Camille's back!

After a six-year absence, our cultural high priestess and pioneering Web proto-blogger has returned! And nobody -- not Hillary, Obama, McCain nor Anna Nicole -- can escape her level gaze.

Published February 14, 2007 12:30PM (EST)

Greetings, Salon readers!

My column returns today for the first time since 2001, when I resigned from Salon to focus on writing "Break, Blow, Burn." On my book tours of the past two years (for the Pantheon hardcover and the Vintage paperback), I was very touched by how many people in the signing lines enthused about my Salon columns and appealed for their return.

I had certainly assumed the Web was surfeited with more than enough material, but evidently many others beside myself find the partisan polarization of the blogosphere numbingly predictable and its prose too often slapdash, fragmentary or drearily prolix.

The Web, in my view, has its own crisp idiom -- a fusion of the verbal with the visual. The computer screen, as a development of the TV monitor, doesn't favor the elaborate, self-interrupting, endlessly qualifying syntax devised for books and still aped by pretentiously big-think glossy magazines. (I chronicled the stylistic evolution of my Salon column, in response to new technology, in "Dispatches From the New Frontier: Writing for the Internet," an essay in "Communication and Cyberspace," co-edited by Lance Strate.)

The Web so favors the roving, intrusive eye that the blogosphere itself is currently threatened by a gorgeous riot of viral videos-on-demand. As a Warholian pop fan, I'm thrilled with this impudent development -- even though as a career college teacher, I'm also concerned about the fate of analytic reasoning and literary expression.

My place in the Salon family, which dates from my contribution to Salon's inaugural issue in 1995, has its roots in the San Francisco Examiner, where David Talbot was the progressive arts and culture editor and an early supporter of my work after I burst on the national scene in 1990 with the publication of "Sexual Personae." He invited me to write for the Examiner, and the result was articles such as "The Female Lenny Bruce," my celebration of Sandra Bernhard (more about her later). David left the Examiner to found Salon with other veterans of San Francisco media.

Initially, my Salon column, "Ask Camille," perpetuated the format of my satiric Agony Aunt feature in Spy magazine. (My Spy debut had been piquantly flagged on the infamous February 1993 cover of a cheerful Hillary Clinton clad in dominatrix gear and wielding a riding crop in the Oval Office.) Though I gradually phased out the Q&A structure, I always tried to incorporate reader response by posting letters on hot-button topics, such as gun control. Today, thanks to technological advances, Salon offers instant responses to all of its articles. To foreground reader interests and concerns, I will be devoting every third column to my replies to questions, which will be solicited by Salon through this special mailbox.

Because the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign is already revving up, my monthly columns will start with politics and, as usual, move on to cultural issues from the fine arts to pop. And by the Italian principle of abbondanza, my columns will always be served in a mighty big dish.

I am a pro-choice libertarian Democrat whose platform remains the same, above all regarding educational reform. I denounce the outrageous expense, ideological indoctrination and spiritual hollowness of American higher education, with its crazed admissions rat race and juvenile brand-name snobbery. And I call for a valorization of the trades and for national investment in vocational schools to help salvage the disaster zone of urban public education.

Though I am a professed atheist, I have been arguing for 20 years that the study of world religions should be basic to the university core curriculum. I addressed this matter last week in "Religion and the Arts in America," the 2007 Cornerstone Arts Lecture at Colorado College (it was filmed by C-SPAN). I approached the subject from a different angle in "Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Vision in the American 1960s" (Arion, winter 2003).

Let's cut to the chase. I am as adamantly opposed to the American invasion and occupation of Iraq as I was before it happened, when the mainstream press abandoned its watchdog role and servilely capitulated to administration propaganda. The thinness of the American case for war was on blatant display in Colin Powell's February 2003 speech to the United Nations Security Council, which I saw on live TV and scorned as a series of slick rhetorical gimmicks and preposterously unpersuasive photos.

