Feinstein for president! Buchanan for emperor!

Dianne's no flibbertigibbet; Hillary's a galumpher; Rush has tremendous intellectual influence; Anne Heche is a pancake brain and Italian-American women Rock it like they talk it!

Published October 27, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

When Elizabeth Dole ended her presidential campaign last week, the major TV news programs treated it like a state funeral. Many were the crocodile tears shed by correspondents and anchor persons as they blamed Dole's failure on misogyny as well as the tyranny of big money (which in reality has flowed into Gov. George W. Bush's coffers from an astounding number of small contributors).

My confidence in Dole's political instincts and potential was never high (as I told Charlotte Hays early last summer in our interview for the Women's Quarterly), but I must say the media had incredible gall to complain about Dole's withdrawal when they didn't do squat to help her -- so besotted were they with the chimera of Hillary Clinton's possible senatorial run in New York. Virtually no attention was paid to Dole as she plunged pluckily into the crowds in state after state, which led to her surprisingly strong third-place finish in the Iowa straw poll in August. The lack of serious press scrutiny deprived Dole of the opportunity to learn from her mistakes and to make key adjustments of her saccharine delivery and often nebulous policy statements.

However, most of the blame rests on the candidate herself, who skittishly avoided the free exposure of national talk shows where she could have honed her debating skills. As many commentators have observed, running for president without a trial campaign for lower office is probably too much of a stretch. Dole seemed clueless about the sheer range of concrete issues needed to prove a candidate's viability for the presidency. And her lack of all-pro handlers was quaintly naive. While the once painfully dowdy Hillary Clinton has had a top-to-toe makeover by her Hollywood chums (with pantsuits now concealing her figure flaws), Dole scarcely budged from her early-1980s Joan Collins-as-Alexis Carrington look, which signaled in its own way how culturally sheltered and frozen Dole was.

If the glass ceiling is ever to be broken in politics, it's women themselves who must rethink their sexual personae. The first woman president will need to avoid Elizabeth Dole's fatiguing sorority-girl chirpiness and seek a more convincing authority of manner -- which is already possessed by both Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Feinstein impressed me anew last week with her performance on CNN's "Crossfire." "She should be president," exclaimed my partner Alison as we watched. "She's rational and smart, and she seems stable and trustworthy," Alison said. "She has true self-confidence without egotism. She's not a flibbertigibbet; she's not obsessed with herself."

Whatever reservations some California residents of both parties may have about Feinstein, please note that I have been studying her for years as a national candidate, a seasoned politician with foreign relations expertise who could represent this nation to the world. As a senator and former mayor, Dianne Feinstein, unlike Elizabeth Dole, has long experience with the harsh give-and-take of the day-to-day political process, that dusty bull pit of butting, shoving and goring where both winners and losers must come up smiling.

Feinstein is tough yet cordial and even-tempered. She projects hard-nosed realism yet compassion and concern. And she sure can parry and thrust with the hectoring media, who never throw her off message. Dianne Feinstein is in my view the leading contender for next year's Democratic vice-presidential nomination. She is manifestly well prepared to assume the presidency in a crisis.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, continues galumphing down her celebrity-studded, taxpayer-gouging primrose path. Coldly calculating, hedging, ethically obtuse and strident on the stump, Hillary does a great job of snowing phony humanitarians like the mama-seeking talk-show host Rosie O'Donnell (who organized this week's frivolous Broadway birthday bash for the first lady). But unlike Elizabeth Dole, who was Secretary of Transportation and president of the American Red Cross, Hillary has never successfully run anything in her life -- not even her dysfunctional family in their decades-long squat in government housing.

Salon reader Fred Dimond calls Hillary a "male chauvinist" because she is married to "a serial adulterer who constantly does her dirt" and because she "not only takes it but covers it up":

While Hillary masquerades as a defender of women's rights and upholder of oppressed females, she has been part of the group protecting and defending Bill from the just repercussions of his ruthless predatory behavior toward the opposite sex. In fact, we had a very credible rape allegation on television. No comment from Saint Hillary. No comment on Kathleen Willey, Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers, Kathryn Gracen and a boatload more. She would have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to know of these situations, or pusillanimous not to react to them. Why doesn't she? Because Bill is her ticket to ride, and she cannot afford to get off the horse. She is willing to cooperate in Bill's subversion of women's rights for political gain and power.

