce, but it sounds exciting.

In Beckham’s case, he has come to the New World to demonstrate certain ball-thumping skills. He never was a Pelé, a Maradona, a Baggio, a Zidane, a Ronaldinho (you can fill in the blanks, probably for a good chunk of this space), but he has been a very good player, rejuvenated this past spring at 32.

Spending at least $32.5 million over five years on Beckham is not that much of an economic gamble, given the discretionary cash that people have already spent on him, but is his singular talent enough to transform Major League Soccer or, more specifically, the downtrodden Los Angeles Galaxy?

In its first 11 seasons, the league imported a few aging stars who didn’t have the sizzle of Beckham and his wife, Victoria, a k a Posh Spice, but who did have the credentials of world-level, Champions League performers in Europe, just like Beckham.

I am referring to the experimentation with Roberto Donadoni in the early days of the MetroStars, a team so bad that its name was mercifully changed to the Red Bulls under new ownership. Donadoni never turned out to be much of a gate attraction in the swamplands of New Jersey, but he was an Italian World Cup regular who theoretically could have been worth a goal here or there.

The selfless Donadoni used to receive the ball in the middle of what passed for the MetroStars’ offense. He would look left and hesitate at the wretched options on that side. Then he would look right and deliberate what calamity might occur if he swung the ball over in that direction. By that time, the moment had passed. Donadoni went back to Italy and is now the coach of the national team; there is, presumably, a moral to that story.

The same thing happened with glorious elders like Lothar Matthäus of Germany and Youri Djorkaeff of France, a couple of World Cup winners who came to the MetroStars and transformed nothing. Jürgen Klinsmann was the wise one. He lives in California, relatively anonymously, and he resisted the temptation to finish his playing career here, ultimately guiding Germany to a third-place finish in last year’s World Cup.

The New World is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to try being a savior.

Beckham doesn’t pass himself off as a savior, for that matter. If you want to ascribe to the Lady MacBeth theory, there is the possibility that the move to America was driven by Victoria Beckham’s ambition for her career and for them as a power couple. But let’s stick to footie, shall we?

The fact is, individual saviors don’t work in soccer. A bad basketball team can bring in a gunner and keep people vaguely entertained all winter, but there are precious few gunners in soccer.

Beckham may actually connect with a rocket or two from a free kick, when the ball is dead and everybody is watching the bloke with the golden hair and the Jordanian number on his jersey.

Beckham was also a brilliant passer with a live ball, when he had folks named Yorke and Giggs and van Nistelrooy up front for Manchester United. He could put the ball near the net, and they would meet up with it like seltzer meeting chocolate syrup.

Ah, soccer alchemy. The old Cosmos had it because they had achieved critical mass with elders at virtually every position — Pelé, Carlos Alberto, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, Wim Rijsbergen. Those days are not coming back any time soon. M.L.S. was tottering along nicely with a low-budget plan, but it needed something different. Maybe the ticket money and the jersey money will bring in a striker who knows what to do with a Beckham parabola, if and when the ankle heals, that is.


Mr. Vranos Has a Deal for You

Fair Game
The New York Times
July 22, 2007

HEDGE fund managers are not short on chutzpah, as a rule. But it takes a special kind of cheek to ask investors at this very tender moment in the housing market for $750 million to fund a new company specializing in subprime residential mortgage loans.

Michael W. Vranos, celebrity bond trader and founder of Ellington Management, has that audacity. And then some.

Mr. Vranos oversees $5.4 billion in hedge funds and private accounts, and an additional $1.2 billion in a managed account, while also managing almost $23 billion in collateralized debt obligations (pools of loans backed by assets like home loans or credit card debt).

That might be enough to keep others busy. But Mr. Vranos is also peddling shares in a new entity called Ellington Financial LLC. An offering statement, dated July 12, began circulating on Wall Street last week; it is a private placement aimed solely at institutional investors, like pension funds and insurance companies. Friedman Billings Ramsey is the underwriter.

On its face, it may sound like a promising deal for speculators. Subprime loans are in the tank, as everyone knows. Surely there is money to be made picking up distressed properties for pennies on the dollar.

And isn’t Mr. Vranos one of the world’s leading experts on mortgage securities? The Ellington prospectus certainly confirms this. “He was praised during the difficult bear market of 1994 by Jack Welch, chairman of Kidder Peabody’s parent company, General Electric,” it noted, “who said that Mr. Vranos ‘has done a better job than 99 percent of the managers at G.E. at managing a cycle.’ ”

When Mr. Vranos was head of the mortgage securities trading desk at Kidder Peabody back in the early 1990s, Fortune magazine called him “one of the best bond traders on Wall Street,” the filing boasts.

The filing is silent, however, on a near calamity Mr. Vranos had with his fund during the financial crisis of 1998. When Long Term Capital Management imploded that fall, credit markets seized. Three hedge funds run by Mr. Vranos lost about 25 percent of their value but stabilized after he auctioned $2 billion in securities to meet margin calls.

ELLINGTON MANAGEMENT has obviously thrived since then. The filing shows that since 2000, Mr. Vranos has handily beaten the fixed-income average, producing double-digit gains in all those years but two.

His performance so far this year is not as stellar. At the end of May, his mortgage-backed credit funds were up 1.8 percent; his “composite” hedge fund return for the period is 3.81 percent.

But is now the time to raise $750 million in permanent capital on a subprime spending spree?

Subprime mortgage loans are certainly far cheaper now than they were just a few months ago. Still, the shakeout in the industry may have only just begun. Last week, major lenders like Washington Mutual and Countrywide Financial said they would no longer offer the most popular subprime loans, those carrying low two- or three-year fixed rates that then reset to much higher levels. As access to those loans is cut off, subprime borrowers will have greater difficulty refinancing billions in mortgages whose rates are shooting up right now. Defaults are likely to rise, even from today’s high levels.