I want American troops out now -- not next year but tomorrow. Support of the troops means not subjecting them to an unsustainable and ultimately unwinnable mission, cooked up by armchair cowboys who see the world in simplistic cartoon terms ("good guys" vs. "bad guys"). The provincial philistines of the Bush administration blundered into the Mideast with little more than superficial knowledge of its tangled history and ancient culture. And they have colossally wasted American blood and treasure on a project that had only a tangential relation to the atrocity of 9/11.

My peak Web moment of recent weeks was watching the riveting video of Code Pink's March 2003 confrontation with Hillary Clinton in a Senate conference room. I whooped and applauded as Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the antiwar group, spoke eloquently of the trauma and horror inflicted by the invasion on the women and children of Iraq (a subject consistently ignored by the American press).

There's a priceless moment when a protester strips off her pink slip and hands it to Hillary (who had just voted for the war resolution the prior October) as a symbol of her flunking this ethical test. Hillary, who has problems when life departs from script, at first takes the gift, then yanks her hand back and loses her temper. The hapless slip is seized by a female flunky and abducted. It's a classic!

Hillary as presidential candidate: It's about time that women made serious, organized runs for the White House. But Hillary, despite claims by the liberal press, is not the first credible candidate: That laurel belongs to Republican Elizabeth Dole, whose funding dried up but who was indeed a legitimate contender in the lead-up toward the 2000 primaries.

My attitude toward Hillary has bounced up and down like a rubber ball since Bill Clinton's first run for the White House in 1992. I thought Hillary was great -- decisive and tough-talking. Then came the debacle of her bungled stewardship of healthcare reform in 1993. Hillary's secretive, arrogant, elitist side came out, and it wasn't a pretty sight. By 1996, I was writing a controversial cover story about Hillary for the New Republic called "Ice Queen, Drag Queen" (which may have been a factor in editor in chief Andrew Sullivan's quick departure).

As a native of New York state, I was indignant about the travesty of Hillary's don't-ruffle-my-feathers "listening tour" campaign for U.S. senator from that state where she had never lived. Then as now, she floated from place to place in a Secret Service bubble that protected her from contact with anything or anybody real. However, Hillary has now put in her grunt time at the Senate and gained credibility, even if she has few tangible achievements after her first six years in office.

When I was asked to review Hillary's memoir, "Living History," by the Times of London in 2003, I was skeptical but pleasantly surprised by what I read. The book made a convincing case for Hillary's long-standing political commitment and her credentials for the presidency. But I remain uneasy about her -- she lacks spontaneity and instinct, and she's too programmed by her amoral cabal of shadowy handlers. Her wandering political positions are transparently and sometimes incoherently dictated by expedience rather than conviction.

Nevertheless, Hillary Clinton is as qualified for the Oval Office as scores of leading male candidates over the past 40 years. If she is the Democratic nominee, I will vote for her. (Ralph Nader, for whom I voted in 2000, has irresponsibly shirked from solidifying national support for the Green Party and doesn't deserve another run.) But I'm still hoping that a stronger Democratic candidate will carry the day -- perhaps a dark horse from among the governors with executive experience in managing budgets and working with fractious legislatures.

Right now, I'm leaning toward John Edwards in the primaries. He has problems -- a thin political résumé, a fancy estate at odds with his populist message, and a dated hairstyle that looks femme and foofy at a time when military buzz cuts and Caesarian close crops are in. But Edwards is a ferocious, knife-sharp debater with foxy, seat-of-the-pants smarts, and I hope he creams his opponents. It would be a relief to have an articulate president again. When George W. Bush speaks, it's a contact sport -- can he lurch to the end of the sentence without murdering English?

I love the way Barack Obama has nimbly upstaged the ponderous Hillary machine. It's a Bette Davis/Joan Crawford bitch fest! But Obama's effusive gusts of generalities irritate me; it's all sizzle and no steak right now. He needs seasoning: 2012 may be his year. I wish Nancy Pelosi were running. Despite her foot-dragging mishandling of the flap over her transcontinental military jet, Pelosi has style and pizazz and knows how to put the shiv in while smiling ever so brightly at the cameras. She's brass knuckles in a velvet glove, and I'm loving every minute of it.

