Queen Hillary’s disruptive court

The press corps finally wakes up to her waffling and evasions. Plus: Norman Mailer's largely forgotten legacy and our disappointing lesbian icons!

Topics: Hillary Rodham Clinton,

The mainstream media have been in a breathless tizzy about how Hillary Clinton waffled, tripped, stumbled or generally screwed up at the Democratic debate in Philadelphia two weeks ago.

But Hillary’s performance at prior debates was never as deft or “flawless” as the media claimed in the first place. Conventional wisdom has now flipped, and the air-headed lemmings of our free press have turned on a dime and are stampeding in the opposite direction. This is the same crew who passively swallowed administration propaganda about the urgency of an invasion of Iraq. Don’t ask for critical acumen from this lot.

Hillary’s stonewalling evasions and mercurial, soulless self-positionings have been going on since her first run for the U.S. Senate from New York, a state she had never lived in and knew virtually nothing about. The liberal Northeastern media were criminally complicit in enabling her queenlike, content-free “listening tour,” where she took no hard questions and where her staff and security people (including her government-supplied Secret Service detail) staged events stocked with vetted sympathizers, and where they ensured that no protesters would ever come within camera range.

That compulsive micromanagement, ultimately emanating from Hillary herself, has come back to haunt her in her dismaying inability to field complex unscripted questions in a public forum. The presidential sweepstakes are too harsh an arena for tenderfoot novices. Hillary’s much-vaunted “experience” has evidently not extended to the dynamic give-and-take of authentic debate. The mild challenges she has faced would be pitiful indeed by British standards, which favor a caustic style of witty put-downs that draw applause and gales of laughter in the House of Commons. Women had better toughen up if they aspire to be commander in chief.

Whether John Edwards or Barack Obama (toward whom I’m currently leaning) has conclusively demonstrated his superiority for the top of the ticket remains to be seen. They may unfortunately split the anti-Hillary vote (a majority of registered Democrats) so that she slips through. If Hillary is the Democratic nominee, I will certainly vote for her. But I continue to find it hard to believe that my party truly craves that long nightmare of déjà vu — with scandal after scandal disgorged and an endless train of abused women returning from Bill Clinton‘s sordid, anti-feminist past.

An amusing video (posted by Matt Drudge) shows a row of American flags chaotically tumbling down behind and almost on top of Hillary last weekend–hardly an auspicious omen for Veterans Day. I like the way Hillary uses her flat, practical, real-life voice to admonish the event organizers about properly weighting the poles. A plus is a glimpse of Hillary’s top aide, the elegant Huma Abedin, wielding one of her formidable designer handbags:

Aside from the stylish Huma, there’s definitely something weird and cultish in the sycophantish cathexis onto Hillary of the many nerds, geeks and vengeful viragos who run her campaign — sometimes to her detriment, as with the recent ham-handed playing of the clichéd gender card. I suspect the latter dumb move, which has backfired badly, came from Ann Lewis (Barney Frank’s sister), a fanatical Hillary true believer who has been spouting beatific feminist bromides about her for the past 15 years. (The transcript of my tangle with Lewis about Hillary on CNN’s “Crossfire” in 1994 is reprinted in my second essay collection.) Hillary seems to have acolytes rather than friends — hardly a reassuring trait for a potential president whose paranoia has already been called Nixonian. Isolated monarchs never hear the bad news until the people riot and the lynch mob is at the door.

A few weeks ago while listening to the radio at night (my custom since childhood), I picked up Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi being interviewed by Tavis Smiley on his public television show. What a contrast to Hillary’s brittle, calculated self-consciousness and incoherent shifts of persona. Speaking of her family and marriage, Pelosi was simple, centered and warm. There was no pretension or overkill, simply a relaxed, resonant realism. Pelosi, with her low purr, has mastered both TV and radio — which cannot be said for Hillary, who smiles and smiles but whose tight-wound, self-righteous attack voice always erupts and betrays her.

Why don’t we have a stronger Democratic female candidate? I have repeatedly said that Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California should have been the first woman president. With all due respect to Salon’s perspicacious Glenn Greenwald, whose hard-hitting columns on Feinstein as a Beltway politician have been must-reads, Feinstein’s statewide and national popularity are mainly due to her unflappable performances on television as a shrewd, steady, articulate public servant, deeply informed about military matters. She handles and deflects media queries with silky ease. Exuding both authority and compassion, she has true gravitas — a rare quality in women. Dianne Feinstein, not Hillary Clinton, has already created the paradigm for a female commander in chief.

