Of dubious debates, kisses and divas

Must we choose between a pretentious jackass and a man who lacks the basic skills? And what's with Madonna's rhinestone cowgirl persona?

Published October 4, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

As I file this, the first presidential debate between George W. Bush and Al Gore has not yet aired, so by the time you read this, you will know whether Bush stumbled and bumbled or held his own and whether Gore demonstrated his IQ and expertise or came off as a pretentious jackass.

What I am certain of, without benefit of the debate, is that I cannot in good conscience vote for either one of them. While Bush would probably, if elected, be a conscientious, affable chief executive who would restore bipartisan cooperation to government, I simply don't feel he has the basic skills or mastery of facts to be a major party nominee at this stage in his life. The Republican Party seems adrift: it's still weighed down by skanky, provincial blowhards like Sen. Trent Lott, Rep. Dick Armey and Rep. Henry Hyde, while its sharpest, shrewdest, most dynamic members seem to be women -- from Pat Harrison, Co-Chairman of the Republican National Committee, and campaign consultant Mary Matalin to outspoken Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine.

Gore, on the other hand, may be ethically undeserving of the highest office in the land. Until his guttersnipe primary fight with Bill Bradley (for whom I voted), I thought of Gore as a smart, competent, if unflashy public-affairs specialist. Since I've always liked his spunky wife Tipper, even during her campaign for music labeling, I gave Gore the benefit of the doubt and assumed he'd shine once he emerged from Bill Clinton's shadow. But week by week this year, as I watched Gore bob, weave, pander and lie, I came to detest him as an empty suit who, like Hollywood Hillary, has no deep convictions beyond a lust for personal power.

My decision to vote for Ralph Nader was strengthened by C-Span's live broadcast two weeks ago of the massive Green Party rally in Minneapolis, which drew 12,000 ticket-buying supporters. Democratic partisans who claim that a vote for Nader is a "wasted" vote are betrayers of authentic democracy. There is no such thing as a wasted vote. The only wasted vote is the one not cast. Every vote is an expression of principle and an exercise in free speech. Too many Democrats are bowing to peer pressure from friends and associates and suppressing their revulsion from the gross ethical lapses of the Clinton-Gore administration. This kind of capitulation to the tyranny of the group smacks of the conservative, conformist 1950s.

I was very impressed when Nader was introduced at the Minneapolis rally with the stirring call, "Vote for someone who's done more good for this country than Bush and Gore combined!" For nearly 40 years, Nader's pioneering work as a consumer advocate has made history. Of course I realize that Nader has no chance of being elected and that he lacks government experience as well as the temperament to be a successful administrator. But I love his idealism, his incisive intellect, his command of detail and his crisp analysis of wide-ranging social issues. He is the only voice in this campaign, for example, who has denounced the looting of corporations by overpaid top executives and who focuses on the plight of workers at national chains like Burger King and Wal-Mart. Those non-unionized employees, as he says, "can't make a living wage," and their salary is often eaten up by transportation costs.

A vote for Gore is a vote for the status quo. A vote for Gore rewards the corrupt superstructure of the Democratic party and ensures that it will not change, that it will go right on with business as usual, locked in parasitic intercourse with upper-middle-class special-interest groups and craven media flacks. The best hope for a rejuvenated Democratic party is a humiliating defeat this November.

American politics desperately needs a strong third-party alternative. The Reform Party was too predicated on the cranky charisma of one independently wealthy individual, founder Ross Perot. The Green Party, in contrast, has the precedents of European Green Party campaigns to call on, and it would contain a broader spectrum of philosophical strains. I will vote the Green Party ticket this fall not because I believe in all its positions -- far from it! -- but because I think progressive politics needs to grow up.

History shows that communism and socialism in their purest form have been totalitarian disasters, depressing economic development and abridging free thought and speech. The progressive wing needs to acknowledge that capitalism is not satanic -- that it is, for example, the foundation of modern feminism, giving Western women financial self-sufficiency. Vibrant markets create wealth and ensure employment.

