Salon readers — and the world! — have been deprived of the political opinions of our favorite cultural channeler/critic, Camille Paglia, for a year, since she last spoke to Salon. During that time Paglia, university professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, has been at work teaching and putting the finishing touches on her five-year book project “Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World’s Best Poems” (March, Pantheon).
On the eve of the election, she agreed to break her silence and talk to Salon about this political moment — from the “devious and Machiavellian” Dick Cheney to the “unethical and grotesque” manipulation of his daughter by Democrats; from her respect for Jon Stewart and that “dynamo” Sean Hannity, to her pity for Bill O’Reilly, the “blowhard” with a bad case of “psychosexual paralysis.” And she explains how, despite her concern over his “poorly managed” campaign and terrible TV skills, she believes Sen. John Kerry is the only viable option for president.
You had concerns about how “strained, dead and aloof” Kerry seemed on the stump, and how his handlers had turned him into a “prissy” figure. But he’s your choice this year. Why?
First of all, I think Kerry will be a far better president than he is a campaigner. This is a man with gravitas who is totally prepared to be president. He has national political experience, historical knowledge, and personal contact with the wider world — unlike Bush. Where he lacks information, Kerry will inform himself — unlike Bush. I think he will make good appointments — unlike Bush. And Kerry will repair our alliances: He will win back respect for America abroad. He speaks other languages — unlike Bush. And Kerry’s wife, Teresa, despite her current excessive candor (reminiscent of Hillary Clinton’s arrival at the White House), is a truly international personality who speaks many languages and understands world cultures.
Kerry will build bridges again to the outside world. He will be someone whom America can be proud to represent us. In the age of terrorism, we cannot simply withdraw into our fort the way Bush has and imagine all will go well. There are no walls any longer. Our walls are absolutely porous to infiltration by terrorists. Thus we cannot have a world poisoned by anti-Americanism the way it is now, thanks to the clumsiness and arrogance of the Bush administration.
Secondly, on Iraq: I still say, as I told Salon before the war, that it was despicable that most of the Democratic senators lay down flat and voted for the Iraq war resolution. So Kerry is trapped in that. He really does blow with the wind — as the Republicans satirized in one of the greatest political ads ever, which showed him wind surfing back and forth across the screen. Nevertheless, Kerry’s in a much better position to get us out of this damned war. Reelecting Bush just mires us in the same failed policies: Bush will just go on and on to prove he was right in the first place. He never fires anyone! And so we’ll only have a stubborn continuation of the same blinkered strategies — and maybe more foolish incursions. Iran and Syria may be next. We’re throwing billions of dollars down the drain.
Third, this entire administration needs to be replaced. There’s not a single one of them that I respect. I used to think Condi Rice was a great role model for women, but she’s shown that, as a Sovietologist, she had no feel for the religious sectarianism and roiling animosities of the Mideast. And Colin Powell is craven. After those intelligence wonks sent him before the U.N. with crappy evidence of WMD, he should have resigned in protest. The obedient good soldier has lost his soul.
And yet you’ve had your frustrations with the Democratic Party this election cycle …
As a registered Democrat, I’m depressed about the mediocre field that the party was able to launch. It’s really amazing. One would think that the Democrats, energized by the progressive principles of my 1960s generation, would at least have a flair for political theater. But it’s incredible how poorly Kerry’s team has managed this campaign. A good example is that fiasco of a midnight rally after Bush’s hyper-cinematic acceptance speech at the Republican Convention. It was painful to watch — disorganized, rambling and graceless, with atrocious visuals.
I’m definitely voting for Kerry, however. I voted for Clinton twice and then Nader the last time around. But I wouldn’t dream of voting for Nader this year, and not because he doesn’t have a right to run — any American does! But Nader exposed himself as a narcissist by being an invisible man for the past four years. Where the hell was he? I was eagerly looking to Nader to launch the Green Party, an authentic third party movement in this country that could challenge the ossified two-party system. I’m bitterly disillusioned with him.
