Bow-ow-ow: Obama's painful missteps

Let the new president grow into the job -- but he'd better do it fast! Plus: Readers ask about everything from talk radio, morality and Mary McCarthy, to that big movie about a sinking ship.

Published April 8, 2009 10:38AM (EDT)

Dear Camille,

In your column, you say, "President Obama has been ill-served by his advisors and staff."

The primary job requirement of a good senior executive is the ability to judge character and ability, in order to be able to select people to whom responsibilities may be safely delegated. If these advisors and staff are inadequate, the responsibility for their failures should be laid at the feet of the person who was ultimately responsible for their selection and placement.


You are absolutely correct! The buck stops with the top executive. But we all know how little executive experience Barack Obama has had. He was elected for his vision and his steady, deliberative character, not his résumé. For better or worse, Obama is learning as he goes -- and surely most fair-minded people would grant him reasonable leeway as he grows into the presidency, one of the hardest jobs in the world.

At a certain point, however, Obama will face an inescapable administrative crux. Arriving at the White House, he understandably stayed in his comfort zone by bringing old friends and allies with him -- a team that had had a fabulous success in devising the hard-as-nails strategy that toppled the Clintons, like crumbling colossi, into yesterday's news. But these comrades may not have the practical skills or broad perspective to help Obama govern. Like Shakespeare's Prince Hal ascending the throne, Obama may have to steel his heart and banish Falstaff and the whole frat-house crew.

Obama's staffing problems are blatant -- from that bleating boy of a treasury secretary to what appears to be a total vacuum where a chief of protocol should be. There has been one needless gaffe after another -- from the president's tacky appearance on a late-night comedy show to the kitsch gifts given to the British prime minister, followed by the sweater-clad first lady's over-familiarity with the queen and culminating in the jaw-dropping spectacle of a president of the United States bowing to the king of Saudi Arabia. Why was protest about the latter indignity confined to conservatives? The silence of the major media was a disgrace. But I attribute that embarrassing incident not to Obama's sinister or naive appeasement of the Muslim world but to a simple if costly breakdown in basic command of protocol.

Video: President Obama bowing to Saudi King Abdullah during the G-20 summit

Enough already! These slips are worsening the anti-Obama backlash, which began with the administration's bungled handling of the grotesquely swollen stimulus package. Conservatives seem deliriously drunk with their cartoon picture of Obama, to whom is glibly attributed every pathology in the book. Yes, there were ambiguities about Obama's birth certificate that have never been satisfactorily resolved. And the embargo on Obama's educational records remains troubling. But I am still waiting for hard evidence about the host of other charges that are continually being hammered against him -- from his alleged fidelity to the crypto-tactics of Chicago leftist Saul Alinsky to the questions raised by right-wingers about the production of Obama's two memoirs. Out of respect for the presidency, conservatives need to put up or shut up about these issues.

I still strongly believe in Obama's promise as a world leader. I was thrilled, for example, by his call this week for an end to nuclear weapons -- a goal that he frankly admitted would not be attained in his lifetime. We have waited a long time for an American president who dreams big. Yes, there are bitter cells of fanatics everywhere who hate America and want a repeat of 9/11. And yes, there will always be petty dictators who covet the bomb and conspire to get it. But the mass of people around the world want to be inspired to a higher good. Whether the Obama presidency succeeds or fails will depend on his ability to sustain his ideals in the face of the testing crises that will inevitably erupt in far-flung regions where ethnic or religious strife has been a way of life for thousands of years. And closer to home, Obama will need to cut the umbilical to his hometown posse, whose inefficiency and poor decision-making took the shine off his honeymoon and brought the dispirited Republicans back from the dead.

As a former lover of talk radio, I too have wondered why programs with a liberal bent have fared so poorly in the free market. There are two specific factors that may be responsible for the disparity.