Granted, timing is everything in market matters — and Mr. Vranos certainly has been through his share of up and down cycles.

Yet the timing of Ellington Financial’s hoped-for debut is intriguing because it appears to be a way for Mr. Vranos to unload subprime assets he bought a few months ago at higher prices than they would likely fetch today on investors.

Some $70 million of the offering’s proceeds is expected to go toward buying equity in something called Spyridon Holdings, which owns a real estate investment trust that Mr. Vranos’s management company formed in May 2007. It bought $345 million of the riskiest portions of mortgage pools, known as equity residuals, issued by the New Century Financial Corporation, a subprime lender that declared bankruptcy in April. New Century made the loans from 2003 to 2006, the filing said.

The $70 million earmarked from Ellington Financial’s investors to buy those assets will cover about 40 percent of the roughly $170 million Spyridon put up to buy them — it borrowed the rest. In return, Ellington Financial investors will receive 40 percent of Spyridon.

But what inquiring Ellington investors should want to know is exactly how those New Century residuals are being valued and whether that amount reflects reality or fantasy.

The Ellington prospectus says that the amount to be paid, estimated at $70 million, will be based “on fair market valuations of the New Century residuals provided at the time of purchase by one or more independent third parties.” But Ellington goes on to say that it expects any difference between those valuations and the $345 million purchase price to reflect only whatever cash the assets have distributed to Spyridon since they were bought and “any changes in interest rates over the course of such period.” Some $50 million in cash has been distributed by the New Century residuals, the filing said.

No mention is made about the decline since May in the values of subprime loans over all and in New Century loans in particular. Even the lender’s high-grade paper is taking a hit — last week, Standard & Poor’s downgraded by one notch several AAA-rated New Century securities consisting of second lien assets.

The problem, traders say, is that residual interests in New Century mortgage securities are not trading, so any valuation of the $345 million stake will likely be based on a model, not a true market. Besides, if the assets were such a good trade for Mr. Vranos, investors might be wondering, why is he sharing that largess?

Asked Friday whether the offering is a way to dump poorly performing securities onto investors for a higher-than-market price, Mr. Vranos first said that I should not have obtained a copy of the prospectus because it is a private placement. All he would say about the New Century residuals is: “I don’t know if they’ve declined. I’m not responsible for pricing them — we use third-party pricing. That’s obviously a question that potential limiteds ask all the time. Obviously we have an answer.”

Josh Rosner, an authority on mortgage-backed securities at Graham-Fisher, an independent research firm in New York, looked at the Ellington Financial filing details that I forwarded to him. He said: “If you are exposed to significant losses on a mark-to-market basis, your goal is, within the legal framework, to avoid having to take that mark. One of the ways that people are starting to avoid that is to resecuritize assets and put them into other vehicles at par. I think there is a strong chance that may be what’s happening here.”

So in addition to jettisoning some of the New Century residuals, the transaction with Ellington Financial may allow Mr. Vranos to value those that he owns elsewhere in his financial empire at a higher price than he otherwise could.

Hedge funds are unregulated entities and they want to remain that way. That is fine with me. But transactions like this one seem almost certain to draw scrutiny. And hedge fund managers as smart as Mr. Vranos should know that.

Friday, July 20, 2007

From Team Giuliani, a New Willingness to Tiptoe

About New York
The New York Times
July 21, 2007

As the politician previously known as Rudy Giuliani, fearless maverick, trudged through primary states this week, he added a group of conservative lawyers to his virtual entourage, a Justice Advisory Committee.

Their job, it appears, is to smother traces of the politician who once declared a “Roe v. Wade 25th Anniversary Day” and offered to help Bill Clinton pass tough national gun licensing laws.

Looking back — not that his campaign encourages doing so without supervision — there was a time when Mr. Giuliani would not have been seen onstage with people holding views like those of some of his new justice advisers.

For instance, during the 1993 mayoral race, the National Abortion Rights Action League of New York tried to organize a forum for candidates, but hit a snag. In the maneuvering, the incumbent mayor, David N. Dinkins, insisted that a candidate from the Right to Life Party be allowed to take part.

Mr. Giuliani would not hear of it.

“He said, ‘I would never accept a Right to Life candidate at this forum,’ ” said Kelli Conlin, the executive director of the abortion rights group. Instead of endorsing Mr. Dinkins, a Democrat who was also a vigorous supporter of abortion rights, the group stayed neutral. Mr. Giuliani showed his gratitude.

“He felt we were dealing honestly with him, and he rewarded me by putting me on his transition team,” Ms. Conlin said. “How passionately he believed in this.”

He appointed leading advocates of abortion rights to the city’s Board of Health. He spoke at a Naral luncheon in 1997. A year later, he welcomed Ms. Conlin and her group to City Hall for the declaration of “Roe v. Wade 25th Anniversary Day,” marking the Supreme Court decision that lifted many restrictions on abortions.

“He warmly gave me a kiss and a hug,” Ms. Conlin said.

That was 1998, when the theater of his political life was New York State, where any hesitancy in support for abortion rights is practically a disqualification from statewide elected office.

Asked recently about the prospect of Roe v. Wade being overturned, Mr. Giuliani skipped the warm hug. “It would be O.K. to repeal,” he said. “Or it would be O.K. also if a strict constructionist judge viewed it as a precedent.”

He still supports abortion rights, Mr. Giuliani says, but actually hates abortion, an antipathy that he is now revealing to the abortion opponents who will be voting in the Republican primaries.

“He made his reputation on being forthright,” Ms. Conlin said. “Well, at least he’s standing in unreceptive crowds and saying, ‘I am pro-choice.’ ”

New Yorkers who thought they were familiar with what appeared to be Mr. Giuliani’s views after his two decades in public life are now discovering that some of his other passions have cooled.

