Elian! Nature trumps politics

Enough is enough! Lazaro's a strutting bullyboy, Marisleysis is a hysterical narcissist; Ralph Nader may get my vote; and Phyllis Diller vs. Gloria Steinem.

By Camille Paglia
Published April 26, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

At our Easter family reunion this past weekend, there were loud cheers and applause as we watched the first footage of Immigration and Naturalization Service agents storming into Lazaro Gonzalez's house in Miami and escaping with the weeping Elian in a white van. When that strutting bullyboy, Lazaro, or his hysterical narcissist of a daughter, Marisleysis, appeared onscreen, we hissed en masse.

Enough is enough! Thanks to the shilly-shallying of the clumsy Clinton administration, the American people have been subjected to five endless months of the farcical Miami melodrama. But please, ye gods, spare us the further manipulations of Republican politicians, who want to drag the damned thing out through the election season.

This column has maintained from the start that the then-5-year-old Elian, who had just seen his mother drown in her failed flight to Florida, should have immediately been returned to his father in Cuba. I have never been an admirer of either Fidel Castro or Che Guevara, who was naively lionized by so many members of my generation, with their bourgeois-liberal guilt.

But nature trumps politics. A traumatized boy's biological relation to his sole surviving parent should have automatically determined his disposition by U.S. authorities. My reasoning here parallels that of my militant support of women's reproductive freedom: Every conception, in my extreme (and atheistic) view, belongs to a woman by right of mother nature. Society, embodied in the father, may make its claims only at birth, when the fetus becomes a citizen and falls under civil protection.

Feminism has been dealt a serious blow by the inability of Janet Reno (the first female attorney general) to effectively strategize during either the 1993 standoff at Waco, Texas, or the Cuban-American stalemate in Miami. Both incidents escalated out of control, needlessly inflaming and dividing the public.

Reno's appointment was an affirmative action scheme (oiled by Hillary Clinton's ne'er-do-well Florida brother) that shows the limits of feminist finagling. Equal opportunity for women must be followed by first-rate performance. But as generalissimo of the Department of Justice, Reno has screwed up again and again, inevitably postponing the day when an American woman can become a credible candidate for commander in chief.

Reno humiliated herself and her office by flying to Miami to dignify that creep Lazaro with a face-to-face appeal -- as if he were the pope. And her battle plans stank. Though I support the pre-dawn raid, I think there should first have been a calm, pro forma attempt to pick up the boy in daylight hours, ideally by a small cadre of unarmed female agents in street clothes. Had they been rebuffed, the troops should then have been marshaled for a surprise assault.

Like the rest of my Italian-American family, I find pathetically laughable Reno's notion that the warring Gonzalez relatives could ever (then or now) sit down in a room and "come together as a family" to resolve their differences. The touchy-feely "Oprah" style of therapeutic schmoozing is light-years removed from the smoking scorched earth of the vengeful, honor-driven Latin temperament.

For months, Reno obtusely misread the macho, intransigent Lazaro Gonzalez in exactly the way that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright misread the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, who faced down all of NATO's firepower. The conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, on the other hand, slammed the Argentine generals back on their heels during the 1982 Falkland Islands War. We must lay the groundwork for a female president right now: As I told Paula Zahn on Fox News Channel's "The Edge" last week, ambitious young women should avoid the ghetto of women's studies programs and focus instead on military history and strategy.

Elsewhere on the political front, many readers have asked why, as a libertarian Democrat who cast my primary ballot for Bill Bradley, I am looking at Green Party candidates this fall rather than supporting the Libertarian Party. Over the years, I've gotten many rather dreary mailings from the Libertarian Party, including invitations to speak at its conventions and even to compete for its presidential nomination. (But I'm just a cultural analyst, an on-the-sidelines observer and coach with no more talent for political office than -- well, Hillary Clinton.)

While I do agree with many of the platform tenets of the Libertarian Party, I'm troubled by its failure to highlight social responsibility as an ethical principle. Communism and socialism (in its purest form) have been historical failures, stunting both economic and intellectual development. I support capitalism as the nurturer of free thought as well as the liberator of women, who have financial independence for the first time since mastodons roamed the Earth.