1) The vast majority of the talk radio audience listens in their car or from home. People driving around during the day and listening to the radio are probably demographically skewed toward the self-employed or people in some sort of sales. Admittedly, there are a large number of service jobs that require drive time, but I would bet those people are not interested in politics. The entrepreneur or six-figure sales professional is far more likely to be a conservative. People listening from home would either be stay-at-home parents or people working from home. These groups would also tend to be much more likely to listen to Laura Schlessinger than Al Franken.

2) The liberal talk shows I've listened to are not really all that entertaining. The jokes tend to be mean-spirited personal attacks and are rarely as clever as what I have heard on Rush Limbaugh's program. I think if the left wants to have a successful talk radio platform, they should be asking people like Jon Stewart for ideas and quit trying to silence the opposition.

Marty Grant
New York City

Your theories about the talk radio audience are intriguing. The most rewarding aspect of talk radio for me is the callers, whose voices are heard nowhere else in the culture -- the feisty, super-organized home-schooling moms, the gruffly stoical transcontinental truckers, and the fiercely independent and self-reliant small-business owners, outraged by Washington's tilt toward bailing out corrupt, top-heavy corporations.

However, the popularity of conservative radio shows is a round-the-clock phenomenon. There are flamboyant evening hosts as well as night replays of the major daytime shows, extending well past midnight to dawn. Clearly, conservative hosts have an instinctive rapport with AM radio, which I have been arguing for years is a populist medium (an idea that finally seems to have taken wing in its invocation by other commentators).

Salon reader Cecil W. Powell writes: "The failure of talkers on liberal radio is in large part due to an absolute inability to poke fun at themselves." How true! Liberal hosts like to snap and snip and chortle snidely, but they are weighed down by a complacent superiority complex, a paralyzing sanctimony. They mistake irony for wit. The conservative hosts love to rant and stomp and bring down the house. They're doing breakneck vaudeville while liberal hosts are primly stirring their non-caffeine green tea.

Why do you and others in the press keep misattributing this "magic Negro" comment to Rush Limbaugh? My understanding from listening to his radio program is that the phrase you are referring to from Rush's parody song was first brought to light in an article by David Ehrenstein in the Los Angeles Times. Why didn't you mention this in your column? Rush merely ran with it in one of his many parodies, which he is notably famous for. Often he takes comments made in the press or by politicians and parodies them -- most often to expose their hypocrisy.

The press has tied Rush to "magic Negro" as if he were the originator or instigator. Thus Rush is unfairly and routinely condemned for it.

L. Bryan
Columbus, Ga.

"Barack the Magic Negro" was a song parody by a longtime contributor to the Rush Limbaugh Show, Paul Shanklin, whom I consider to be one of the most brilliant satirists of our time. Shanklin has an analytic erudition about popular music, a genius for mimicry, and an astounding gift for creative rapid-response to hard news. The widespread and vitriolic misjudgments about what goes on during Rush's show could and should have been dispelled a decade ago had Shanklin's fiendishly clever parodies been released into general circulation. Yes, they can be purchased in CD collections, and they are also available online to subscribers to the Limbaugh Web site, but that draconian limitation has unfairly confined Shanklin's work to conservative partisans. My all-time favorite in the Shanklin oeuvre is "I Can't Recall," a parody of "Try to Remember" (from "The Fantasticks") with an air-headed Hillary on the witness stand claiming that she just can't remember a single darn thing about that silly old Whitewater deal because her mind has turned to Jell-O ... Jello-O ... Jello-O (fading off in echoes).

When I first heard "Barack the Magic Negro" shortly after the March 2007 publication of the Ehrenstein article (which was partly inspired by a term used by director Spike Lee), I found it very daring and funny. It was timely and had the shock of the new -- exactly like Lenny Bruce's violation of conventional proprieties. But Rush kept playing it and playing it well beyond its shelf date, and after a while it felt gratuitous and dismayingly oblivious to racial realities and sensitivities in the U.S. Although I'm a longtime fan of Rush's show, I started turning the radio off when this skit came on.