In February 1997, after a man shot seven people on the observation platform of the Empire State Building, Mr. Giuliani spoke urgently about the need for national gun control laws.

That particular fever has also broken.

“You have a personal right to carry arms, to have arms,” he said at a recent town hall meeting. “That personal right is as strong as the right of free speech.”

Each state, he now says, should regulate guns as it sees fit.

But back in 1997, when the Empire State gunman established residency in Florida by staying in a motel for a few days, long enough to legally buy a .380-caliber Beretta semiautomatic handgun, Mr. Giuliani said Florida’s law was “absurd.”

Most guns used in New York crimes were bought in Southern states, so the country needed national regulation, Mr. Giuliani said in 1997.

“The United States Congress should have the courage to pass uniform licensing for everyone carrying a gun,” he said. “A gun is more dangerous than an automobile. You have to go through a rigorous test in order to drive an automobile. You should have to go through an even more rigorous test before you get a gun, much less an automatic weapon.”

Sure, he sounds a bit different these days. But as his campaign Web site explains, “Rudy understands that what works in New York doesn’t necessarily work in Mississippi or Montana.”

Or as Groucho Marx is believed to have said: “Those are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.”


Moving Across the Pond and Onto the Concrete

Sports of the Times
July 21, 2007

Ever since he signed a five-year deal that could be worth as much as $250 million, David Beckham has pledged to lead a soccer crusade in the United States and push soccer, once and for all, into the American psyche.

This push will be as intriguing to watch as Beckham’s performance on the field.

Major League Soccer enjoyed one of its finest moments Thursday night without its biggest star making so much as a kick. Beckham was nursing an injured ankle, so the American public didn’t see him do his thing. Some critics wonder if that will ever happen. Still, Thursday’s game between the M.L.S. All-Stars and Celtic FC wasn’t about playing; it was about presence, and Beckham’s was magnetic.

This was a good night for soccer: a sold-out crowd, a great stadium and a close game. Two Hispanic players — one born in the United States, the other outside it — scored a goal in the 2-0 victory for the All-Stars.

Don Garber, the M.L.S. commissioner, said the nationality of the two goal scorers underlined the league’s persistent theme. “We are a league that represents the New America,” Garber said. The New America, he added, is “diverse, young and increasingly Hispanic.”

Soccer has caught on in the United States, largely in sprawling suburbs where two decades of youths have grown up playing the sport.

For the United States to reach the next level in international competition, the sport must consistently draw from a larger and heretofore untapped pool of talent. That pool, experts say, is located in Inner City, U.S.A., where the games of choice have been football, basketball, track and field and baseball.

If soccer can tap into this market, the sport will achieve the traction it desperately wants and needs in the United States. The conundrum for soccer executives in the United States is how to attract new — and much-needed — talent to the sport.

Importing Beckham is a major step. But the key to reaching an untapped pool of inner-city talent could lie in the hands of Victor MacFarlane, an African-American real estate developer who, along with his partner, the investor William Chang, paid $33 million for D.C. United this year.

MacFarlane, 56, was born in Ohio and played football, basketball and baseball. Soccer wasn’t on his radar until his five children began playing. His son became a serious soccer player and played through high school.

Buying D.C. United was a combination of love of sport and love of the memories that sport provided. As a business opportunity, MacFarlane said he believes that soccer’s popularity “will jump the pond.”

We’ll see about that, but I do believe that the key for soccer to gain traction in the inner city is to bring the sport to the people, making soccer part of the economic and cultural ecostructure of the community.

MacFarlane and Chang want to build a privately financed, 27,000-seat, soccer-only stadium at Poplar Point in the southeast section of Washington. They also want to build a sports academy that will have an academic curriculum to complement soccer.

“You have to bring the sport to the community,” MacFarlane said.

Garber said yesterday that soccer has two distinct “minority” initiatives in the United States, in terms of both fan development and player development. One initiative is aimed at Hispanics, the other at African-Americans.

“Hispanics love the game, soccer is their game,” Garber said. “We want them to make our league their league.”

African-Americans are not as broadly involved with soccer, as fans or as players. Basketball and football, with their extensive recruiting networks, traditions of providing college scholarships for top athletes and lucrative compensation at the professional level, appear to have a cultural chokehold on the African-American community.

This is changing, however, and soccer could benefit. The N.B.A., with its pursuit of globalization, has opened the door for soccer, which covets the inner-city talent pool college and professional basketball have in some ways taken for granted.

I asked Garber how soccer, in its quest for new talent, would avoid the strip mining that took place, especially in basketball and football, in which young black athletes were carted out of the community. What will the community receive in return for growing yet another sports enterprise, in this case soccer?

“We want to introduce this great game to kids who have not been exposed,” Garber said. “It’s a game where you don’t have to be big, you don’t have to be a great athlete. As long as you can touch the ball with your foot, you can play.”

To the point about strip mining, Garber said: “We are generations away from producing a David Beckham. We want to create an opportunity for them to be part of 18 million kids who play the game and love the game.”

The continued quest to grow soccer in the United States is an intriguing venture. Beckham is one answer, but investors like MacFarlane hold the key.

If Golfers Are Taking Drugs, Start Giving Names

Sports of the Times
July 21, 2007

Carnoustie, Scotland

In Gary Player’s arm-waving promo for the World Golf Hall of Fame, he expounds on how he has flown more than 12 million miles in his golf travels in half a century. With that promo about to be updated to 14 million miles, he should take it as a hint to update his cloudy allegations at this 136th British Open regarding performance-enhancing drugs in golf.

It’s not enough for Player to tell reporters, as he did Wednesday at a news conference welcoming him as the 1968 Open champion here, that you “just know for a fact that some golfers are doing it” and that around the world, “I would say there’s 10 guys taking something.”