But I passionately feel that every affluent society must respond to those in need. Yes, taxation is at root an infringement of private rights by the state. But an enlightened education would develop social conscience in the young, so that businessmen would not loot their corporations by inflated executive salaries or ravage and befoul the environment. Moderate regulation will always be necessary to safeguard the public health.

While I oppose state intrusion into private behavior (the foundation of libertarian philosophy), I admire the public-works projects of my ancient Roman ancestors and feel that the state should guarantee decent living conditions, core education and basic medical services for its citizens. This does not mean (in the Kremlin-esque Hillary model) government-controlled health care: On the contrary, we need a mix of private practice and public services to maintain the unparalleled quality of the American medical system.

In my last column, I dismissed the aging Ralph Nader as a "flake" whom I could not imagine voting for. Let me retract that, after seeing Nader tell Judy Woodruff on CNN's "Inside Politics" last week, "The two parties are converging, and the permanent corporate government transcends them." Touting his Web site, Nader called "corporate power" the biggest problem facing the world, a position also taken by the ragtag, rain-squelched, son-of-Seattle protesters at the April 15-16 meeting of the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C.

The impressively articulate Nader endorsed a "pro-democracy agenda." OK, Mr. Nader, if you can convince me that even as you condemn corporate abuses, you recognize the enormous contributions made by capitalism to modern life, you'll get my vote this fall. Why? Because I cannot stand the slick games and endless lies of the Hollywood-ass-kissing Clinton-Gore administration (which I voted for twice). The Democratic Party needs to recover its Hubert Humphrey-era populism, and perhaps only shock tactics -- like the election of a Republican president -- will work.

Apropos of the latter, many readers are complaining about my repeated references to Gov. George W. Bush's woeful lack of preparation for the presidency. Derek Copold, for example, warns:

I'm telling you not to underestimate Bush. There are political corpses all over Austin of people who thought he was "unprepared." This guy has steel behind his smile.

When he assumed office after defeating Ann Richards, Bush was faced with a full slate of executive offices filled with Democrats, and both chambers of the legislature were filled with Democratic senators and representatives. We Texans thought that the state was headed for yet more legislative gridlock.

The governor before Ann Richards, William Clements, a Republican, was crotchety, egocentric and disconnected. Ann Richards, it was thought, would be able to work with her fellow Democrats, but she adopted a high-handed attitude toward her lessers as she fell in love with the image the media painted of her as the queen of Texas.

Bills stalled, reforms were delayed and the system decayed. Highways were a mess, education a disaster and taxes increased. It was really not all that surprising that Ann Richards was sent packing along with several Democratic legislators in the sweep of '94.

When W. took office, things changed. He met with legislators, justices and executive officers. Ann Richards had never bothered to meet with her own party's representatives. George W. not only met them, he remembered their names and their proposals. Amazingly, work was done. Bills were passed, and reform began, and even the state Capitol was restored after excess delay.

Like an intelligent quarterback, Bush relied on a series of short yardage gains, with an occasional screen, to carry him forward to the goal line. Given the circumstances in Austin, Gov. Bush made a horrible situation far better than he found it, and he laid the groundwork for future improvement. In 1998, W. garnered an unprecedented 69 percent of the popular vote.

I know that he is young, but George W. has clearly demonstrated that he has the most important qualification for the presidency: He knows that he is mortal. He is willing to listen to his advisors, and he will listen and learn from his opponents. He can prioritize his objectives and sacrifice short-term goals for a long-term victory. George W. may not be perfect, but then again what candidate is? He is clearly far more preferable to the disgusting and amoral Al Gore.

Also, considering the battering the office of the presidency has taken under the Clintons, the office needs a man who can restore confidence. What better person than the same man who restored confidence in the Texas government, a government that had before enjoyed an unbroken, century-long reputation as irredeemably corrupt?

Thank you for your remarks, Mr. Copold. They are particularly revelatory about Ann Richards, whom I've always celebrated for her feisty persona. Yes, we must be wary about how image is magnified or distorted by the media. L. Duncan Vinson sends this protest from Providence, R.I.:

Are you fed up with the media's constant harping on George W. Bush's supposed anti-Catholic views, as demonstrated by his willingness to speak at Bob Jones University?

If you want to find anti-Catholic views, go no further than the mainstream media or the liberal universities, where you will find them in abundance. Especially in discussions about abortion and gay rights, American liberal culture has no qualms at all about portraying the Catholic church as a medieval organization for sexually repressed troglodytes.