Here's the main point: The vocal in "Barack the Magic Negro" mimics grandstanding black activist Al Sharpton, while the namby-pamby melody is borrowed from "Puff the Magic Dragon," a children's song that when originally performed by folkies Peter, Paul and Mary was widely assumed to be an allegory for marijuana smoking. So the Shanklin parody went well beyond the Ehrenstein article in what was being implied about Obama as well as the turf wars of African-American politics. There are so many other wonderful parodies in the Shanklin collection that more richly deserve repeated airplay. And for heaven's sake, they all belong on YouTube. Unlock the vaults!

Regarding your observations about the rehabilitation of Sarah Palin and the insufferable snottiness of Dick Cavett and other good liberals: Is it possible that there might be something really ugly at the core of contemporary liberalism? You call yourself a liberal, and you vote liberal, yet you are under constant attack by your liberal compatriots. Why? Because of your open-mindedness and your "real feminism" (as opposed to faux leftist feminism).

In the meantime, the torching of Sarah Palin's church in Alaska (children were inside when the fire with accelerant was set) evokes a collective shrug in the mainstream media and other liberal precincts (if you can find any reference to the event at all). Why the all-too-frequent and downright nasty face of contemporary liberalism?

Timothy Condon
Tampa, Fla.

Yes, something very ugly has surfaced in contemporary American liberalism, as evidenced by the irrational and sometimes infantile abuse directed toward anyone who strays from a strict party line. Liberalism, like second-wave feminism, seems to have become a new religion for those who profess contempt for religion. It has been reduced to an elitist set of rhetorical formulas, which posit the working class as passive, mindless victims in desperate need of salvation by the state. Individual rights and free expression, which used to be liberal values, are being gradually subsumed to worship of government power.

The problems on the American left were already manifest by the late 1960s, as college-educated liberals began to lose contact with the working class for whom they claimed to speak. (A superb 1990 documentary, "Berkeley in the Sixties," chronicles the arguments and misjudgments about tactics that alienated the national electorate and led to the election of Richard Nixon.) For the past 25 years, liberalism has gradually sunk into a soft, soggy, white upper-middle-class style that I often find preposterous and repellent. The nut cases on the right are on the uneducated fringe, but on the left they sport Ivy League degrees. I'm not kidding -- there are some real fruitcakes out there, and some of them are writing for major magazines. It's a comfortable, urban, messianic liberalism befogged by psychiatric pharmaceuticals. Conservatives these days are more geared to facts than emotions, and as individuals they seem to have a more ethical, perhaps sports-based sense of fair play.

Probably the main reason for my unorthodox view of politics (as in my instant approval of Sarah Palin) is that I had much more childhood contact with working-class life than appears to be the norm among current American columnists. One of my grandfathers was a barber, and the other was a leather worker at the Endicott-Johnson shoe factory in upstate New York. Thanks to the G.I. Bill, my father was able to attend college, the only one in his large family to do so. I was born while he was still in college and mopping floors in the cafeteria. Years later, he became a high-school teacher and then a professor at a Jesuit college, but we never left our immigrant family roots in industrial Endicott. To this day, I have more rapport with campus infrastructure staffers (maintenance, security) than I do with other professors or, for that matter, writers. Don't get me started on the hermetic bourgeois arrogance of American literati!

Friends of mine and I have found ourselves at the crossroads of the Washington, D.C., media, gay press and the murder of a straight man at the home of a noted gay rights and marriage attorney. Print may be morbid, but maybe citizen journalism/investigation may fill the void. There is a three-year-old unsolved murder of a straight man who was drugged, incapacitated, sexually assaulted, suffocated, then stabbed in the home of three gay men, one of them being an old college friend. One of the defendants -- not charged with murder, however -- is noted K Street attorney Joe Price, who is active in Lambda legal circles.