If he’s trying to alert golf’s ruling bodies — the PGA Tour, the United States Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club — to the use of drugs on the various world tours, Player needs to name names. Do it in confidence, behind closed doors in a meeting with golf’s ostrich-like officials who have been so slow in getting their heads out of the sand traps about drugs.

When somebody’s cheating in golf, that’s what a rival golfer is supposed to do. Name the cheater to the tournament officials.

If a pro notices another golfer nudging his ball into a better lie in the rough during a tournament, that pro doesn’t walk away and keep quiet. Or shouldn’t. That pro is not protecting every other golfer in the field unless he reports it immediately after the round before the cheater signs his or her scorecard. Not after the tournament. Not after the season ends. Do it then and there.

In time, Player may deserve to be praised for being the first to dare to mention publicly even the possible presence in golf of, as he said, human growth hormone, creatine and steroids. But unless he names names, he’s only playing nine holes.

Even before Player popped off, golf’s ruling bodies were expected to have a testing policy in place by the end of the year. Admittedly, it surely has taken time to dot all the ayes and to cross all the tees in all those discussions. But according to Peter Dawson, the chief executive of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of nearby St. Andrews, those decisions are at an advanced stage.

“I think it’s important that golf demonstrates that it is clean,” Dawson said Wednesday, “or if it’s not, identifies it and does something about it. I personally think there should be a period of player education, which might last for a whole season before you would introduce a fully fledged antidoping and drug-testing program.”

For too long, golf’s officials professed that golfers were too responsible to cheat. They kept preaching how they’ve just never heard of any golfers taking performance-enhancing drugs. Then again, they would have been the last to hear, especially when they weren’t listening. But thanks to Player, now they have heard it, loud but unclear.

Until now, those officials have preferred to cite how one of golf’s patron saints, Bobby Jones, in deflecting praise for accepting a penalty stroke in a United States Open, said that he might as well be saluted for “not robbing a bank.” They talk about how golf is a self-policing sport in which both pros and duffers will call a penalty on themselves for an infraction that only they see.

When asked about Player’s allegations, Tiger Woods, like the other pros questioned here, denied any knowledge of steroid use.

“Probably out here, it would be test positive for maybe being hung over a little bit, but that’s about it,” Woods said, smiling. “I know some guys have taken Medrol packs for inflammation in their wrists, but other than that, I don’t see anybody doing anything or have heard about anybody doing anything.”

But if anybody is doing anything, that golfer is not likely to do it where others would see it, and especially where Woods would see it.

In a world where testing for performance-enhancing drugs takes place in Olympic sports, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, cycling, tennis and boxing, it is naïve to think that some golfers have not experimented with such drugs, especially golfers on the lower tiers of their particular tour.

Pros and duffers are always searching for something new that will improve their shot making and lower their scores. Some may well have tried drugs, perhaps with mixed results. Steroids-induced strength would likely add more length for drives and iron shots, but would a putting touch be heavier?

And if Gary Player were to name names for the ruling bodies, the performance of those golfers would be subject to silent inspection for sudden improvement or maybe sudden decline. Without the names, it’s still a guessing game as to who might be doing drugs and who isn’t.

Tell whatever you know, Gary. Play the back nine.

Eight’s a Crowd

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
July 21, 2007

“I don’t take this personally,” says Dennis Kucinich.


“I take it as an assault on the democratic process itself.”

Well, just so it isn’t personal.

Kucinich — in what he said was his first interview since being hospitalized for food poisoning — was referring to The Whisper. This was a moment during a recent candidates’ forum at the N.A.A.C.P. convention. A microphone picked up John Edwards telling Hillary Clinton, sotto voce, that at some point down the line it would be nice to have debates “with a smaller group of people.”

That was so obvious it hardly needed mentioning. The presidential debates have come to resemble a police lineup with all the wrong suspects. The main action involves a moderator telling people that their 90 seconds are up. On Monday, the Democrats will be at it again on CNN — all eight of them.

The overcrowded debate platform is one of those minor, nagging irritants in American democracy that, like John Kerry, never seem to go away. The networks don’t want the responsibility of deciding who to exclude, especially since each candidate has, at some point, been elected something. They’re not like the guy in a lobster suit who used to run around New Hampshire.

The long shots say that the public has no other chance to hear their message, since the news media ignore them. (Kucinich is not actually the perfect person to make this case, having participated in 21 televised debates when he ran for president in 2004. You’d think word would have trickled down by now.)

But about The Whisper: Kucinich’s version is that it all began during the forum, when he talked (yelled, actually) about his bill on a single-payer health care plan. He claims that Edwards, who is extremely proud of his own, less sweeping proposal, felt threatened by this high-decibel truth-telling and instantly ran over to “collude” with Clinton. (“He RACED over to Hillary! The camera barely had time to catch him on the screen!”)

Edwards claims this is all a misunderstanding, that what he really meant was that he and his fellow debaters — those fine, upstanding, highly qualified and extremely serious debaters — should be randomly divided into two groups, each to be given its own 90-minute program. (Raise your hand if you would like to be responsible for watching twice as many debates as you feel guilty about missing now.) In what sounded like a case of mounting hysteria, Edwards also told ABC News that Mike Gravel, the most out-to-lunch of the group, was the candidate he’d most like to be stranded with on an island.

All things considered, this is pretty good drama for so early in the campaign. You’ve got conflicting versions of reality, alienated friends, secret tapes, an island ... but Clinton’s part is a little disturbing. The tapes of the incident, which are, of course, all over YouTube, show her agreeing with Edwards enthusiastically, and following him as he walked away, saying: “Our guys should talk.” But when asked about it, she acted as if Edwards had been wandering around the stage alone, talking to himself. “I think he has some ideas about what he’d like to do,” she said.

Hillary Clinton’s campaigns are extremely disciplined. Back when she first ran for the Senate, reporters got on her bus thinking they had latched onto the dream job in political reporting. Three months later they were beginning to gnaw on trees and laugh hysterically at inappropriate moments. Nothing is ever said that is not on message, and it can sometimes make her seem like an automaton.

