America without makeup

Looking at Paris Hilton, seeing George W. Bush.

By Joan Walsh

Published June 10, 2007 6:01PM (EDT)

I thought I'd wait a day to see if my Paris Hilton fever passed, but it hasn't entirely. I was trapped in a middle seat on JetBlue much of Friday and couldn't escape it. There was a hint of mob mentality in the way people were rooting for Paris to get thrown back in jail, and I distrust mob mentality, even when I share it. It was hard not to be disturbed watching the sobbing, makeup-free heiress coming undone, and her cry of little-girl desperation: "It's not fair! Mom!" Understandably, many people want to make Hilton a scapegoat for many things, especially our nation's criminally unjust justice system, which comes down cruelly on poor people over misdeeds for which wealthy whites evade punishment, and our vapid celebrity culture, in which the empty-headed, coochie-flashing, N-bomb-dropping hotel heiress became famous for a tacky sex tape, and rode it to a reality show for herself, "The Simple Life," and another for her mother, "I Want to Be a Hilton." Remember that one? It featured Kathy Hilton trying to turn sad ducklings from the sticks and the ghetto into lovely Hilton swans. (Maybe they can revive it now as "Who Wants to Be a Hilton?") But scapegoating, while satisfying, rarely rights the wrongs it's supposed to, and by midday Friday I felt a twinge of sympathy for Hilton.

That is, I did until I saw the mood change in midair on Fox News, as Shepard Smith's daylong cavalcade of Hilton scorn gave way to sympathy, even outrage, about the heiress's treatment from Ann Coulter, Geraldo Rivera and Greta Van Susteren. Paris was "twitching" and looked "troubled and really sick," a concerned Van Susteren told us, adding that Hilton's parents, Kathy and Rick, "have been married for 30 years -- which is unusual by California standards, I might add." Ah, Hilton family values! What was Judge Sauer thinking? William Kunstler Rivera railed against the injustice of Hilton's spending time in jail when non-celebs would walk for the same crime! Coulter likewise insisted the jail time was "unfair" and that the judge was a despicable publicity hound (certainly, Coulter would know).

If Fox was suddenly defending this poor little rich girl from having to pay for her bad behavior, I realized, there must be deeper social forces at work that I was missing with my impulse toward compassion. I started to connect the dots when Fox cut to the day's other big (and mostly neglected) news story, Defense Secretary Robert Gates' decision not to appoint Gen. Peter Pace to a new term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Now, Pace is a scapegoat like Hilton is: He richly deserves the nation's resentment and outrage -- for the way he sucked up to Donald Rumsfeld and executed the botched Iraq war -- but at the same time, ousting him won't solve the ills he symbolizes. Pace is of course connected to yet another infamous scapegoat, I. Scooter Libby, who was sentenced to 30 months in prison last week for his role in covering up the outing of CIA officer Valerie Plame. In fact, one of Pace's recent bad decisions was writing to Judge Reggie Walton to plead mercy for Libby, an architect of the terrible war that Pace so badly managed.

Clearly, this country is having a scapegoat moment -- and maybe that's not a bad thing. In the cases of Pace and Libby it's possible to see how one can be a bad guy and a fall guy all at the same time. Both deserve their comeuppance, as does the "rules are for public school bitches" scofflaw Hilton. But it all made me think about the guy who's both a symbol and a cause of the debauched political culture we're protesting with our scapegoat-mania. You know who I mean: Another airhead heir, an infamous party animal who got a DUI and walked away, who bumbled through "The Simple Life" in the oilfields of Texas and the executive suites of Major League Baseball, only to run our country off the road: President George W. Bush. I made the connection, maybe belatedly, when I saw what Bush crony and former Commerce Secretary Donald Evans told the New York Times Saturday, about how he knew Bush would not give up on his doomed immigration reform plan. Evans "recalled how, when they were young oil men in Texas, Mr. Bush was typically undaunted by 'dry holes' that did not yield oil." Now, let's be clear: Bush was a master of the dry hole. Both his businesses, Arbusto and Harken Oil, specialized in them. He was "undaunted" by them because his daddy's rich friends bailed him out of business trouble time and again, buying him a piece of the Texas Rangers that turned into a fortune, and ultimately the governor's mansion and the White House. Is it too much to ask for the Times' Jim Rutenberg to raise an eyebrow when Evans tells a big Texas whopper?

Still, it has been a rough week for one ne'er-do-well celebrity rich kid, and maybe there's something we can learn from it all. Is it possible that the sight of the sobbing Hilton, sans makeup, can make us face down how silly our celebrity culture has become? Will scapegoating the heiress make us understand that meritocracy is a myth, that the rich really are different, that many of them get to fail ever upward, not downward like the rest of us, and make us do something about it? Will the price Peter Pace and Scooter Libby paid for their respective Iraq war mistakes, their blind loyalty to superiors and their arrogance chasten others? It's probably too much to ask. In the case of Libby, Judge Walton noted that, in fact, elites closed ranks around him. Walton asked facetiously if the luminaries who lent their names to a brief seeking a lighter sentence for Libby would in the future "step up to the plate and provide like assistance in cases" where defendants "lack the financial means to fully and properly articulate the merits of their legal positions." You know, the poor people stuck in county jail when rich folk like Paris Hilton usually get to walk away. He knows the answer is no.

But in the meantime, Hilton is in jail, Libby seems headed there, Pace lost his Joint Chiefs job, and Bush is the most unpopular president in almost 30 years. It's not everything the culture needs, but it's a start. Just think: If George W. Bush had met one Judge Sauer in his 20s, the rest of us might have been spared a lot of sorrow.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

MORE FROM Joan WalshFOLLOW joanwalshLIKE Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

George W. Bush Paris Hilton