Dimond calls Hillary's behavior "hypocritical" and "outrageous", and I thoroughly agree. In my interview with radio host Rush Limbaugh in the October issue of the Limbaugh Letter, I further explore Hillary's history of questionable behavior -- such as her perversion of her assigned role on the platform at her Wellesley College commencement to embarrass an eminent African-American guest, Republican Sen. Edward Brooke. (In this piece I also hail Rush Limbaugh's "tremendous intellectual influence" on the American mass audience -- which our snobbish fossil leftists, who pretend to speak for the people, of course know nothing about.)

Many thanks to Dr. Richard Tracey of Carlsbad, Calif., who sends a fascinating letter responding to my description of Pat Buchanan as "Irish Catholic" (vis-a-vis the Brooklyn Museum of Art controversy). The Buchanans on their paternal side are actually Scotch-Irish and Presbyterian, "descended from the Scots who benefited from James I's 'plantation' of Ireland with his own countrymen -- who displaced the native Irish whose patrimony Pat claims." Tracey continues:

It was Pat's mother (of German-Catholic descent, as I recall) who brought Catholicism to the offspring of her marriage to a Presbyterian man whose inherited family values would likely have been pro-English, anti-Irish. Thus Pat isn't an Irish Catholic, or Irish-American Catholic, as we generally understand those terms. His Irishness is pure Orange. Yet he has cloaked himself in the Green for the political effect of being seen to share Ted Kennedy's ancestry while standing against all aspects of the Massachusetts senator's social program. As a supreme rhetorician, Pat too much enjoys the taste of those ironies to claim publicly his descent from the likes of Ian Paisley.

Buchanan's announcement this week of his resignation from the Republican Party to seek the presidential nomination of the Reform Party will inject welcome drama into next year's national campaign, but his bitter attack on his own party is disturbing. Strong, independent voices of criticism and rebuke are desperately needed in this country, but Buchanan has shown little interest in the humdrum details of practical political work. He seems to have only one goal -- shooting to the top of the line like a late Roman Caesar. Buchanan appears less qualified for high office than the quirkily long-shot Donald Trump, an articulate, shrewdly observant, high-powered businessman and real estate developer with a genuine common touch.

More on ethnicity: Salon reader Maggie Balistreri, who grew up in Bensonhurst, writes to protest the stereotyping of Italians in the media: "Italians are portrayed by all as either buffoons (Benigni has a lot to answer for) or mobsters (DeNiro is blending the two roles nicely lately). So what happened to the image of the Italian? It used to be the utterly refined dandy, the aesthete. Now it's the grunting buffoon."

I applaud this indictment. It dovetails with a letter from Frank Francomano, who remarks, "I have long wondered why my ethnic group remains open to unpunished calumny, especially from supposedly sensitive and politically correct and often Jewish left and far left people."

Responding to a query last month about "The Sopranos" from TV critic Michele Greppi for Fashion Wire Daily, I denounced that over-praised HBO series about yet another Italian-American Mafia family as "a buffoonish caricature of my people" and "an ethnic minstrel show -- Amos and Andy for a TV industry that can no longer get away with demeaning stereotypes of blacks and Jews." Francis Ford Coppola's first two "Godfather" films are masterpieces that I adore, but there has been no creative progress in over 20 years. I told Greppi, "I'm sick and tired of Italian-Americans being used as monotonously one-note lowbrow fantasy figures by an entertainment industry too lazy and klutzy to get us right."

"'The Sopranos' is ethnic defamation," Dominic Amorosa of the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations told the New York Daily News this fall. "Our goal is to get 'The Sopranos' off the air," said Frank Guarini, chairman of the National Italian-American Foundation. As a free speech advocate, I wouldn't go that far, but high-decibel consciousness-raising about this issue is urgently needed.

Two weeks ago, amid much furor, the French Parliament granted legal status to cohabiting unmarried couples, a development I welcome not just for its contribution to gay rights but for its incremental movement along the path toward my ultimate libertarian goal: the total disconnection of civil authority from the realm of consensual personal relationships, heterosexual or homosexual, which the secular state should neither sanction nor monitor. The modern economic liberation of women heralded the end of state paternalism and intrusion into private life, but the latter process remains incomplete.

