The new idea men

Forget the embeds. The pretty new things are war intellectuals like Fareed Zakaria, Paul Berman and Victor Hanson.

Published April 17, 2003 10:19PM (EDT)

One of the many blessings of the war winding down will be regaining some head space from TV overload. Every morning for the last three weeks no sooner did I break away from the box for a shower than a thunderous promo on one of the four 24/7 cable news channels touted some heart-stopping event in the next segment. Hours were lost in a state of overstimulated, underfocused expectation, waiting in vain for the climax -- the electronic equivalent of bad sex.

The more I watched TV, the more its inability to deliver satisfaction drove me hungrily back to print. The New York Times' 12-page "Nation at War" had to be gorged in full, then the tabs in a strange new reading pattern -- opinion pages first, trash news second. The wartime New York Post offered a bracing kick in the crotch for anyone worn out by the Times' many-sided thoughtfulness. The Post does a good line in insolent views imported from the Iranian journalist Amir Taheri. "Do (some Arabs feel) humiliated?" he writes. "So what? They should take a walk. If they want heroism they had better look for it in their own neck of the woods."

You tell 'em, Amir. Next time I see Michael Moore I shall beat him with my Christian Louboutin shoe.

Intellectual service journalists like Taheri are all on steroids. They are cranking out books and columns at an alarming rate. Every FedEx brings the galleys of yet another arcane chin-puller. I am up till 3 every morning frowning and nodding my way through new entries like "Terror and Liberalism" by the smart left-wing essayist Paul Berman who, in case you didn't know, is the last of the institutionally unaffiliated New York intellectuals, whose unexpected ideas make him the strange bedfellow of administration hawks.

During the "quagmire" week, when fashionable know-it-alls were dusting off their Vietnam metaphors, I dived into Francois Bizot's hair-raising memoir of his captivity in a Khmer Rouge camp -- only to find the plot had changed yet again and the vogue was for comparisons to the liberation of France. (Maybe that's on Bush's list too, right after Syria.)

The neocon gurus who fuel the action at the White House keep up a steady stream of armored literature. It's chic to know about Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist at California State University at Fresno, and a regular National Review contributor, who has become Dick Cheney's bedside favorite with grand military theories on "Carnage and Culture." And the cherubic octogenarian professor Bernard Lewis is in fierce social demand. He is deft enough to boil down a lifetime's learned study of Arab political history to a bon mot for the dessert: "One man. One vote. Once." The younger neocons, like the aptly named Max Boot at the Wall Street Journal, are harder to take. They seem to have emerged from test tubes with fully formed certainties.

All the upscale policy panels that pass for social life these days bring new complications. You scribble your e-mail address for some cute boffin over dinner at an awards function at the Harvard Club and the next thing you know your in box brims with links to treatises on the restructuring of Iraqi debt. These continue to flood in with the frequency of spam from porn sites offering to enlarge my penis. If Bush decides to take on Korea next, I'm leaving town. As it is I seem to spend half my time eating rice at the Asia Society.

The basic problem is that America has been indifferent to the rest of the world for so long, it's tough cramming the back story into a few nights a week. Thanks to the conglomeration of the networks, which a few years ago decided to treat news as a profit center, foreign affairs had pretty nearly vanished from the TV screens until 9/11 happened. If you mentioned the Turkmen, people assumed you were talking about a new band on MTV's "TRL."

But that's not good enough now. Power circles in New York are so competitive, everyone has to have the inside track on the next geopolitical tidbit. You're nothing if your private plane hasn't just touched down from a secret meeting with Chirac to help him mend fences.

The next addition to New York life will be intellectual trainers to supplement the other kind. The rich will take a leaf out of Bush's book and hire an off-the-peg Condoleezza Rice to stand by the exercise bike dispensing foreign policy talking points.

In a way they already have. His name is Fareed Zakaria, the 39-year-old editor of Newsweek's international edition, and the star superwonk on ABC's "This Week." Fareed's Bollywood sex appeal, social poise and awesome ability to deconstruct global issues make him New York's hot brainiac of choice. His timing is good, too. The thesis in his new book, "The Future of Freedom" -- that unregulated democracy can undermine liberty -- would have been off-key a month ago in the selling of the war, but Baghdad's looters took to the streets just in time for publication day. The launch party at the Cosmopolitan Club was packed with court intellectuals from past administrations, ranging from Camelot's Arthur Schlesinger to Nixongate's Henry Kissinger, plus pumped-up pundits from the clever magazines and think tanks, and all the smart boys at the New Yorker.

Eggheads have to grab their place in the news cycle while they can.

After the Cold War, your average Sovietologist couldn't get arrested. Court intellectuals are usually a first-term phenomenon anyway, because politics always prevails over ideas. Remember the Clintonian dawn, with its rapturous "politics of meaning"? It didn't take long for that to curdle into the politics of just plain mean. By the second term, it was all about blow jobs.

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