On the Republican side, I've never understood liberal journalists' infatuation with John McCain, who's as mercurial as Hillary in his ideology-of-the-day. Those two are peas in a pod -- always dialing up the weather report and sleeping next to a window with their fingers in the wind. If Rudy Giuliani improbably wins the Republican nomination, which would require primary voters shutting their eyes to his liberal social views and checkered sex life, he would roll like a juggernaut into the White House on the strength of his macho authoritarianism in this time of war. Giuliani's got balls, but do we want this democracy drifting any further toward a police state?

Don't count Mitt Romney out. Not yet nationally known, Romney harks back to the patrician days of sophisticated Republicanism. In 1994, on my book tour for "Vamps & Tramps," I was sitting late one night in the empty lobby of WBZ-AM NewsRadio, located on a lonely road in Boston. While waiting to go on the David Brudnoy Show (Brudnoy, living with AIDS, would die a decade later), I listened intently to the guest on air before me -- Mitt Romney, whom I had never heard of but who was then mounting his unsuccessful senatorial challenge to Ted Kennedy.

I was very impressed. When Romney emerged, I shook his hand and said, "You're going to be president!" -- something I have never said to anyone, before or since. He flushed with pleasure and embarrassed surprise -- as if I had uncovered a secret. Afterward I followed Romney's career from a distance -- his return to private business, his directorship of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, and then his surprise election as governor of Massachusetts in 2003. Stay tuned.

On to pop culture: Anna Nicole Smith. I heard the first bulletins about her death on the car radio as I was driving home from campus last week. At the Popeye's drive-through (where I was ordering Cajun wings), I blurted in agitation to the window lady, "Anna Nicole Smith just dropped dead -- tell everyone!" -- which she promptly did. The staff inside (all African-American) were startled and incredulous.

Smith's sudden death in a Florida hotel, only five months after her son's death three days after she had given birth to a daughter in the Bahamas, struck me as terribly sad. ABC's "Nightline" called via my publisher for comment, but I felt far too upset to go on TV. Nevertheless, I was riveted to the tube all night and didn't mind in the least that this tabloid drama, with its mythic themes of ambiguous paternity and contested wealth, had pushed Iraq to the back burner. Through all the commentators' often pointless chatter, the plain, radiant fact of Smith's sexual charisma and comedic charm burst through in her candid video clips, played again and again.

Anna Nicole Smith, a big, strapping, good-natured Texas gal, was less Marilyn Monroe (whom she idolized) than Jayne Mansfield or Anita Ekberg -- a connection that Salon's own Cintra Wilson of course also instantly made. At times, I catch in Anna Nicole a fleeting, strong-jawed resemblance to the haunted, horsey Margaux Hemingway. (Remember the vengeful Margaux hefting that shotgun in the parking lot in "Lipstick"?)

Never mind the pills -- which put Smith into a hypnotic, seductive Candy Darling haze. The real problem was that the broad, Technicolor comedic films in which Smith might have thrived are no longer made -- except in Bollywood. The declining, glamorous studio system that created Monroe and her imitator Mansfield is long gone. Smith had genuine talent but no place to put it. Oddly, with her aimless hejira over, she has attained permanent star status in the pictorial dynasty of doomed blond sex symbols. We're sure to go mad with the dogged omnipresence of her story, but Anna Nicole is here to stay.

My partner, Alison, and I had the great pleasure of seeing Sandra Bernhard in "Everything Bad & Beautiful" at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia last month. What a searing, original presence Bernhard is -- and what a rebuke to the simpering micro-celebs with blank eyes who litter our entertainment mags with their banal bacchanals. Bernhard is a true role model to aspiring young performers, who need guts and gumption and cantankerous vision. She's shown how to make a mark on the world and still stay real.