On the home front, the trial of the second man charged with last year's murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming has been treated with blatant manipulation of the news by the liberal major media. As I wrote in my column immediately after that tragedy, the issue of exciting but dangerous gay-male cruising for stranger sex cannot be avoided in this case. But despite even the public warning by Shepard's mother that "Matt was not a saint," a censored and sanitized version of the fatal evening is being promulgated by newscasters in lockstep with gay activist groups.

It's now a simplistic melodrama of virtue versus villainy, as if Shepard -- who had a history of two known incidents that ended violently and who had just the prior week confessed to a fear of being killed -- had been ambushed and kidnapped from the bar because he was gay. Human nature is complex: Shepard, who had traveled abroad, was drawn to his assailants, I suspect, precisely because they were scuzzy punks whose look and manner fairly screamed trouble.

What happened to Matthew Shepard was brutal and barbaric, and as a supporter of capital punishment, I want his killers to fry. (One has already been sentenced to two consecutive life terms.) Both Alison and I have long been in favor of bringing torture back, which I argue would not fall under the rubric of "cruel and unusual punishment" prohibited by the Eighth Amendment if it were a strict replication of the suffering that had been inflicted on the victim -- heinous in this muddled, boozy case but even more atrocious in cold-blooded, precisely planned serial rape-murders of the Ted Bundy kind.

But it does not help the cause of gay rights to pump the public discourse full of intelligence-insulting schmaltz over exceptional incidents. Hate crimes legislation -- that fascist exercise in thought control -- will never make cruising 100 percent safe, particularly not when "rough trade" is involved, a walk on the wild side with besmirched archangels whose zap of primal energy is one step from savagery. To erase the questing, provocative, limits-testing, and even irrational (because id-driven) element in gay-male cruising is a form of castration -- which the glorified nurses and pious hand-holders of the gay activist hierarchy know very well how to do.

Check out the sinister finale of "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone" (1961), where the stalked Vivien Leigh becomes Tennessee Williams' proxy for the extreme sport of gay stranger sex. And re-see last year's "Gods and Monsters" for gay actor Sir Ian McKellen's scrupulous charting of the tense pas de deux of trolling, needling and bruising masochistic ecstasy that hasn't changed much in the gay world since Heliogabalus staged his rambunctious porn games in the Roman imperial palace.

There are serious flaws in the sanctimonious iconography that gay rights groups have been fixated on for the past half-dozen years. Is the small, frail, vulnerable Matthew Shepard (who had health problems from birth) really the ideal image of the gay man to be projected to the mass audience? And doesn't the constant parading of all-forgiving mothers -- whether it's Judy Shepard, Cher or Betty DeGeneres -- simply reinforce the impression that contemporary American homosexuality is a condition of whining juvenility aching for parental approval?

Speaking of the House of DeGeneres (where the ever-teenybopper closets are lined with matching Hush Puppies), I was tipped off by an old friend that at a "queer month" event at the Syracuse University Student Union several weeks ago, the visiting Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche kvetched about my saying two years ago that Anne has "the mental depth of a pancake." "We hate her," announced the blonde Bobbsey Twins -- a tellingly childish locution from outspoken proponents of hate crimes legislation.

Dear, dear, I guess I struck a nerve. But as long as that exhibitionistic duo keeps courting cameras at glitzy Hollywood events and as long as Ellen keeps draping herself over her mom's lap for the cover of gay magazines, I'll go on lobbing my Amazonian darts.

Speaking of dizzy photo hogs, Brad Pitt doubtless thinks he's very clever by posing in a Pop Art mini-dress and a gay-anal cut-off rubber garden glove for the cover of the Oct. 5 Rolling Stone, but I feel very sorry for his putative girlfriend, the talented Jennifer Aniston, whose once very appealing fleshiness has been manically stripped off until she is now nearly unrecognizable. I'm tired of hearing what a great relationship Pitt and Aniston have. His gay-twitting stunts (such as posing bare bum up for W magazine this summer) have become ostentatious acts of aggression toward her and women in general. I hope Aniston gets her kit out of there before obsessive anxiety consumes her promising career as a character actress.

Another actor, Matthew McConaughey, was arrested for drug possession this week when police, responding to a noise complaint, invaded his Austin, Texas, home in the middle of the night and found marijuana and drug paraphernalia. Alison and I were instantly outraged and were relieved when the drug charge was dropped. Though we have no interest in drugs (we favor the ancient Dionysian tradition of alcohol), we believe that the government has no right to interfere in an individual's choices about his or her body.