The crime scene in Dupont Circle is just a few blocks from where I, my partner and two close friends live. The murder of Robert Wone had all the ingredients of a D.C. scandal: sex, drugs and murder. Yet there is almost zero buzz on the streets about this. The D.C. mainstream print media gave minimal coverage, and you can guess how few column inches or how little airtime the TV guys gave it. The four of us launched a blog, and we've broken news.

Why does the death of a straight man in the home of three gay guys not become "news" à la Chandra Levy? The four of us gay Washingtonians are all plugged into the media in some capacity, yet we can't figure this out. Another question is why the gay media avoids this crime and issue. Some coverage, yet only a little.

The Web site dc.bilerico gave us space for a guest post. A recent Fox 5 / WTTG piece. And finally our site.

Craig Brownstein
Washington, D.C.

From your description of the appalling news blackout on this crime, it appears to be a blatant case of politically correct censorship. The 11th commandment of the liberal mainstream media is that no evil shalt be spoken of any gay persons, who have been sanctified by their precious victim status, without which liberalism would implode. You and your gay friends are to be congratulated for your passionate truth-seeking. I am very glad for the opportunity to publicize the facts in Salon. Please keep me informed of future developments.

I'm confused. You say you are an atheist. It seems to me that if there is no God, then we are all simply pieces of animated dirt. To pieces of animated dirt, on what basis can something be considered right or wrong, ethical or unethical? Of what value is life except that which animated pieces of dirt place on it? What would it matter if some place absolutely no value on life?

Abortion is "murder"? That has moral connotations. What is wrong with the "murder of a child"? All pieces of animated dirt eventually become lifeless. What does it matter when or how? Morality is just an invention of animated dirt. What if humans managed to destroy all life on earth? What would it matter? Surely, some other form of animated dirt would evolve to replace us. I certainly don't know there is a God, but I choose to believe there is, because, for one, I don't want to believe that I am just animated dirt.

Bob Ryden

The ancient Greeks, whose art and thought deeply influenced me in my youth, created ethics as a branch of secular philosophy, detached from religion and its moral imperatives. Like artworks, codes of law and ethics are uniquely human constructs -- conceptual environments that separate us from animals, who are governed by biological instinct. It is rational to debate and define the rules by which any society exists. As a cultural relativist and atheist, I believe that values change over time and that there is no transcendent God who generates and enforces them. But societies have a right to require reasonable compliance from those who enjoy their material benefits.

Your vast panorama of "animated dirt" rising and sinking is actually closer to the Buddhist view of the cosmos -- which I also find inspiring for its contemplative acceptance of things as they are. The operations of the life force have inherent majesty. Human consciousness, when fully expanded, is for me the ultimate value. As Heracleitus said, "All things flow." To demand permanence or personal survival beyond death seems to me a tragically doomed quest. But by power of imagination, we each have the right to live in our own universe. All gods exist -- because thinking makes it so.

In "Vamps & Tramps" you said that sex "reawakens and heals the 'family romance' of our personal biography." I was wondering if you could elaborate a little on what you meant by "heals." Do you mean that people who had a bad family life can, through their sex life, overcome the negative consequences this had for their psyche? I thought that because sexuality springs from the subconscious one couldn't change anything about it and therefore that no amount of awareness and observation and analysis of one's sexuality could change it. Is sexuality the only language the subconscious understands, a sexual act the only way to "talk" to one's subconscious and, possibly, change it?

Mariana Pinheiro

When human beings were scrabbling for survival in the nomadic and agrarian eras, sex was a reproductive necessity, a drive as basic and primal as hunger and thirst. However, as civilization developed, personality became more complex, and along with it the pageantry of courtship and romance. Freud's analyses of "family romance" were keyed to the hothouse environment of the bourgeois home. With the new intimacy of parents and children as well as the protraction of adolescent dependence (Shakespeare's Juliet got married at 14), sex became freighted with symbolism that it may never have had in the pre-industrial and pre-Romantic period.