At any rate, Kerry, I feel, is a genuinely thoughtful character — perhaps too much so for in-the-trenches political warfare. As a campaigner, however, he seems to lack the kind of managerial ability and decisiveness that one expects in a president. For heaven’s sake, if you’re not even able to manage your own campaign without going backwards and recycling Clinton retreads, then there’s something seriously deficient that doesn’t bode well for your ability to appoint a Cabinet and referee disputes among them. Kerry sometimes seems like this sepulchrally isolated figure floating out there without the ability to make instinctual gut decisions the way Clinton always could.
Another thing is Kerry’s total lack of facility with modern media communication. Clinton’s genius for this — for good and ill — is becoming clearer and clearer. Kerry can’t even work with a camera — he doesn’t understand it; he doesn’t feel it’s there. In speech after speech since the convention, he’ll be delivering some sober, substantive policy address, and his eyes are going from left to right to left again, his head swiveling like a kewpie doll on a spring. He looks from one teleprompter to another and never lets the camera see him frontally. With those heavy lidded, hooded eyes, he rarely looks toward the lens. It’s no wonder people feel as though they don’t know him! By the third debate, he finally looked directly into the camera, and it was fantastic. It was the one debate where he finally started to connect with the American people. But as soon as he went out on the road again, it was gone again.
When we look back at Clinton’s town hall debate with the first Bush, we can see Clinton’s shrewd media skills. In fact, it practically makes you sick — Clinton is so blatantly turning his face and body to get in full camera range, when even Bush is talking. There’s one classic moment when Bush is standing and giving an answer, and Clinton is practically falling off his stool as he tries to get into the picture! So we had this preening parrot in the White House who would squeeze out fake tears at funerals as soon as the cameras turned on. It’s incredible that Kerry seems to have learned no lessons at all from Clinton’s mastery of mass communications. On the contrary, for months, Kerry as an unknown quantity, let himself be defined in the media by his right-wing opposition.
Like with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth –
Exactly! As a veteran listener of talk radio, I can tell you the conservative shows were strongly airing the Swift Boat issue in April. Now how in the world didn’t the Democratic strategists still have any response ready for this in August? Was it such a big surprise? If so, the superstructure of the Democratic Party is totally divorced from reality. It evidently has no sense whatever about the real dynamics of political thought among the electorate at large. If Kerry loses this election, the entire Democratic Party establishment needs to be torn to pieces and built up again, because it won’t just be his failure, it will be the party’s failure. Kerry’s weakness as a personality became clear when he wasn’t able to dislodge [Democratic National Committee chairman Terry] McAuliffe from the DNC. He wanted to get rid of McAuliffe — that servile water boy of the Clintons — and he choked. Kerry didn’t have the balls to get rid of him. Every time that yapping buffoon McAuliffe is on the air, the Democrats lose the votes of the undecided.
I think a lot of people wonder how anyone can take the Swift Boat Vets seriously. How did they build any cachet?
Early on, the Republican strategists showed their wit and cunning in labeling Kerry a “flip-flopper.” It was the kind of prankishness I would have expected from Democrats, a 1960s Yippies style. As soon as Kerry went out after the Democratic convention, there were these little groups of Republicans in the first rows holding rubber flip-flop sandals above their heads and flapping them like undulating waves of tideland grasses. It was hilarious! If that stuck in the public mind, it was for a reason. Kerry was far too professorial with his answers on TV, “On the one hand this, on the other hand that.” Now, it’s absolutely true that complex times call for complex answers. But Kerry’s difficulty in speaking plainly to the mass audience has been a major problem in this campaign.
From the start, the right wing tried to tag Kerry with Jane Fonda; one of the earliest images flying around the Web during the primaries showed him sitting on the ground a few rows back from Jane Fonda at an antiwar protest. They weren’t together, but the two were definitely in each other’s presence. That was the first attempt to tar Kerry with Fonda. And I think we Democrats owe Jane Fonda a tremendous debt by the way she cannily, shrewdly held back. Many another diva actress would have leapt into the spotlight and made herself a focus. But because Fonda wisely stayed in the shadows, she didn’t add energy to this peripheral issue of the Kerry-Fonda connection. It never got traction.
