"She Came to Stay." That was the American title of Simone de Beauvoir's first book, a 1943 roman à clef about a manipulative and self-absorbed young woman who saps the energy and willpower of her admirers and plunges them into the existential abyss.
Bulletin to all nations: help! Tornadoes, typhoons and earthquakes batter the globe, while the U.S. is teetering into recession and paralyzed by a stupid war it can neither win nor quit. But somehow we are locked at the hip to Hillary Clinton, who won't stop her manic tarantella until her party whirls into ruins, like the run-amuck carousel in Alfred Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train."
Tony Auth, the Philadelphia Inquirer's ultraliberal cartoonist, had it right last week [click here to view]: a bemused President Barack Obama sits at his desk under a 2009 calendar while Hillary, as a bug-eyed Energizer bunny relentlessly beating its 2008 drum, spins round and round the Oval Office rug. It's what Hillary's campaigning has come to: a monotonous exercise in showboating solipsism, like Shirley MacLaine as the geriatric mother in "Postcards from the Edge," hijacking her daughter's party and kicking up her heels to sing "I'm Still Here!"
As a candidate running a close second, Hillary would normally have every right to complete the primary process, which runs into early June. Calls for her to drop out of the race began months ago and were certainly premature. But at this point, even with strong wins in Appalachia, Hillary has no true rationale for her candidacy, other than her inflamed gender and her putative Washington "experience" -- which has yet to produce a tangible legislative achievement. Her persistence is now keyed to her hope (chillingly close to a curse) that her rival will make a major gaffe or be besmirched by some unknown past scandal. And her message maliciously undermines the presumptive nominee by targeting his presumed weakness in the general election. But the gifted Obama is just getting started on the national stage, while his opponent, John McCain, is a clumsy, fusty, narcissistic waffler whose party is in disarray and revolt against him.
I'm puzzled by the optimism of so many commentators and Democratic functionaries who are prophesying Hillary's graceful withdrawal by mid-June. Is there anything in the Clintons' tawdry history to support such a thesis? Why wouldn't they play smiley-face rope-a-dope now and smash-mouth alley-and-ambush fisticuffs right to the bitter end -- meaning the convention in August? It's now or never for Ms. Hill. Even if Obama loses this fall, there's no guarantee whatever that she would win the Democratic nomination in 2012. That hoss will have been around the rodeo way too many times. The infusion of fresh new blood into the party -- especially women governors -- has already started. Who will want to resurrect all those 1990s mummies?
Republican operatives have been salivating for Hillary to be the nominee. Her vainglorious claim to have been fully "vetted" is ludicrous. She and her husband left a mountain of manure in Little Rock and Washington that hasn't even begun to be thrown. The mainstream media, despite its tilt toward Obama, has been amazingly protective of the Clintons during this campaign. Where were the chronologies of the voluminous Clinton scandals that voters (especially young ones) needed to evaluate Hillary's professional judgment and character? That the conservative Washington Times has now begun to make document drops about Hillary's stonewalling and duplicity (such as over the Rose Law Firm billing records) suggests that Republicans have concluded her candidacy is kaput.
Surely, given Hillary's claim of expertise on the basis of her service as first lady, every major or ambiguous episode in her husband's two presidencies should have been systematically reexamined by the media. I for one have renewed questions about the 1993 suicide of Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster, Hillary's former law partner and longtime friend, whose files were purged by Hillary's staff before they could be examined for evidence. One must always be skeptical about Web rumors, but my interest was piqued last year by claims that Foster was shattered by the role he had played three months earlier in the outrageous order for federal agents to attack David Koresh's ranch at Waco, Texas, producing a conflagration that led to 76 deaths, including 21 children. Why has the Waco fiasco been forgotten? It triggered the worst case of domestic terrorism in U.S. history, the 1995 revenge bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
We'll never hear the end of Reverend Jeremiah Wright this year. Republican strategists will beat that gong until our ears ring. For working-class voters who listen to talk radio but don't monitor the Web (where office-bound middle-class voters have met and embraced Obama), Wright's hooting, satirical, anti-American rants have thrown a cloud of suspicion over Obama. Is he a militant Black Muslim or a radical "Marxist-Leninist" (as I heard an irate female caller confidently call him on the radio)? These outlandish fears can only be dissipated by Obama himself as the American public comes to know him.