The international drug war is a colossal waste of precious resources that should be diverted to social services. Given the massive drug pushing (Prozac, Ritalin, etc.) by pharmaceutical companies, there is no rationale for banning the sale of natural substances like marijuana. I am on the record as supporting the legalization of drugs, consistent with government regulation of alcohol.

Employers are justified, however, in imposing weekly drug tests on those who operate heavy machinery or who, like train engineers, are charged with the public safety. As a professional actor whose work is psychological, Matthew McConaughey has a perfect right to take whatever drugs he pleases in the sanctity of his own home. But please spare the poor neighbors! They have a right to privacy too.

A foreign exchange student signing himself Mark reports his impressions of the University of California at Berkeley: "I am all too often flabbergasted and disappointed by the extraordinary ignorance and mediocrity I find among the students here. With all due respect, the level of awareness and international, cultural, and historical perspective of the average American seems to be about as high as those of a remote jungle tribe. I thought I was coming to an elite educational institution. Don't get me started on the teachers. What is your view?"

Mark concludes: "What hope is there for an empire that has grown so powerful its citizens are becoming increasingly detached from the rich world around them, and what may happen if conflict forces them into cultural interactions with others?"

This account from a visitor to America should shake the complacency of the academic establishment. It certainly corroborates what I have been arguing for years, beginning with my 1991 Arion manifesto, "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders," and my 1992 TLS essay, "The Corrupting of the Humanities in the U.S." Graduates of even our elite schools know less and less, as the acquisition of hard knowledge has been de-emphasized in favor of "critical thinking" (which sounds good but melts into sloganeering sophistry). In the long run, the security of this country is at risk, as its most highly trained citizens lose the will to defend it.

Paul Ehrlich of Washington, D.C., kindly alerts me to the invocation of my name on the Oct. 4 episode of NBC's "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" -- about which I'd heard only a vague rumor. This was my second prime time epiphany of the season, the first being in the Sept. 20 premiere of NBC's "Suddenly Susan": Brooke Shields as a fired reporter defied boss Eric Idle by vowing to follow my example of publishing in Playboy when Ms. wouldn't have me.

According to Ehrlich, a "Law and Order" detective investigating the murder of a young model makes some "scathing comments about teenage girls in the modeling world", to which another character retorts, "Well, Camille Paglia calls them modern-day Greek goddesses." Ehrlich asks, "Did this distort your views?"

Since childhood, I regarded fashion models as works of living sculpture: the flamboyant images from women's magazines merged in my mind with the statues of Greek goddesses in the Louvre and at Fontainebleau that were pictured in large portfolios that my father brought back from studying Romance languages in France in the early 1950s. The haughty attitudes and iconic gestures of fashion models mesmerized me: as a scruffy tomboy, I had no desire to wear fashion, only to contemplate it.

This early veneration of the fashion model, which I shared with so many gay men but no American lesbian I ever met, is one reason I went hammer and tongs against the anti-fashion, sex-phobic ideology of the Catharine MacKinnon/Andrea Dworkin school that dominated feminism in the 1980s -- when the dreary, pedantic, visually inert style of now-defunct Lacanian feminism was also flourishing on campus.

The worship of beauty may be innate in my pagan genes. It's no coincidence that two Italian-American women (to return to Maggie Balistreri's earlier point) were instrumental in restoring respect for fashion and beauty to feminism: In a 1991 interview with me, the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera headlined my militant prophecy, "Io e Madonna faremo fuori Lacan in USA" ("I and Madonna will drive Lacan from America").

On Nov. 10, I will be lecturing on "The Romance of Beauty" at the Hirshhorn Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, part of a series accompanying the exhibition "Regarding Beauty: A View of the Late Twentieth Century." When the massive museum catalog arrived last week, I was surprised and pleased to see, emblazoned across a dramatic photo of Madonna ripely bursting out of an 18th century corset, a line from the 1990 New York Times op-ed piece where I fired the first shot in the pro-beauty insurgency: "Changing her costume style and hair color virtually every month, Madonna embodies the eternal values of beauty and pleasure."

Italian-American women get it done!

By Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.  Her most recent book is "Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars." You can email her at askcamille@salon.com.

MORE FROM Camille Paglia

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

George W. Bush Hillary Rodham Clinton Rush Limbaugh