The problem, however, is that there really is ambiguity about how Kerry won his medals. There was a story there. And the gross failure of the major media, with their bias toward the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, was not to let that story be fully examined early on in a fair and impartial manner. By their silence they simply empowered this story and made it worse and worse. I heard about the Swift Boat vets’ claims on a late-night radio talk show in April, and believe me, my eyes popped open! I couldn’t believe what I was hearing — it seemed so preposterous. Yet the story had legs and grew and grew.
There were legitimate questions, but it was months before the major media addressed them in a systematic and responsible way. And then they did a good job, with maps and graphs that ultimately reinforced Kerry’s credibility. But all that should have been done in April or May. To delay it until late summer allowed the issue to become a tsunami — and at a time when the Kerry campaign seemed dead in the water. The impact of that story on talk radio was indescribable — because it turned out that there really was ambiguity about the events surrounding Kerry’s medals. I absolutely believe Kerry was injured, but I was certainly very surprised to learn that he won three Purple Hearts for wounds that never required hospitalization. He had minimal medical treatment and never missed a day of work. Compare that to other veterans who lost limbs or, like Sen. John McCain, can’t even lift their arms and need help to put on a jacket.
Look, Kerry was there — he put himself in danger and could have been killed or mutilated at any moment on those tiny boats. Kerry deserves credit for that, and he deserves medals for any wounds suffered. But it’s his inability to handle this issue from the start that injured his candidacy. He should have said, “This is outrageous! I don’t need to tolerate it! How dare you?” Show some emotion and conviction! Defend yourself! I don’t want to hear that, oh, Mary Cahill or Bob Shrum told him to hang back and let it all blow over. It’s his reputation. He should have had the guts to step forward and defend his honor.
So then the Democrats had to use their convention — which should have been an intergalactic platform to attack Bush and the war — for this ridiculous, necrophiliac stage show, with Kerry giving a lame salute and telling us he was “reporting for duty”! If that wasn’t the stupidest, most lame-brained way to introduce yourself to the American people — he looked like an idiot! And of course it conveniently laid the groundwork for all the trumped-up Vietnam exposés that followed. The convention should have rained down abuse on Bush and the Republicans over Iraq! But no, the resident airheads — McAuliffe and company — told them to play nicey-nice so as not to alienate independent voters. What dolts!
Do you think that’s been a consistent problem — the Democrats not willing to criticize hard enough?
Well, there’s the stellar example of John Edwards sitting there at his debate with Dick Cheney and not landing a glove on him! Instead Edwards is going off into this fulsome aria about how much the vice-president loves his gay daughter. What a chickenshit! I mean, Dick Cheney is one of the most devious and Machiavellian individuals in American politics in my entire lifetime. He’s the one who pushed Bush into this terrible, no-exit war. And Edwards is tippy-toeing around him? What is it that the Democratic strategists fear? That Cheney has a huge popular base? He’s a shadow figure — the original Mr. Sneak. Attack him! But it’s too late now.
And yet the debates did seem to shift momentum toward the Democrats. What did you think of Kerry then?
I was very pleased with Kerry’s performance because the image he had on the radio talk shows was a joke: he’s a flip-flopper; he’s wishy-washy; he’s a weak-kneed Massachusetts liberal; he has a French haircut and is a gigolo who marries money — on and on for months. And then in that first debate, which I thought was his best, Kerry just stood there in a very poised, dignified manner and seemed absolutely like a man who could be commander in chief. And interestingly, we watched Bush fall to pieces — he seemed to spin off into some weird psychic maelstrom.
He was much more at ease in 2000.
The pressure of the war on Bush has been enormous — all those deaths, which he has to steel himself not to feel. I actually thought he was having a nervous breakdown this spring, when he would get morose and teary-eyed in front of the cameras. I think the turning point for him was Reagan’s death — that whole massive ceremonial event, a national rite of passage that he had to preside over. It allowed him to become presidential again. It gave him the sense of a conservative legacy beyond his own father.
This is someone who, as a former alcoholic, can’t have a drink. But the leader of the world’s one remaining superpower should be able to have a nice glass of Pinot Noir at dinner — especially when he’s running a war! Relaxation gives perspective. The pressure of the presidency is crippling. Bush is a person who became born-again midway through his life. He’s a new personality trying to live the right way — but he’s dragged the nation into his private drama. The consequence of his exhausting push for day-by-day certitude is a brittle tightness and puritanical inflexibility.