But capitalism is innately Darwinian. Hence business needs a counterbalancing ethical force for social justice. I fervently agree with the Greens that the biosphere must not be poisoned nor irreplaceable natural resources pillaged. We have a responsibility to posterity. Furthermore, an affluent society -- particularly one whose government freely tosses billions of dollars around the globe -- should not leave anyone without basic medical care, decent housing and a solid education. But federal funding should not mean federal control; citizens should not be wards of the state. Local decisions are better made by states and municipalities.

Excessive regulation of business is always counterproductive, and "redistribution of wealth" is a self-stagnating, Marxist pipe dream. But stockholders, who actually own the corporations, need encouragement and empowerment from a mature Green Party to challenge their Marie Antoinette boards of directors and throw them out when they approve the astronomical salaries and piratical golden parachutes of top executives, which are grotesquely out of scale with the bargain-basement wages of rank-and-file employees.

In reviewing the flood of e-mail messages to this column from Salon readers over the past year, I have been struck by the softness of support for Gore. Letters about Bush are divided: two-thirds warmly praise him and warn me not to underestimate him, while one-third attack his record in Texas as a sham. But letters about Gore have been strangely muted. They tend to be short and snide (focusing on me rather than on political issues), and even when they stick to the facts, they seethe with cloudy, paranoid fantasies about a Republican administration and make no attempt to defend Gore per se. Indeed, I have yet to receive a single, substantive, well-written letter about Gore's credentials or suitability for the presidency.

As a student of ancient history, I don't fear Bush. What I do fear, based on my reading of imperial Roman politics, is fascism -- a putsch by a disgruntled, declining military against a capricious, crony-ridden, weakly organized government during a severe economic crisis sparked by natural disaster or war. Because of my family's extensive service in World War II, I am particularly sensitive to misuse and abuse of the armed forces -- as has happened in spades under Bill Clinton, who has wastefully deployed the military like a low-level police detail and who may be guilty of war crimes for ordering bombing strikes to distract media attention from Monica Lewinsky.

Some Salon readers complain that I said nothing in my last column about "the kiss" -- Gore's Clintonesque use of his wife as a showy sex doll at the Democratic Convention. Frankly, I found that inappropriate display too vulgar to comment on, especially after the media whipped up sweeping claims about female voters being swayed by it. If women are that stupid, emergency educational intervention is needed at shopping malls across the land. Call out the ambulances.

In fact, I had quite another reading of the kiss. Reports flared up early in the convention about one of Gore's major supporters, rumored to be gay or bisexual, making anti-Clinton remarks. That man, it was alleged to me on good authority five years ago by someone who knows them both, "has always been in love with Al." My first thought was that there would now be some ostentatious heterosexual display by the candidate at the convention. But I certainly didn't expect it to be on the podium on the formal occasion of the acceptance speech -- which I think both Gores degraded by their frat-house smooching.

Gore isn't gay, but his hothouse upbringing by his dominating parents probably produced his prissy, lisping Little Lord Fauntleroy persona, which borders on epicene. Like Hillary Clinton, Gore appears to have a slightly amorphous and wavering gender identity that draws gay admirers, who platonically worship in elite coteries of Byzantine secrecy. It's well established that Gore has a problem relating to average, heterosexual guys, who are leaning toward Bush.

But these are cosmetic matters. More ominous is the common argument that, whatever Gore's faults, Bush must be stopped because he would load the Supreme Court with conservatives. What it all really comes down to, however, is abortion. This kind of Machiavellian reasoning has distorted American politics for 15 years. The U.S. Constitution designed an intricate balance of executive, legislative and judicial powers. Too many liberal Democrats are allowing their fixation on abortion to determine their positions on national politics. A president must confront a host of national and international problems; similarly, the Supreme Court must weigh many more issues that are equally as vital as abortion.