Right now, when her campaign is going so well that even the Pentagon is treating her like the most dangerous Democrat in town, she might take the opportunity to practice normal-person responses like: “Sure, it’s hard to have a debate with eight people.” This would not cause the voters to lose faith in her capacity to be commander-in-chief.

As to the debates, the answer is simple. The networks should just do what they always do these days: Let America Decide. After every debate, the viewers could go online and vote for who they want to see go home. Ratings will soar. You would see Chris Dodd on the cover of In Touch.

True, Internet voting is inexact and subject to manipulation. But we’re talking about a ticket to 90 minutes on CNN, not a seat on the Security Council. It’s not as if you let somebody be president without winning the popular vote.

A Crack in Team Bush

Guest Columnist
The New York Times
July 21, 2007

It was a shock to see Defense Secretary Robert Gates battling tears Wednesday evening as he spoke about Maj. Douglas Zembiec, a Marine and father of a 1-year-old daughter, who was killed in May after requesting a second tour of duty in Iraq.

Shocking and yet somehow profoundly validating and cathartic.

Choking, pausing, visibly suffering and clearly fighting off an onslaught of unwelcome emotion as he addressed the Marine Corps Association’s annual dinner, Gates seemed, for a moment, to tap into national sentiment in a way that the Bush team has never before done.

Sure, they tapped into our anger, fear and hatred in the days and months after 9/11. Sure, their swagger stoked our desires for vengeance and soothed some of the terror that took up residence in our guts in the weeks following the attacks.

But here was something new: an acknowledgment, however unbidden, of the complex range of negative emotions — sadness and frustration and, yes, I think, guilt — that’s now weighing upon the nation’s soul after four disastrous years in Iraq.

We’d never seen anything like it in the “Henny Penny” brush-offs of Gates’s predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld. We probably never will discern any inkling of it in Condoleezza Rice’s robotic equanimity. President Bush is known to meet privately with wounded soldiers and families of the fallen and is said, at those times, to become emotional, but little of that softness seeps into his often cocky — and defensive — public demeanor.

It’s hard to imagine much sympathy emanating from a man who admits to no soul-searching on Iraq, who vacationed through the panic and devastation of Hurricane Katrina and who recently shrugged off the issue of health care reform with the line, “I mean, people have access to health care in America. After all, you just go to an emergency room.”

Rice, I read in the recent biography, “Twice as Good,” is so incapable of empathy that, in her late teens, and after years of assiduous and ambitious practice, she was forced to give up her dreams of becoming a concert pianist because her teacher felt she didn’t have the “interest or inclination” to “make someone else’s thoughts and emotions [her] own.”

We’ve all seen by now where such emotional sterility, coupled with a ferocious attachment to ideology, leads. And I think, as a nation — as Gates just did so publicly — we’re starting to show cracks from the strain.

I kept waiting yesterday for signs that, after his almost tearful performance, Gates would be labeled a “nut” or a “wimp” or some kind of national disgrace.

They didn’t come.

Instead, on a discussion board at, an online organization for active members of the military and veterans, I found Gates referred to as “a man of honor and integrity” by a former Marine Corps officer, who admitted that he himself, hearing Zembiec’s story, had broken down and cried, for the first time, before his 9- and 11-year-old children.

“He is obviously a man who tries his best to serve his country as best he possibly can, and he isn’t afraid to show his emotions,” wrote another poster.

Another wrote of being moved to tears nightly by the evening news: “I ache when I think of America’s sons and daughters being killed in a distant land. I am so relieved that Robert Gates is the decent, caring man he is proving to be.”

I pictured Vice President Dick Cheney miming, “Gag me,” and Rumsfeld swaying with the motions of playing an imaginary violin. And I thought: how wonderful it is that someone, on high, has had the strength to own the pain that’s been caused by our disastrous course in Iraq.

One has to wonder, of course, what public opinion would have been if the first cabinet official to lose it — just a bit — had been not the stoic bureaucrat Gates but instead our female secretary of state. Had it been Rice up on that podium, and were she constitutionally capable of that degree of non-Bush-centered feeling, would she have been denounced? Would she have been belittled, punished politically, dismissed as too irrational and emotional — too girly — to deal with the ugly realities of war?

We’ll never know, because she — like all powerful women in politics — will never let us find out. They can’t afford to. Not unless much more of official Washington decides it’s man enough to truly feel our nation’s inner disarray.

Judith Warner is the author of “Perfect Madness” and a contributing columnist for TimesSelect. She is a guest Op-Ed columnist.

Necessary Steps: A Novelist's Walk Through Summer

July 20, 2007, 12:06 pm
Brazil: The Grand Tour

A devout disciple of Schopenhauer, Machado de Assis — the founding father of Brazilian literature — subtitled “The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas,” his most famous work, “Epitaph of a Small Winner.” De Assis’s fictional alter-ego, cleaving to a pessimistic weltanschauung, argued that while existence is a zero-sum game, he had managed to get out ahead by not having children, and bestowing on them the same load of suffering.

Rio de Janeiro

Set in Rio de Janeiro, “The Posthumous Memoirs” also owes a considerable debt to Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy,” with its short chapters and discombobulating of the space-time continuum. Bras Cubas is something of an ambulatory figure, although, admittedly, this is a dubious distinction in the era before the invention of the Segway. (A personal transportation system that, for sheer willing upon the human body the withering away of its legs, takes the proverbial biscuit.)