As I recently told Mark Simone on his New York WABC radio show, the Rev. Wright controversy actually solidified my support of Obama (though Wright himself, on the basis of his performance at the National Press Club, seems to have become a buffoon). I was steadily impressed by Obama's idealism and deliberativeness; his refusal to spout the rote demagogic formulas that pour so freely from Hillary's lips; and his patient forbearance in debates, where (like an aikido master) he warily sidestepped Hillary's blatant provocations, meant to goad him into errors. He has a judicious, reflective, authentically presidential temperament.
My one nagging question about Obama, given his Kenyan lineage and broad background in Indonesia and Hawaii as well as his Ivy League education, was how well he knew the history, passions and aspirations of African-American culture. But Obama's 20-year membership in Rev. Wright's Chicago megachurch completely reassured me on this score. First of all, sermons constitute only one small part of any congregation's rich religious and social life. Second, not for a moment do I believe -- as talk radio shows are tirelessly alleging -- that Obama's political views are secretly identical to Wright's. On the contrary, it was through listening to Wright, who was reciting a black liberationist theology that has been standard issue for a half-century, that Obama honed his desire to bridge the gap between racial and ethnic communities in the United States. This is one reason I believe Obama is the right person at the right time for the presidency. Where Hillary divides and sows bitterness, Obama wants to unite and heal. It is a project that all Americans of good will should wish to succeed.
Meanwhile, Hillary's flying of the feminist flag has become much more ostentatious as her campaign wanes. Sexism will inevitably be the lurid postmortem apologia for why she failed to break the ultimate glass ceiling. Never mind her faults, limitations and dizzy-making multiple personality disorder as a candidate -- or her depressingly unfeminist professional attachment to an alpha male who may be the real reason she won the votes of many working-class white men. I repeatedly heard sound-bite interviews with rural male Pennsylvanians who said they were voting for Hillary either because Bill Clinton would actually be running her White House or because Bill had produced the prosperity of the '90s (a highly questionable assertion) and thus can cure our ailing economy.
Hillary has certainly given a blast of artificial resuscitation to male-bashing paleo-feminism, which is back with a vengeance. The blogosphere is awash with accusations of "traitor" against women who have the temerity to vote for Obama. Gloria Steinem's anointed heir, Susan Faludi, weighed in with a recent New York Times op-ed about Hillary bizarrely arguing that a sports referee or umpire is "coded feminine" (huh?) and parallels the vintage American feminist as "prissy hall monitor" and "purse-lipped killjoy" -- a stereotype that Hillary the pugilist has broken. (Oh, really? When has Faludi ever endorsed pugilistic feminism before?)
With nice synchronicity, that same week Rebecca Walker, Steinem's goddaughter, was complaining about entrenched feminist "ideology" in the Sunday Times in London. The brand of feminism promoted by her mother, feminist icon Alice Walker, is in Rebecca's words "close to a cult": "I feel I had to de-programme myself in order to have independent thought." My own protest against the ideology problem in feminism has been going on, through word and deed, since the late 1960s. My latest salvo, "Feminism Past and Present: Ideology, Action, and Reform" (the keynote address of a conference on feminism at Harvard University in April) will appear in the Spring/Summer issue of Arion, to be published in print and on the Web in June.
Another point: Most of the media fell hook, line and sinker for the "Iron my shirt!" stunt at a Hillary campaign event in January in New Hampshire, where two scruffy male hecklers were clearly in collusion with her staff. (The signs -- including one suspiciously permitted on the stage itself -- were carefully positioned and lit, and Hillary had a pat prepared line to draw camera attention to them.) Those dorky guys, at least one with a link to a radio station, are far too young to have the slightest knowledge of an era when women ironed men's shirts -- or when shirts needed ironing at all! Businessmen's shirts go to the cleaners nowadays, and everyone else's gear is just tossed into the dryer. That hoax was designed to reawaken the atavistic resentments of older women voters -- and it worked.