The issue is not an atypical "bad family life" but a universal bourgeois problem of ambivalent over-involvement. Modern identity has gotten far too intertwined with unrealistic ideals of love as well as the embattled theatrics of sexual orientation. However, we're stuck with it, and it's given us a hundred years of fabulous Hollywood movies! My point is simply that the love life of everyone I've known from my baby-boom generation and afterward is a chess board ruled by shadowy forces that long predate puberty. Erotic choices yearningly follow or rebelliously diverge from a cast list imprinted on us in childhood. Changing the template may be virtually impossible. Self-knowledge is the most that we can hope for. But for that we need poetry and art -- not the rigid, sterile political ideology that still paralyzes gender studies.

Around the time I was 13 or 14 (I'm 28), I read [Mary] McCarthy's story "The Company She Keeps" in a short story anthology. Well, needless to say, I loved the story so much that I went on to read just about everything McCarthy wrote. At first I was swept by her satirical prose; then, later, I was amazed to discover that she was extremely erudite, too. I do not remember the particulars, but McCarthy herself mentions her sexual escapades in her collection of stories of the same name, as well as her autobiography "How I Grew."

In any case, I do not think McCarthy would have characterized herself as a feminist. Indeed, the "isms" she was concerned about were those of the day: communism, socialism, Trotskyism, etc. Nor do I think feminists would have been the only ones to admire her. As I write this, I recall a letter I discovered in a book of Philip Roth correspondence, in which Roth neurotically gushes over McCarthy's realistic criticism of something he wrote. That is the type of reach and sway she had.

No matter what, it is nice to see someone evoking Mary McCarthy's name. Next time, perhaps you could do it without mentioning Justin Timberlake.

Alexandre Bejerman
Montreal, Quebec

How delightful to hear from another McCarthy fan! Typical of the systemic philistinism of women's studies programs from the 1970s on, strong voices like those of McCarthy, Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer were excluded from the maudlin, victim-centric curriculum. Things began to change in scattered quarters in the 1990s, thanks to a new generation of more open-minded feminists, but it is certainly the case that the overwhelming majority of women literature majors in this country are graduating without ever having heard Mary McCarthy's name. More TV broadcasts of Sidney Lumet's wonderfully acted ensemble film of "The Group" (1966) would help. (It's an amusing bitch fest like "The Women.") The political aspirations and disillusionments of McCarthy's left-leaning Vassar College class of 1933 speak directly to our own time.

You wrote: "Two weeks after my return, I am still trying to process the enormity of my experience in Salvador, which was staggering on every level."

I understand that usage is subject to change, but I feel a duty to my old English teacher, Fr. McFadden, SJ, to use "enormity" with the traditional sense of "great wickedness or evil." I hope that you will agree that the standard definition of "enormity" is worth preserving. The president has been misusing that word for a while, and I fear that without the help of respected writers, it may soon be lost.

Steve Miner

Well, I certainly got an earful from Salon readers about this one! I appreciate the grammar protests from everyone who wrote in. But I honestly have never accepted that sharp distinction in English. In French, one can use enormité in either sense, and it seems to me a very useful duality. I was certainly signaling that the carnival in Salvador had both a physical and a spiritual dimension; neither "immensity" nor "enormousness" (which other readers suggested) would have been quite right.

From the swaying top of Daniela Mercury's cruising trio elétrico, I was reminded of many things -- Wordsworth's sonnet about sleeping London at dawn as a "mighty heart" and Baudelaire's spooky poem about beauty as a goddess-like stone sphinx with bruising breasts. With apologies to irate English teachers everywhere, "enormity" with a French twist really nails it!

I am a second year master's student at York University. Two of the themes you constantly return to are your admiration for the creative instinct in gay male artists, and the profound influence European art cinema has had upon you throughout your life. I wonder, then, if you've ever seen any films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder -- one of the most fascinating confluences of the two I've seen yet. The best of them bristle with a renegade vision of egomania, promiscuity, kleptomania and suicide that has virtually no equivalent in living memory for my generation.