As a libertarian, feminist and member of Planned Parenthood, I am on the record as supporting unconstrained abortion rights, and I applaud last month's long-overdue approval by the FDA of the French abortion pill RU-486, whatever its hazards. But pro-choice activists have turned into fanatics; their rabid rhetoric and bullying inflexibility are harming the greater cause of feminism.

Women's modern liberation requires, in my view, their absolute control over their own bodies. I have argued, from my atheistic perspective, that our reproductive machinery is our property, planted in us by Mother Nature in the womb. In other words, our identities as natural beings precede social citizenship, which we gain at birth. Hence the state has no power to intervene in any decision we make about our bodies.

At the same time, I am honest enough to admit that abortion is murder, a form of extermination of the weak by the strong, too often for expediency or convenience. (My sexual philosophy is detailed in "No Law in the Arena" in "Vamps & Tramps.") While I militantly defend the right of every woman of any age to abort her fetus, I am also very troubled by the obsessive centrality given abortion rights in contemporary feminism. Surely there is a failure of logic and imagination in those Hollywood spokespersons who denounce capital punishment (which I support) while defending abortion, a cold, lethal, invasive, surgical procedure.

If more women are to be elected to high office, including the presidency, women voters must show they have an interest in and command of politics beyond narrow self-interest or emotionalism -- which brings us to Hillary Clinton. The brazen doctoring of news by the liberal press was never clearer than in the aftermath of her first senatorial debate with Rep. Rick Lazio. Anecdotal snippets about respectable ladies turned faint by Lazio's crossing the stage to hand Hillary a simple sheet of paper were trumpeted like the word of Jehovah, then repeated ad nauseam in the Soviet echo chamber of the Northeastern media. No effort whatever was made to seek out contrary views -- such as of those who cheered, whooped and applauded Lazio's amusing, smoothly executed quarterback sneak. He boldly took it to Hillary and punctured her imperial insulation. Lazio's move had a Dadaist prankishness -- challenging the frame of the event -- that was in the rogue spirit of the 1960s Yippies.

If that woman, with her festering resentments, thin achievements, megalomania and anti-democratic abuse of position and power, becomes a senator, the press will have only itself to blame. The canonization of St. Hillary was a long-running show of the 1990s, fostered by the socialite set of spineless liberal journalists. Even today, when she is still too chicken to go on the Sunday talk shows, the press lets her off the hook -- though the Washington Post's scathing Oct. 1 editorial about the Clintons' mercenary treatment of the White House as a motel gives reason for hope.

The level of gullibility is such that major newspapers unskeptically reprinted the claim in a new book about the Clinton presidency that lawyer David Kendall had to break the news to Hillary that the president really did have an affair with Monica Lewinsky. What a load of horse manure! Wasn't it obvious from the start -- simply by the legalistic language Hillary used in her infamous "vast right-wing conspiracy" interview -- that she knew perfectly well the Lewinsky story was or could be true? The Kendall mission, if it ever happened, was clearly a setup to ensure her deniability. If the commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces was too timid and overwrought to face his own wife, then national security was at risk, and he should have immediately resigned. And if Hillary, after 25 messy years of her husband's philandering, was that naive, she's as dumb as a post and has no business running for office.

Shifting gears into pop, I must apologize to the many readers who were aghast that my last column made no mention of Madonna's new album, "Music." Alas, I must sheepishly confess that I'm still struggling to get through it. While there are several good songs, too many others cannibalize Madonna's past work or tart things up with grating, hackneyed special effects. Considering how Madonna has been boasting in every magazine of her newfound fulfillment as a mother and a gal with a steady beau, the CD's overall mood is amazingly dreary. I was often reminded of Helen Kallianiotes' star turn as the hilariously negative, neurotic, lesbian hitchhiker in "Five Easy Pieces" (1970).

All that Ashtanga yoga hasn't made a dent in what appears to be Madonna's fundamental depressiveness -- ordinarily a great spur to art-making. "Music's" cluttered cover design is oddly gimmicky: the waxworks rhinestone-cowgirl persona, which bears little relation to the album's contents, is a rare example of Madonna's iconic instinct failing her. Nonetheless, her talent will surely rebound. This is a great star with much more to contribute to culture.