There were so many wonderful moments, but the highlight for me was when Bernhard veered into a split-second improvisation inspired by the two curving stairways framing the stage -- which looked like a set for the balcony scene in "Romeo and Juliet." Primly holding the mike like a candle, she suddenly became an acolyte in a religious procession, slowly mounting the steps while humming, then singing Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," whose classic lyrics she mischievously bent. Her superb band, the Rebellious Jezebels, immediately responded and carried her along as she repeated her liturgical homage on the other side.

It was hilarious yet eerie. I was utterly transfixed, as if by an occult manifestation. As a performance artist, Sandra Bernhard has few peers today. Her lineage goes back through early Barbra Streisand to Lenny Bruce and the comic monologist Ruth Draper, whose one-woman theater was famous throughout the world. But Bernhard's raging energy is sparked by the rock idiom, which gives her propulsion and a flirtation with danger.

Radio remains central for me. (As a denizen of the Web, I've been watching less and less TV.) The looming bankruptcy of Air America proves yet again how liberals, despite their control of Hollywood, have oddly failed to master radio as an entertainment medium. So I'm stuck with sports radio (luridly operatic in Philadelphia) and conservative talk shows, with their assertive hosts and slice-of-life callers.

There are rewards aplenty -- it was Sean Hannity's lively show that tipped me off to the Code Pink video with Hillary. And Rush Limbaugh, who fathered the radio boom, features Paul Shanklin's brilliant parodies -- such as his recent, full-throated version of Lerner and Loew's song "They Call the Wind Maria" (pronounced "Mar-eye-ah"), which became John Kerry singing "They Call the U.S. Pariah." I was in stitches. My favorite Shanklin bit from Rush's show was the parody of Hillary airily claiming to the special prosecutor that she can't remember and can't recall because "My mind has turned to Jell-O ... Jell-O ... Jell-O..." (fading echoes).

But what dismays me about current conservative radio, which is intricately engaged with daily political news, is its clumsy stereotyping of Democrats, who are indiscriminately lumped with the "kooks" of "the lunatic left" and whose rational objections to the Iraq war are slandered as knee-jerk anti-Americanism. These verbal tics and clichés undermine the intellectual credibility of conservative critique.

This past Sunday night, there was a floating, mesmerizingly sensuous moment on Matt Drudge's radio show as he segued long from the midnight news with Yaz's "Winter Kills" ("Green in your love on bright days/ You grew sun blind/ You thought me unkind/ To remind you how winter kills"). No one but Drudge these days uses AM radio for artistic mood and ambience. People who know Drudge simply through his Web site are clueless about his eclectic musical sensibility.

The current February issue of Interview magazine, where I am a contributing editor, is devoted to Elizabeth Taylor. Ingrid Sischy and I converse about my teenage passion for Taylor, which bordered on a goddess cult -- at one point, I had collected 599 pictures of her. The photos Interview reprints richly document Taylor's preternatural vitality from child star to imperial vixen. One of my all-time favorites is here: a subdued, intimate shot of Taylor cradling her infant daughter Liza on her breast, as her producer husband Mike Todd (soon to be tragically killed in a plane crash) hovers close.

A final news item: Mitchell Lichtenstein, an actor ("Lords of Discipline," "Miami Vice," "Law & Order") and a student of mine from Bennington College in the 1970s, has written and directed his second film, "Teeth," which was screened at the Sundance Film Festival last month. It was immediately bought for distribution by Weinstein/Lionsgate, and the lead actress, Jess Weixler, won a Sundance award.

Mitchell's theme -- brace yourself! -- is the vagina dentata or toothed vagina, an ancient myth that he first heard about in my classes and that, he has told interviewers, he never forgot. At his request, I specially wrote some lines for the film but have yet to see it. Web reports from Sundance have raved about the film's comic mix of retro horror with satiric sociology. This week, "Teeth" is having its international premiere at the Berlin Film Festival. Bon appétit!

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

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Barack Obama Hillary Rodham Clinton Iraq War John Edwards John Mccain R-ariz. Mitt Romney