But if Bush wins this election, he did it on his own. Ever since the Republican Convention, he’s been on fire, with a dynamic energy that makes him look like the underdog. He’s cast off his paternalistic mentors and has come into his own as president. Going out to rallies really energizes him. And the crowds, who adore him, have truly made a turnaround, because for a while, the Republican base was a bit apathetic.
What energized the base?
The real turnaround may have been the Michael Moore movie, “Fahrenheit 9/11″ — which opened in the U.S. with a French imprimatur (the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival). People keep carrying on about how wonderful that alleged documentary is, how it will bring young people in droves to the polling booth. Well, we’ll see. If that movie, with all its fictions and distortions, really does put Kerry over, then we Democrats will all owe Michael Moore a debt, and I’ll revise my low opinion of him.
But for Moore to turn a sitting president of the United States into a joke, and to use his position abroad to foment anti-Americanism, has had a huge backlash: the massive, indulgent publicity about the Moore film was when the Republican passion for Bush really began — the passion to defend him, fed by a longstanding scorn for the liberal major media and for Hollywood. That’s when everything seemed to gel for Bush, who had alienated conservatives with his big spending and slack immigration policy.
On talk-show call-ins, I started to hear real love for Bush, a protective desire to defend him against the smug liberal hyenas. It was a pivotal moment in the campaign. And the righteous fury of the Bush crusaders started to sway the undecideds. For months on Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or other conservative radio shows, I really didn’t hear such great enthusiasm for Bush. But then all of a sudden, there was a turning point. I remember sitting in my car in April listening to Hannity — who has become a major force in American politics and whose talents as a broadcaster just keep getting better and better (though I’m always wishing he had more respect for other cultures and a broader understanding of our place in the world). He was talking slowly and thoughtfully after hanging up with a like-minded caller, and I got really alarmed. I said to myself, wow, here it is. It was a whole, comprehensive geopolitical picture: the only way we can win the war against terror is to take the fight to the terrorists abroad, America must be a beacon to the world. America has a divine mission to bring liberty to the world. It was a view of destiny that had a staggering clarity and simplicity.
Now if the Democratic consultants had any brains, they would have viewed all this as an important system of ideas that needed to be logically addressed, instead of just sneering at it. This is a war of ideas! But too many Democrats rely on a juvenile Al Franken level of discourse — sneer, sneer, sneer at the benighted ones. We are all so superior in our little elite enclaves. So even if Kerry wins the election, the Democrats have lost this war of ideas.
It’s as if we have no eloquent speechwriters any longer. The Democratic Party has become a p.c. wallow over the past 20 years — a sinkhole of unctuous, bleeding-heart liberalism and emotional manipulation, always using seniors or “disenfranchised” African-Americans as convenient straw men. We’re supposed to be in a constant state of empathy, on high alert to a cosmos of injustice. And always there are the aggrieved — and those nasty people in high places who are doing awful things to them! It’s become a tedious soap opera removed from reality.
The Democratic operatives, chummily clustered in their Northeastern drinking holes, are missing the fact that most Republicans are not the top execs of Halliburton but hardworking small-business people who lead orderly lives and try to be good citizens. There’s been a slow shift: What used to be the Democratic base — plain, unpretentious people going about their business and just trying to do the right thing — is shifting toward the Republican Party. Republicanism is becoming populist. Republicans believe that tax cuts to large and small businesses help growth, encourage spending and investment, and create jobs. The Democrats have no answer to that except hysterical rhetoric. Rush Limbaugh rightly calls it the tired old “Democratic playbook” — more than 25 years old.
But we’re living in a new era — it’s post-9/11. The world will never be the same again. The Democrats have got to get out of their preoccupation with grandstanding, divisive, self-interested domestic issues and come up with idealistic rhetoric that could inspire and draw people. Why aren’t they saying: This isn’t America — to keep people under lock and key in Guanténamo Bay without legal representation. Nor are the staged humiliations of Abu Ghraib or the police sweeps of Muslim citizens and their detention without indictment, contrary to our Bill of Rights. America should not endorse unilateral warfare — since that will simply empower every thug and brigand to wage war on his neighbors. America must embrace international law — which embodies the highest ideals of humanity. The U.N. may be imperfect, but it’s the best forum we have for international dialogue. The Democrats have lost the ability to appeal and to inspire.