Anyway, in the spirit of De Assis and Sterne, let me offer you my latest peregrinations, which consisted of a 15,000-mile sweep through the Americas, north and south, that produced a series of giant carbon footprints, while giving me hardly any opportunity to stretch my legs. I blame the kids – but then I would, wouldn’t I? True, I only had 50 percent of mine with me, yet even two small boys are a sufficient drogue to brake any possibility of sustained walking, unless it’s on a treadmill facing a marathon screening of all the Harry Potter movies. An observation that could easily form the frontispiece quote of my own posthumous memoirs, to be subtitled: “Epitaph of a Total Loser.”

Walk 1, Sao Paulo Airport. Distance: 260 meters. Time: 2.5 hours.

Don’t be fooled by the comparatively short distances and level terrain into thinking that this will be an easy hike. Consisting of four separate stages: Domestic Transfers Check-in Desk; TAM ticketing desk; TAM Check-in and Security, the walk – or “queue,” as it is colloquially known – can become especially arduous if you undertake it, as we did, in the immediate aftermath of a strike by Brazilian air traffic controllers.

Still, there’s plenty to see along the way; mostly Brazilians, one of whom, when I tried to quicken our pace, called me the Portuguese equivalent of the son of a flute. As ever with walking, it’s an activity that really tells you where you are: orientation is bred in the femur. You may have flown in at 6:30 a.m. in a daze, but by the time you find yourself sitting on the tarmac for your flight to Rio at 9:30 a.m., you truly know where you are. Purgatory.

Walk 2. From the head of the funicular to the base of the statue of Christ the Redeemer. Distance: 200 meters. Time (including refreshment stop): 1 hour.

Everyone, just everyone, has to visit this huge statue when they come to Rio. It’s just so huge, and the views from the top of the mountain are superb. At least, they are on clear days. On the day we attempted our trek it was so cloudy we could see neither up nor down.

As numinous as God should be.

The youngest of our party did exclaim, “Oh my God!” when he saw the vast Redeemer looming out of the mist, but while this may have been apt, he is also – being 5 – a tad credulous.

Walk 3, Copacabana to Ipanema. Distance 1.5 kilometers. Time: 2 hours.

Put all thoughts of Astrud Gilberto and the eponymous girl out of your mind. Beachfront Rio may no longer have been quite as minatory as when I was last here, in the early 1990s (all the drug gangs and their mayhem are now, more or less, confined to the favelas, where they battle it out with R.P.G.s and heavy machine guns, protected by the cordon répugnante of a wholly corrupt police force), but being winter it was still a misty, chilly, slightly scuzzy prospect, as the author’s wife never ceased to remind him.

The boys liked to walk up the beach – which, to be fair, is pristine – then back down the Avenida Atlantica, time after time after time. After a couple of days of this I persuaded them to divert up the Rua Francisco Otaviano to Ipanema, past a scary Catholic iconostasis (life-size plaster figures of leprous-looking saints). It was dark by the time we turned into the Avenida Francisco Behring, and there was absolutely no one on the beach at all. The breakers rolled in from the Atlantic, and the lights of the hilly suburbs to the south mounted up as if Christ the Redeemer were developing the empyrean itself.

Then there was the Parque Garota towards the end of the point. The author’s wife felt that its dark shrubbery and sinister-sounding appellation disqualified it as a location for family rambling, but I point out that “garota” is in fact “girl” in Portuguese, and the park was named after the eponymous one. “In that case,” Mrs. Self snapped, “why is it full of single men lurking in the bushes?” Moan, moan, moan.

Walk 4. Paraty, Brazil. Round trip from the Marquesa Hotel. Distance: 2 kilometers. Time: 1.5 hours.

If you visit the charming seaside resort of Paraty, 3.5 hours’ drive south of Rio, be sure to tour its famously uneven, large-cobbled streets on foot. The grid-pattern of boxy, whitewashed houses will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a spaghetti western. I kept expecting to see the Man with No Name ride into town, intent on wreaking destruction on all the wooden knick-knacks, glass bibelots and naïf paintings that clutter up Paraty’s famously uneven etc. etc.

Abandoning the boys at the hotel, I acquired sturdy walking companions, to whit: the entire staff of the British Council office in Rio de Janeiro, together with a journalist from O Globo, his photographer, and the jeep they’d all hired.

I asked them why they were on my case. They explained that they’d paid my plane fare to the literary festival that was being held in Paraty, and they wanted their face time. This was all news to me; I don’t like having anything to do with Council, which is an adjunct of the British Foreign Office, charged with converting the heathen to reruns of “The Vicar of Dibley” and tea drinking. They wanted to go for a drive – I insisted on walking. I prevailed, and we set out for the kilometer or so to the jetty where the pleasure boats are hired, the whole media cavalcade stringing along behind.

The journalist asked me questions, his snapper snapped away. The Head of the British Council and I chatted amiably enough. (It’s impossible to do anything else with them, as Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) discovered in “The Third Man,” when he encountered the BC rep, Crabbin, memorably played by the late Wilfrid Hyde-White.) We made it to the jetty, and then after further excruciating politeness, I managed to shake them off. Bliss.

Next week join me for four brief – but punishing - treks in the United States.

A brief remark on my Sao Paulo airport walk is sadly necessitated by this week’s crash of a TAM Express flight, which killed approximately 200 passengers and crew. I stress: I took my walk a fortnight ago, and despite my remarks about Harry Potter, I have no belief in magical thinking. It’s always a little bit grotesque when a writer riffs on an absurdity, only to have it transmogrify into a grotesquerie; beyond this, my walk took place at the international airport, rather than Congonhas (where the crash happened), which serves mostly internal flights.

I could give you some more flimflam about how all this goes to show that air crashes – no matter how infrequent – are God’s way of showing us that we should cleave to the ground, but I don’t believe any such thing. Nor do you. And frankly, none of us – least of all the families of the victims – needs any such flat-earth nonsense.

In the wake of the crash the Brazilian body politic is galvanizing itself. Accusations are being slung about: at the state governor, and at the president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva himself. Lula has the image in the northern hemisphere of being a kind of Chavez-lite (or Castro-very-lite), but nothing, my Brazilian informants tell me, could be further from the truth.