And in the universities, not only are Catholics a safe target under the p.c. regime, but p.c. actually seems to have encouraged Catholic-bashing.

You're quite right, Mr. Vinson. I have repeatedly denounced the overt anti-Catholicism of the liberal establishment -- of which a good example was the mounting of a dung-and-porn-bedecked painting of the Madonna as the sole religious image in last fall's "Sensation" show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Needless to say, a dung-and-porn-bedecked Torah scroll, even if part of a foreign collection, would never have seen the light of day in a major American museum.

Finally, on the Bush question, my cousin Wanda Mastrogiacomo Hudak, a Broome County legislator in upstate New York, reports on a close encounter with the Texas governor and his wife, Laura, with whom she walked in a recent Binghamton, N.Y., parade:

I am usually a skeptic and certainly not an adorer, but I instantly felt a substance in him. You can't get more down-home than this woman. I found her receptive and absolutely not phony. The crowd loved him! I was comparing them to the current Kouple, and there is no comparison. There's a sincere friendship between these two.

Thanks, Wanda, for the candid snapshot. Speaking of the distaff side of our on-again, off-again "current Kouple," I loved the letter from Karen Alu of East Northport, N.Y., in the April 17 New York Post:

We should fire the bluebird and make the cuckoo the state bird. My National Audubon Society Guide says, "When tracked down, they slip away to another location" and "are most adept at hiding and skulking in dense vegetation." Sure sounds like Hillary.

OK, OK, I know I identify with this partly because I spent a year of my life in bondage to Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds," with its bottle-blond femme fatale, Melanie Daniels, whom I tagged as a nest-stealing cuckoo.

A dispute has erupted among readers over Brad Anderson's letter in my last column satirizing Hillary as the Emperor Diocletian's horse. Many of those maintaining it was Caligula who appointed his horse to the senate seem to be basing their opinion on the public television version of Robert Graves' 1934 novel, "I, Claudius." While I'm very fond of Graves' 1947 work, "The White Goddess," one should be on guard about Graves' fictionalizations of ancient culture, even in his widely reprinted volumes on Greek myth.

In a lightning-fast bulletin to Salon, Randall Tilander carefully noted that "Caligula had already appointed his favorite horse, Incitatus, as consul," which would make him "implicitly appointed to the senate." My reading of Suetonius' "The Twelve Caesars" (one of my favorite tabloid books) is that it was rumored that Caligula intended to make the horse consul, but the promotion never actually materialized.

I assume that Tacitus would not be Graves' source, since the Caligula section of the "Annals" is lost. Can Cassius Dio be the source? If so, it's unreliable, since Dio's account dates from a century and a half after Caligula's reign. Perhaps a classicist will weigh in on this matter for us. That Diocletian busted the Roman senate down to city council status is indisputable. I'd like to hear more about his insults to Roman tradition at a key transition point in Western history.

On a sad note, I must report the death last week of my great college teacher, the poet Milton Kessler, who was recovering from open-heart surgery in Binghamton. In a 1991 memoir (reprinted in my first essay collection), I detailed what I owe Kessler, who immensely influenced not only my approach to literature but my style of practical teaching. His classes were truly life-changing. As I've often said, Kessler, like my graduate-school mentor, Harold Bloom, was less an academic than a visionary rabbi with electrifying prophetic power.

Now, my favorite pop moments of the past three weeks. First, A&E's "Biography" of sharp-tongued Phyllis Diller, the raucous comedian who transformed modern female personae far more radically than did Gloria Steinem. Second, Lifetime's eye-opening "Intimate Portrait" of actress Tyne Daly, who throughout her illustrious career has shown the profound understanding of emotion completely missing from today's simpering nymphets of the Meg Ryan/Calista Flockhart/Gwyneth Paltrow school.

Finally, mercurial Natalie Wood in her sassy '60s outfits in HBO's broadcast of Paul Mazursky's "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" (1969): the green suede miniskirt; the floral bikini; and of course the trim, iridescent, white-and-silver ensemble in which Wood strolls out of the film. What a star!

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 ------------------------------------------

Al Gore Bill Clinton Cuba George W. Bush Hillary Rodham Clinton Texas