You’ve especially been a critic of comedy on the left, of the “jejune style” you associate with David Letterman, and others. And yet this year, there seems to have been a real renaissance of political satire — especially on “The Daily Show.” Have you become a fan?
I have friends and colleagues who are big Jon Stewart fans. I respect him — especially after that fabulous ass-kicking he gave to those empty suits Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala on “Crossfire” — but in these troubled times I just don’t want to listen to a comic refraction of the news. I’ve been obsessed with hard news since the yearlong buildup to the Iraq war. Every day’s been agonizing — in imagining not just our forces dying and being mutilated over there but also the thousands of innocent Iraqi citizens — who barely get any press here at all — who are suffering and dying under our bombardment. So I’m in no mood to watch comedy infotainment shows — just as I can’t bear to watch the late-night show monologues, whether it’s Leno or Letterman.
My worry is that young people aren’t being encouraged to explore and absorb hard news. They haven’t been raised in an era of news as I was as a child during the Cold War 1950s. Daily newspapers used to be a central medium of delivery of hard news. If young people prefer to get their news mediated through comedy, is this a prelude to a state of passivity or ironic detachment from the pressing events of their day? Young people may feel they can’t do much to change the world — as if the world is something that happens to them. So they want a patter or commentary on it that allows them to laugh at it. Everyone and everything becomes small and ridiculous. Politics is no longer a noble cause, as it was for John Kennedy, whom I campaigned for in Syracuse when I was 13.
A more interesting question than political satire remains: Why can’t we get strong talk radio on the left? What is it about AM radio — a medium which I’ve loved since the Top 40 1950s? The dominance of AM radio by right-wing shows has been incalculably damaging to the Democrats in this campaign cycle because the anti-Kerry fusillade goes on all day long.
I can’t get it even in Philadelphia. I’ve heard a little swatch of it on the local African-American station, and I found it totally soporific. What a bore! It lacks the propulsive energy of someone like Sean Hannity. Liberal pundits underestimate Hannity because they see him on his Fox TV show, and he’s just not that good on TV. But he’s a dynamo on the radio. Even though I don’t agree with his politics, I find him riveting. He’s funny, he’s ebullient, he has endless energy, and when he gets going on a tirade, he has the rhythmic passion of generations of Irish-Catholic priests! If anyone is in doubt about Hannity’s talents as a radio man, just listen to his commercial for Ruth’s Chris Steak House. It’s a classic of American advertising — his mellow, succulent description makes you want to RUN to the nearest Ruth’s Chris! It’s like pop opera. But the limitations of Hannity’s global worldview upset me deeply. Nevertheless, this is a guy who’s not acting — he’s speaking from his profound core values.
But it’s a terrible cultural problem that liberals these days can’t produce a decent AM radio voice. Al Franken is moribund — that horrible sleepy, whiny, infantile voice! Michael Moore is bouncy and playful, but he’s not a radio personality. To do AM, you have to love the microphone. Moore does visuals — he has a real gift for editing and montage. I have problems with his films, since he plays fast and loose with facts. But he can be a brilliant prankster, as when he came onstage at a Nader rally in 2000 (I saw this on C-SPAN) and threatened to nominate “Ficus” — a big potted plant which he picked up and shook next to the podium. Or that classic moment when he brought a squad of squealing, cavorting girls dressed up as Puritans to reenact the Salem witch trials in front of Ken Starr’s house one morning! Why isn’t he doing more stuff like that? As a teacher and writer, I can’t laugh off the fabrications and exaggerations in his films — like the phony staging of the shotgun he carried out from a bank in “Bowling for Columbine.” I’m sorry, I cannot respect people who deliberately try to fool the public.
Let’s do a quick lightning round of recent events. The Mary Cheney hoopla.