[Watch a clip of the "Iron my shirt!" stunt, below]
A perfect symbol of the empty rhetoric and slick manipulations of the Clinton campaign is its chairman, Terry McAuliffe, a wheeler-dealer businessman and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Despite our shared Syracuse background, I despise McAuliffe with every fiber of my being. On primary day in Pennsylvania last month, I voted for Obama in the suburbs and then dashed to 30th Street Station in Philadelphia to catch a train to New York (where I was to tape a TV interview with Sandra Bernhard for the In the Life gay channel).
There big as life right at the top of my departure stairs in the airy main lobby was Terry McAuliffe, dressed in a dark suit like a well-appointed undertaker and chatting away conspiratorially with two similarly dressed clones. A wave of aggression swept over me. From 10 feet away, I locked on to McAuliffe like the deranged ED-209 crime-fighting robot that shoots up a corporate boardroom in Paul Verhoeven's "RoboCop." Nouns like "scum" and "rot" and adjectives like "vile" and "corrupt" flashed through my mind, ready for ignition and firing. I struggled but uncharacteristically held my tongue. My cardinal principle of free speech was restrained by my subordinate principle of respect for shared public space. McAuliffe had as much right as I do to be free from harassment in a train station. But passersby missed what could have been a tasty little scene of 1960s-style street theater.
Now for something completely different. I was surprised and impressed to see the attention given by the New York Times to the death of Beverlee McKinsey, a soap opera star whose prime period is long gone. Plaudits to the obit department! McKinsey's portrayal of bitchy supersocialite Iris Carrington in "Another World" (1970-79) gave me endless pleasure. Those were the glory days of TV soaps -- now a dying form, narcotized by corporate blandness.
McKinsey played Iris like Oscar Wilde's imperious Lady Bracknell crossed with ice-blond Grace Kelly. But her low, velvety voice more resembled Joan Greenwood's as Gwendolen Fairfax (Lady Bracknell's daughter) in the Anthony Asquith film of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” In those pre-VCR years, I had to scribble down soap-opera dialogue as fast as I could. I was then at my first teaching job at Bennington College, which I was regularly disrupting with my obnoxiously militant Amazon feminism. (I gave a rueful account of those hectic years to Philip Davis for his superb recent biography of Bernard Malamud.) McKinsey as Iris Carrington clearly prefigured Joan Collins' ruthless, glamorous Alexis Carrington Colby in the blockbuster prime-time soap "Dynasty," in the 1980s. Both McKinsey and Collins portrayed and embodied an important form of female power that I fiercely felt was excluded or libeled by Second Wave feminism.
Here are some McKinsey highlights from my Bennington notebooks for 1975-76:
As her father's goody-goody wife Rachel lies in critical condition on the verge of losing her baby, rich and idle Iris Carrington causes trouble in the hallway outside the hospital room: "Really--Rachel's servants are becoming as rude she is."
Iris on long-distance telephone: "Oh, Millicent, I know you're usually in Barcelona in June, but surely my wedding takes precedence over that!"
Iris' maid Louise to a plant she is watering: "I know Mrs. Carrington is in an irritable mood this morning, but I hope you will cheer her up."
Iris (entering): "Are you discussing me with that monstrosity?"
Loretta (Iris' New York sophisticate friend): "I'll never forget how you cheered me up after my divorce at your villa in Saint-Tropez."
Iris (evenly): "I don't have a villa at Saint-Tropez."
Loretta: "You don't?"
Iris (very evenly): "I hate Saint-Tropez."
Loretta (brightly): "It must have been Olive's villa!"
Two years later, while attending a Lily Tomlin show in New York with my friend Stephen Feld, I spotted the actress who had briefly played Loretta on "Another World" and had acted in that very scene. I leaned over the hapless two patrons sitting between us and (to her astonishment) enthusiastically recited both parts of the Saint-Tropez dialogue.