Cardinal media moments since my last column: Lifetime cable TV's "Movie Mini-thon," alternately introduced by Meredith Baxter and the still-divine Donna Mills (the deliciously vampy Abby Ewing of CBS's "Knots Landing"). Baxter's 1992 performance as a real-life San Diego murderess in the two parts of "The Betty Broderick Story," "A Woman Scorned" and "Her Final Fury," remains one of the most impressive pieces of work by an American actress in the last 20 years. Though I've watched rebroadcasts of that tense docudrama times without number, I still thrill with admiration at Baxter's tough energy, pinpoint vocal work and insight into both sexual relations and American character. "The Betty Broderick Story" should be required viewing at every acting school.

Other highlights: MSNBC's "Headliners & Legends" is to be commended for its absorbing profiles of Barbara Eden and Valerie Bertinelli. Who knew that Eden, sexpot star of NBC's classic "I Dream of Jeannie," was a homely wallflower in adolescence, or that the perky Bertinelli of CBS's "One Day at a Time" was such a dynamo of bossy Italian-American power? The archival photos and family interviews in both programs were superb.

My partner Alison and I were knocked out by HBO's wonderfully photographed and edited series, "G-String Divas," which is as X-rated as anything ever seen on commercial television. My reverence for the sexual persona of the stripper is well-known. But it was a revelation to see the notorious "Summer" up close and in action. (She's a Philadelphia dancer with an unexpectedly wholesome manner who was caught up in a scandal after an obsessed customer murdered his wife for her sake.) On HBO, Summer's fluid, acrobatic skills and slow, serene taunting of the audience were riveting and, distanced by TV, approached abstract art. The only parallel is Bella Darvi's hypnotic performance as the regal Babylonian harlot in the haunting 1954 film, "The Egyptian."

Turner Classic Movies cable channel should be applauded for its airing of classic, subtitled films from the French New Wave. Thirty years ago, with my taste for decadent sagas like Roger Vadim's "Les Liaisons dangereuses," I scorned two of TCM's recent features -- Eric Rohmer's "Ma Nuit Chez Maud" (1969) and Jacques Demy's "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" (1964) -- as rank sentimentality. But now, in these dark ages of Hollywood decline, how beguiling they seem! The patience with which Rohmer's camera focuses on Marie-Christine Barrault's intelligent, sensual changes of expression in "Maud"; the emotional purity and ravishing use of proto-psychedelic color in "Cherbourg": how lucky my generation was to be immersed in these rich, protean films. European art films were an enormous part of my education outside the classroom, and it is tragic that they have dropped so far off the radar screen for today's American students, marooned in their sterile mall culture.

Thanks to Salon reader Robert W. Holzbach for his kind words about the surprising fact that Lingua Franca -- a magazine that began as a voice of educational reform but gradually drifted off toward the campus elite -- has in its October issue declared, after a survey, that my 700-page book "Sexual Personae," published in 1990 by Yale University Press, was the No. 1 academic book of the decade.

There is also a hilarious pullout poster parodying contemporary academe as Raphael's "The School of Athens" (one of my favorite paintings) with my mentor Harold Bloom depicted as Aristotle and me as Plato. We are promenading and discoursing beneath Raphael's grand Roman arches, while the rest of the campus luminaries are crowded to the side and below. The irony, of course, is that I am completely ostracized in high-level American academe, whose careerist mechanism has elevated so many plodding mediocrities, breathless fad-followers and jabbering mynah birds.

Lingua Franca's turnaround should encourage every embattled teacher out there. The winds of change are abroad. The foundation of my work is my enduring respect for greatness, a currently unfashionable idea. Whatever power I may have as a scholar and cultural commentator comes from my lifelong subordination to great artists and writers, whom I raptly studied and drew from.

Great art, like sublime nature, is inexhaustible.

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.

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Al Gore Environment George W. Bush Hillary Rodham Clinton