I was absolutely sickened by the use of Mary Cheney as a political gambit by both Kerry and Edwards. My partner disagreed — she thought it was fine. Many of our friends also thought it was OK. I did not. I found it utterly offensive and manipulative. I don’t care whether Mary Cheney worked for Coors as a gay liaison. I don’t care that she works for her father’s campaign office. Mary Cheney has made her own rules and has not thrust herself into the national spotlight to speak publicly. It is unethical and grotesque to tag and stereotype her as “the lesbian” of this presidential campaign.
What gets me is that this was so clearly a Democratic strategy to avoid actually confronting Dick Cheney head-on. What rank cowardice! Come on! This shows you what’s happened to the Democrats — everything is I-feel-your-pain psychology; everything is melting emotion and ostentatious empathy. What the hell do you know, John Edwards, about what’s going on in that family? Oh, the wise father so loves the gay daughter: What is this– Betty Crocker, “Father Knows Best” politics? We’re back in the 1950s?
And for Kerry to glibly invoke Mary Cheney as the archetypal lesbian in a nature-vs.-nurture dispute when he had other ready examples on his political side — Dick Gephardt’s daughter or Barney Frank — just makes the whole thing look obviously calculating. And then the idiocy of that as a tactic at the climactic third debate — in the following days, instead of all the media attention being focused on Bush’s failings, air space was sucked up by this dopey soap opera.
And as a lesbian, I strongly object to the Democrats’ amoral use of sexual orientation as a wedge issue. The Democrats are supposed to be pro-gay, and yet they’re using an assertion of gayness to unsettle the Evangelical followers of the Republicans. They’re deliberately fomenting and reinforcing hostility to gays! What the hell’s the matter with the Democratic consultants? I’d like to kick their asses up and down the Eastern seaboard for this Mickey Mouse episode.
Teresa Heinz Kerry obviously speaks her mind. To all reports she had a good rapport with women in small groups on the campaign trail during the primaries. But the Democratic consultants wore both Kerrys down with overbooking. They’ve looked exhausted and punch-drunk half the time. Teresa’s not ready for prime time, but neither was Hillary. Any first lady learns how to be bland and neutral — Laura Bush has it down, and without losing her humor and spunk.
Teresa will be a sophisticated, issues-oriented hostess in the White House. Lately, however, she’s been making some serious gaffes — as when she said that Laura Bush never had a real job and then apologized for forgetting that Laura had worked for 10 years as a teacher and librarian. This left Teresa wide open to the charge that she doesn’t value the role of a homemaker. Unfortunately, that’s true for a lot of affluent, upper-middle-class liberal women. That slip of the tongue was all too revelatory — especially when there’s a recent movement among women disillusioned with the workplace and returning home to spend more time with their children. So it was cringe-making. But it’s because they’re overworking her.
Laff riot! I honestly couldn’t stop laughing when I saw the news (thanks to Matt Drudge) that Bill O’Reilly, one of Fox TV’s biggest conservative stars, was being accused of making lurid phone sex calls to his woman producer. It was just too hilarious to believe. O’Reilly is such a blowhard. He’s bizarrely arrogant and politically all over the map. I never watch him since he talks right over his guests — he’s a boorish host. That show is such a waste of time, unless you have low testosterone and want to get jacked up by a squinty-eyed dork pretending he’s John Wayne.
I think that, in uncertain times, people like the sound of confidence, even when that confidence is mimed, which is the case with Bush as well as O’Reilly. Unlike Rush or Hannity, O’Reilly doesn’t really have core values. And now we know why! Thanks to the wonders of the Web, we have learned that O’Reilly’s fantasy life is a high-school orgy of loofah gloves and tropical palms. It’s pitiful, in a way — O’Reilly needs phone sex because he’s trapped by his Catholic code. He’s in psychosexual paralysis — he doesn’t have the confidence in his low-down desires that Clinton does!
Anything else we should touch on?
Yes. Was I the only person in America to suspect that Saddam Hussein was bluffing about his WMD? The pharaohs and kings of the ancient Near East loved to thump their chests and boast to intimidate their neighbors. Evidently, there was a lack of historical perspective among the feckless advisors who persuaded George W. Bush to rush to war in Iraq.