Of course, from my perspective, the most important thing is: is Lula a walker? I can’t answer this with any certainty, although he did attend a meeting at our Rio hotel while we were staying there. It was the first time I’ve ever actually seen a red carpet rolled out, presumably so this Latin American populist could take his own, necessary steps.


About Necessary Steps

Will Self is the author of five novels, four collections of short stories, four novellas and four collections of journalism. He is a frequent contributor to a plethora of newspapers and magazines, both in England and internationally. He is a hardened walker, with the calluses to show for it. He lives in London, England, together with his wife and four children.

Norman Mailer, Unbound and on Film: Revisiting His Bigger-Than-Life Selves

The New York Times
July 20, 2007

Who was Norman T. Kingsley? No Wikipedia entry exists to provide a full biography, but in his day Kingsley — or N. T. K., as he was sometimes called — was a figure of considerable world historical significance. A filmmaker who invited comparison to Buñuel, Dreyer, Fellini and Antonioni, he was also a formidable potential candidate for president of the United States, an object of relentless media fascination and the target of far-reaching conspiracies of the rich and powerful. Backed up by an entourage of hoodlums and street fighters known as the Cash Box, he was, in equal parts, artist, outlaw, pornographer and saint.

Kingsley lived in perpetual danger of assassination. He reveled in the company of boxers and beautiful women and was said by some to have “a proclivity toward Greek love.” His background was somewhat mysterious — Russian, Irish and Welsh with rumors of Gypsy and what in those days was called Negro blood — and his accent seemed to travel, in the space of a single utterance, from Brooklyn to Harvard to Texas. If one man could be said to crystallize the violent contradictions of his time and place, surely it was Norman Kingsley.

Not that such a person ever really existed. But somebody — one person in particular — had to invent him. Norman Kingsley is the main character in a movie called “Maidstone,” and the alter ego, avatar and namesake of the film’s director, Norman Mailer (whose middle name, by the way, is Kingsley). “Maidstone,” shot in the Hamptons in the summer of 1968 and released in 1971, is the third of four feature-length films Mr. Mailer directed, following “Wild 90” (1967) and “Beyond the Law” (1968). The fourth, an adaptation of his 1984 novel “Tough Guys Don’t Dance,” is the only one in which Mr. Mailer does not appear and the only one that can be said to obey the conventions of commercial narrative cinema. It stars Ryan O’Neal as an ex-convict and aspiring writer mixed up in a series of murders in Provincetown, Mass.

All four of these will be shown as part of “The Mistress and the Muse: The Films of Norman Mailer,” a fascinating and wide-ranging retrospective taking place during the next two weeks at three Manhattan cultural institutions: the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the Paley Center for Media and Anthology Film Archives.

The cinematic oeuvre of Mr. Mailer, now 84, cannot quite stand by itself; the movies he directed run the gamut from curiosity to catastrophe. Happily, this retrospective turns out to include a lot more: adaptations from his books (notably the excellent mini-series made out of “The Executioner’s Song,” his nonfiction masterpiece); movies suggested by his life and personality (like Karel Reisz’s “Gambler,” written by Mr. Mailer’s disciple James Toback and starring James Caan as a singularly reckless literature professor); and a generous smattering of documentaries and television shows (from “Firing Line” to “Gilmore Girls”) in which he appears.

The objection can be made that all of this stuff is trivial and secondary, an amusing distraction from the substantial and vexing edifice of Mr. Mailer’s real work, which is his books. Many of them, it seems to me, are too infrequently and poorly read, and some of their boldest gambits and thorniest truths are overshadowed by their author’s reputation for excess on and off the page.

To see him as he was in his various nonliterary incarnations — as cinéaste and talk-show guest, as politician and polemicist — is to understand some of what he was up to in books like “Advertisements for Myself” (1959), “Armies of the Night” (1968), “Of a Fire on the Moon” (1970) and “The Prisoner of Sex” (1971). And Mr. Mailer’s first three films — “Maidstone” in particular — are worth seeing for the insight they provide into the ideas and ambitions that fueled Mr. Mailer’s writing in the 1960s and ’70s, the wildest, most productive and most contentious period in a career that has never been especially calm or easy to comprehend.

In those years Mr. Mailer’s extracurricular pursuits, including the forays into filmmaking, sometimes attracted more attention than his prose. He seemed perversely intent on transmuting his early fame, acquired with the commercial success of his first novel, “The Naked and the Dead” (1948), into cheap media celebrity or even tabloid notoriety. His ego seemed boundless, his appetite for the spotlight so ravenous that it could look like a hunger for public ridicule. In 1967 he treated antiwar protesters in Washington to a drunken, rambling, scatological impression of Lyndon B. Johnson; two years later he undertook a quixotic run for mayor of New York City on a platform of municipal secession; he spewed obscenities at Germaine Greer on the stage of Town Hall in Manhattan in 1971. That same year he exchanged insults with Gore Vidal on an especially memorable episode of “The Dick Cavett Show.”

All of these events and many more can be witnessed anew in “The Mistress and the Muse.” Their entertainment value — see Mailer the candidate pressing the flesh on the streets of Harlem and Queens! Watch as Mailer the male chauvinist pig does battle with the assembled Amazons of the women’s liberation movement! Thrill to Mailer the literary pugilist as he accuses Mr. Vidal of “intellectual pollution”! — is undeniable. And so is Mr. Mailer’s charisma, his remarkable ability to mix the roles of crusader and clown, prophet and fool, rabbi and ham.