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The recent horrific wildfires in California set off a gratuitous series of maunderings (from Jamie Lee Curtis to Thomas Friedman) about human culpability in global warming, the new liberal theology. Man is evil! Natural disasters are escalating! The world is coming to an end!

Good lord, were all these people in a coma through the gigantic storms like Hurricane Camille in 1969? The destruction wrought by that Category 5 storm is chronicled in Philip D. Hearn’s book, “Hurricane Camille: Monster Storm of the Gulf Coast,” published three years ago. With winds of 200 miles per hour, Camille devastated 26 miles of Mississippi’s coastline and killed 170 people. The tidal surge reached 35 feet, while the barometric pressure approached an all-time low. One of my prized possessions is a poster torn from a London newsstand (I was traveling as a grad student in Europe): “HURRICANE CAMILLE WREAKS HAVOC!”

Hurricanes in the early 20th century were numerous and hugely destructive: For example, the 1926 Miami hurricane may have killed 800 people; the 1935 Florida Keys hurricane, a Category 5, killed more than 400 and was dramatized in the Humphrey Bogart film “Key Largo”; the Great New England hurricane of 1938 killed 600. The latter storm hit Long Island and the New England coastline with a 12- to 16-foot storm surge and catastrophically flooded downtown Providence, R.I. Among the large beachfront homes completely swept away was Katharine Hepburn’s family house in Old Saybrook, Conn. Hepburn barely escaped with her life. All that was left was the bathtub and some family silver buried in the sand.

This facile attribution of climate change to human agency is an act of hubris. Good stewardship of the environment is an ethical imperative for every nation. But breast-beating hysteria merely betrays impious tunnel vision. Thousands of factors, minute and grand, are at work in cyclic climate change, whose long-term outcomes we cannot possibly predict. Nature should inspire us with awe, not pity.

Meanwhile, here’s someone with my mystic view of nature’s stormy operations: It’s the phenomenal guitar wizard Stevie Ray Vaughan (who tragically died in a helicopter crash in 1990), performing in Melbourne, Australia. Try to ignore the bumptious host and his pink pal, and listen to the dialogue between Vaughan’s fractured, fibrous, undulating guitar line and his tormented lyrics, with their ominous imagery of rolling clouds: “It’s flooding down in Texas/ All the telephone lines are down…”

Norman Mailer’s extensive obituaries this past week could not disguise the fact that his enormous fame was decades in the past and that very few young people (outside the writing community) had ever heard his name. Mailer was certainly a major player when I was in college and grad school. I didn’t care about his novels — I don’t care about any novels published after World War II (Tennessee Williams is my main man) — but I was impressed by Mailer’s visionary and sometimes hallucinatory first-person journalism. And I was directly inspired by his eclectic “Advertisements for Myself” (1959), which I took as a blueprint after my first books were attacked by the feminist establishment in the 1990s.

Mailer’s “The Prisoner of Sex” (the original 1971 Harper’s essay, not the book) was an important statement about men’s sexual fears and desires. His jousting with Germaine Greer at the notorious Town Hall debate in New York that same year was a pivotal moment in the sex wars. I loved Greer and still do. And I also thought Jill Johnston (who disrupted the debate with lesbo stunts) was a cutting-edge thinker: I was devouring her Village Voice columns, which had evolved from dance reportage into provocative cultural commentary.

Feminism would have been far stronger had it been able to absorb Mailer’s arguments about sex. If my own system seemed heterodox for so long, it’s because I appear to have been one of the few feminists who could appreciate and integrate all three thinkers — Mailer, Greer and Johnston. I’m sorry that Mailer, presumably cowed or pussy-whipped, abandoned the gender field. It would take Madonna, thanks to her influence on a generation of dissident young women, to bring authentically Dionysian ’60s feminism back from the dead. That pro-sex wing of feminism (to which I belong) has of course resoundingly triumphed, to the hissy consternation of the Puritans and the iconoclasts –those maleducated wordsmiths who don’t know how to respond to or “read” erotic imagery.