Sticking with the subject of alluring dominatrixes, I recently rented Louis Malle's 1958 film, "Ascenseur pour l'echafaud" ("Elevator to the Gallows"), which began the vogue for avant-garde European films to use cool jazz on the soundtrack. Here, thanks to the wonders of YouTube, is the inimitable Jeanne Moreau strolling bleakly through the night streets to Miles Davis' music, specially written for this film. What sensuous beauty of sound and image bathed my 1960s generation as we avidly consumed foreign films in college. Artfulness today has migrated to the high-tech realm, magnificent in its own way but starved of psychology and spirituality.
I've often grumbled over the past 15 years about Stevie Wonder's strange erasure from radio airplay. "Superstition," an eerily great song, is now a standard, but the general Stevie repertoire doesn't go much beyond it. So I was thrilled to hear one of my all-time favorites on the radio recently: "Love Light in Flight," from the 1984 film, "The Woman in Red." Here's the rather banal video, which undercuts Stevie's sublime lyrics and ethereal vocal line with hokey calisthenics in an airplane hanger. The long version of the song is available here but with a thinner sound.
Stevie's 1972 album, "Music of My Mind," entranced me with its fluid changes and restless stylistic synthesis. It was definitely the soundtrack for my first drama-filled year at Bennington (where I often say I grew up). Among other things, there was a "Death in Venice" type infatuation-at-a-distance with an androgynous Philadelphia socialite in the equestrian Tracy Lord genre, but we won't get into that. Here's the album's vivacious opening song, "Love Having You Around."
As long as we're dealing with lost personal classics, I'll serve up another: Donovan Leitch's "Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness"), which I'm amazed to find on trusty YouTube. This acoustic blues song (which turns psychedelic at the end) is as obscure as it gets: Recorded in 1965, it was released in the U.S. the following year only as a single. But it made a huge impression on me in college -- that cracking bullwhip prefigured the Velvet Underground's 1967 breakthrough album, with its sadomasochistic motifs. Who was "Gyp," I wondered? One had heard that the lavishly talented Donovan, who would later become overexposed as a hippie guru, bummed around on his travels with a young man named Gypsy (later identified as musician Gypsy Dave). It did pique one's curiosity, shall we say.
Another obscure Donovan song, from his major 1967 album, "Mellow Yellow": "Young Girl Blues," unfortunately yoked here to a video of lugubrious orphan photos. But there are enough moody nymphets to give the right idea about an innocent, vital, Edie Sedgwick-type girl worn out by the fast-track London scene. Wonderful atmospherics and projection of compassion. It contains a line that practically became my motto as a social analyst: "They can't see the patterns they're weaving."
Finally, we need a pick-me-up after that Donovan dirge. Check this out, one of the seminal influences of my early career: the live version of Cream's "Deserted Cities of the Heart," written by my ego ideal, feisty bassist Jack Bruce. Recorded in 1968, it was released in March 1972 as the opening track on "Live Cream Volume II." It was my final semester of grad school at Yale, and I was still unemployed. (Bennington wouldn't call until May.)
"Deserted Cities of the Heart" blew me away. It felt like anthem, hymn, and manifesto all in one. It was everything I wanted to embody in my writing, the nascent "Sexual Personae," which was in process as a doctoral dissertation: power, structure, vision, and yet mad improvisation. Even now, the competitive cacophony of the break in "Deserted Cities" leaves me breathless. What virtuoso musicians are at work here -- drummer Ginger Baker as well as legendary lead guitarist Eric Clapton and the pugnacious Bruce, whose noble, robust voice soars over it all. Of course they fought like cats, and the combo was short-lived. But 40 years later, Cream's bold artistry still inspires.
Camille Paglia's column appears on the second Wednesday of each month. Every third column is devoted to reader letters. Please send questions for her next letters column to this mailbox. Your name and town will be published unless you request anonymity.