Some of this magnetism derives from his sheer physical presence — the jug ears, the piercing blue eyes under the woolly, graying thatch of hair, the stubby frame capable of surprising turns of quickness and grace. And then there is the voice, the rapid, forceful stream of half-baked nostrums and brilliant aperçus delivered in that inimitable accent, an audible palimpsest of Mr. Mailer’s Brooklyn childhood, his Ivy League education and his World War II combat service in an Army unit composed mainly of Texans and Southerners. He flexes his upper lip like a boxer testing his mouthpiece, and his impressive eyebrows jump up in mirth or bear down with exaggerated menace.

In short Mr. Mailer is, as he might put it, no mean performer. He has appeared in a handful of movies by other directors, including Milos Forman’s “Ragtime” (1981) and Jean-Luc Godard’s “King Lear” (1987). And his improvisational gusto as an actor is the most striking aspect of “Wild 90” and “Beyond the Law.” In the first he plays a gangster of some kind, his voice, often unintelligible because of poor sound quality, taking on Irish, Italian and African-American inflections when he is not on his knees barking in the face of a perplexed German shepherd. In “Beyond the Law” he is a detective with the soul of a poet, whose blend of sensitivity and profane machismo seems to be both a knowing parody of Mr. Mailer’s self-image and its sincere apotheosis.

On screen, whether he is playing Norman Mailer or Norman Kingsley (or, much later, King Lear), Mr. Mailer is almost always testing a hypothesis that the most hyperbolic presentation of the self will also be the most authentic. Fame was not only his burden, but also his subject and his method. “I was a node in a new electronic landscape of celebrity, personality and status,” he wrote in “Advertisements for Myself,” looking back with some ambivalence at his transformation, at the age of 25, from college man and ex-G.I. to the most acclaimed writer of his generation. And that book chronicles, among other things, his awakening determination to figure out how to use this curious existential condition as the basis for his work.

While his films, with their long, ragged scenes of improvised dialogue, show a superficial affinity with Andy Warhol’s, Warhol and Mr. Mailer are, in the context of their times, antithetical figures. Warhol was primarily interested in the distancing, depersonalizing effects of celebrity, in the way that media reproduction could turn persons into ciphers, emptying them of affect and individuality. For Mr. Mailer, affect and individuality were everything, and his project was to conceive a personality large enough to withstand the shrinking, homogenizing, castrating forces of contemporary life.

It was a fundamentally romantic project, and it makes him a grandiose figure and a curiously vulnerable one. Introducing him on “Firing Line” in 1968, William F. Buckley Jr. observed that Mr. Mailer’s “technique is one of unalloyed narcissism mitigated by a recognition of — not to say a devotion to — his shortcomings.” While this summation is unkind, it is not inaccurate, and it goes some way toward capturing what an exasperating, fascinating character Mr. Mailer had become.

I use the word character advisedly. By the later 1960s his major strategy, already evident in “Advertisements,” would be precisely to collapse the boundary between author and character, to make himself the explicit protagonist of his writing. The result was a series of remarkable literary hybrids that cast the template for what would later be called New Journalism. “Armies of the Night,” in which the third-person “Norman Mailer” participates in the anti-Vietnam march on the Pentagon in October 1967, is perhaps the most sustained and successful performance in this vein. And while its reportage is justly praised — there is no better snapshot from that era of the intelligentsia at war — the formal radicalism of that book is in many ways underestimated.

Because Mr. Mailer’s milieu was the popular media rather than the academy, and because he was, from the start, a best-selling novelist rather than a critical darling, he is not generally grouped with the experimental novelists of the period. But even though he was schooled on the broad-backed realism of Theodore Dreiser and James T. Farrell, and even though the literary deity of his young manhood was Ernest Hemingway, he nonetheless undertook as thorough and audacious a re-imagining of the aesthetic parameters of the novel as did Thomas Pynchon, John Barth or William S. Burroughs.

That same experimental impulse — the drive to push at the frontiers of convention, to blast settled patterns of expression with the shock wave of his personality — drives his other activities, from filmmaking to politicking. Mr. Mailer’s acquaintance with the avant-garde theater and experimental film that flourished in New York in the 1950s and ’60s is evident in his films, which are always less concerned with polish or coherence than with plumbing the mysteries and serendipities of process. He does not want to represent an experience, but rather to induce one, to precipitate chaos in the hopes of glimpsing some new inkling of order.

His camera operators included D. A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock, mainstays of the cinéma vérité movement. Mr. Pennebaker was on hand to capture the skirmish with the feminists at Town Hall and turn it into “Town Bloody Hall,” and he also filmed an infamous scene at the end of “Maidstone.” In that film Mr. Mailer describes what he is doing — whether he’s speaking as himself or as Kingsley is not clear, and perhaps moot — as pursuing “an attack on the nature of reality,” a slogan that could fit much of the art of the time.

In any case, reality took its revenge, or called Mr. Mailer’s bluff, in the person of Rip Torn, an actor in the film who assaulted Mr. Mailer with a hammer as Mr. Pennebaker’s camera rolled and the novelist’s children screamed in terror. Real blood was shed — Mr. Mailer nearly bit off his assailant’s ear — and schoolyard obscenities were exchanged as if they were ontological brickbats.

This scene, I admit, has a lurid fascination. But it also captures something essential in Mr. Mailer — his reckless bravado, his willingness to court ridiculousness and the loss of control. Very few artists today, in any medium, exhibit this kind of crazy passion, and that’s too bad. At the beginning of “Advertisements for Myself,” Mailer admits that “like many another vain, empty and bullying body of our time, I have been running for President these last 10 years in the privacy of my mind.” Near the end of “Maidstone” he notes that “in reality, someone like Kingsley could never run for president. But in fantasy — in fantasy — he could.”

True enough. And while some people seem to be fantasizing that the current mayor of New York, by virtue of his levelheadedness and managerial competence, might make a good candidate, my own imagination runs toward the man who placed fourth in a field of five Democrats in the 1969 mayoral primary. And if Norman Mailer won’t run, maybe Norman Kingsley will.

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