Speaking of Madonna, one of the lousiest things Mailer ever wrote was his flimsy cover-story screed on her for Esquire in 1994. It was obvious Mailer knew absolutely nothing about Madonna and was just blowing smoke. I wonder if it’s this debacle that Woody Hochswender, who had worked at Esquire, is describing in a startling letter following Roger Kimball’s scathing Mailer critique, which is posted on that indispensable site, Arts & Letters Daily. Guess what — Esquire’s original proposal was for me to interview Madonna. Mailer was the sub!

Penthouse magazine had similarly tried to bring Madonna and me together, as had HBO, which proposed filming a “My Dinner with André” scenario of the two of us chatting in a restaurant. But Madonna, no conversationalist, always refused. When Newsweek asked her in a 1992 cover story whether she would like to meet me, she said, “First, I’d like to see her across the room and then I’d like to decide whether I want to approach her.” (I said when I read it, “What is this, a sorority party?”)

I attributed Madonna’s skittishness at the time to her uncertainties about her education (she had dropped out of college after one semester to seek fame in New York). But nothing could be further from my respectful and indeed reverential attitude toward artists, particularly performing artists who must capitalize on their youth. The idea that Madonna somehow had to read “Sexual Personae” (a nightmarish assignment!) was of course preposterous. But so what — little is gained from such jacked-up personal encounters. Art and ideas must operate in their own realm.

On the pop front, Ellen DeGeneres’ cringe-making on-air meltdown over a dog, leading to her overwrought cancellation of several days of her show, should get a Raspberry Award for worst performance by a lesbian icon. Following Rosie O’Donnell’s professional collapse amid lunatic rants and operatic kvetching, this has been a terrible year for Hollywood lesbians’ public image. It’s as if when the butch mask drops, there’s nothing inside but a boiling candy kettle of infantile rage and self-pity. And now Ellen, the professed liberal, is narcissistically flouting the Writers Guild strike. Great going, gals!

Public television stations have been broadcasting a new release of a wonderful 20-year-old documentary, “Starring Natalie Wood,” narrated by George Segal and skillfully directed by Susan F. Walker. What mesmerizing archival footage of a screen personality who seemed to burst with the life force and whose 1981 drowning in the idyllic Santa Catalina harbor still seems unreal.

Natalie Wood was one of the canonical stars for the rising baby boom generation. From “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955) through “Splendor in the Grass” (1961) to “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” (1969), she seemed to be a proxy for young women’s hopes, ideals and sexual anxieties. What this documentary reveals is how fresh and contemporary Natalie still seems, despite the passage of so many decades. Like Elizabeth Taylor, she was a child star who gracefully and seamlessly matured. And like Taylor (who is interviewed here), she radiated a fierce emotional intelligence that cannot be taught at any acting school. It’s an inexplicable gift of nature.

The Chicago Tribune gave a rave review to Hell in a Handbag Productions’ “The Birds,” a satirical play by David Cerda and Pauline Pang inspired by my British Film Institute book on Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” I’m a character in it — a know-it-all psychotherapist sent as a deus ex machina by Hitchcock to straighten out Bodega Bay.

Tippi Hedren and Veronica Cartwright, who starred in the original film, attended the Chicago premiere last month. The party photos are posted online: Tippi and Veronica can be glimpsed quaffing champagne in a limo and mingling with their vibrant stage doubles. The production photos of the charismatic Tracy Repep as Tippi/Melanie comically trapped in a minimalist telephone booth are not to be missed.

The play is a half-drag burlesque: The goody-two-shoes child Veronica/Cathy is played by a man, as is Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette in the film and David Cerda here), for whom my character (played by a “hawkish” Merrie Greenfield) conceives a sometimes buffoonishly irrepressible lesbo passion. Here I am effusively mourning over Annie’s sprawled-out corpse, her foot caught in a rose trellis and her head heraldically ringed by stuffed birds. Love it!

Hell in a Handbag’s production of “The Birds” runs through Nov. 17 at Berger Park Coach House in Chicago.

Camille Paglia’s column appears on the second Wednesday of each month. Every third column is devoted to reader letters. Please send questions for her next letters column to this mailbox. Your name and town will be published unless you request anonymity.

Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her most recent book is "Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World's Best Poems." You can write her at this address.

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