Fassbinder was generally acknowledged to be the foremost figure of the New German Cinema of the 1970s, to the point that his premature death in 1982 is commonly used as a convenient point to mark the end of the movement. At various points, he managed to contain within his own work the combined styles and thematics of almost all of his New German Cinema peers -- Wenders, Herzog, Schlondorff, von Trotte, Reitz, etc. -- as well as reviving the style of Douglas Sirk to deliver a series of blistering body blows to the Adenauer era, Germany's 1950s equivalent of America's Eisenhower era.

Fassbinder's work, however, is something current undergraduates have the deck stacked against them if they want to appreciate properly. Film studies courses nowadays invariably only show either one of two films --"Ali: Fear Eats the Soul" or "The Marriage of Maria Braun" -- the only two of his films that, taken in isolation, can be used to inculcate misinterpretations of what he was really about. The former is often distorted into a parable of sentimental liberal humanism, and the latter seems simply to conform to the conventions of the well-made historical re-creation. This is exactly the sort of travesty you've railed about in connection to Emily Dickinson, Oscar Wilde, Robert Mapplethorpe and numerous others. I don't know if you'd appreciate being reminded of one more, but this is one that has piqued me recently.

Malcolm Morton

Thank you so much for sending up this alarm about Fassbinder. I am very distressed to hear that his films are being in effect censored to fit into the bromide-filled film studies curriculum. Fassbinder was a cardinal figure in my thinking throughout the 1970s, when I was teaching at my first job at Bennington College. My philosopher friend James Fessenden and I were avid Fassbinder fans. It would be difficult to reconstruct just how daring "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant" was at its release in 1972 -- from the claustrophobic yet baroque set to the bizarre costumes and seething lesbian S/M drama. (In retrospect, it must partly have been Fassbinder's homage to Wilde's "Salome.") I was also very grateful to Fassbinder for recovering Douglas Sirk, whose sensationalistically supercharged Hollywood films I had always loved. But curious gay film fans should probably start with "Fox and His Friends" (1975), where Fassbinder himself plays a gritty piece of working-class rough trade.

I agree with you about "The Egyptian" -- it's a very underrated epic. You may already know this, but the casting of Bella Darvi, and her effect on the doctor, mirrored her effect on the movie itself. When she was cast, the movie had been intended as a vehicle for Marlon Brando who had committed to the picture. That's why there were many other name stars like Victor Mature (why haven't you discussed him? He's a unique image in films also) and big-budget production values. Brando withdrew after hearing of Darvi's casting, and that crippled the film.

The film seems just fine with Purdom, and I've seen it several times since first seeing it as a kid. It's an epic that seems to stay fresh, and stands up to repeated viewings every couple or few years. Easily better than "Spartacus" (although it was hard to beat the cynical Crassus) or "The Robe" (although Caligula was done as well as well as Robert Graves could have ever visualized).

Al Handa

No, I had not realized until I wrote about "The Egyptian" in Salon that the casting of Darryl Zanuck's mistress, Bella Darvi, had caused Brando's flight from the film. And yes, the disorder that Darvi spread in production amazingly replicates the destructiveness of the Babylonian femme fatale whom she plays. There was also a lot of griping at the time about Darvi's heavy Eastern European accent and how hard she had to work for her lines to be even minimally comprehensible. Darvi's gotten a bad rap: I think she does a terrific job, and so does Edmund Purdom as her smitten victim.

You confirmed our vision alignment with your wonderful tribute to Daniela Mercury. I have been listening to her for 15 years, since I married my Brazilian wife, Valeria. On our frequent trips to Brazil,Daniela is often the soundtrack (or Ivete Sangalo, who is whipping a quarter-million people into a frenzy at Maracana here or gracefully sharing a stage with Daniela Mercury). My wife, and so many women in Brazil, can bring so much warmth, sex appeal and character to a room that, well, they stand out. My own special carioca has an MS in computer science, a black belt, and has danced in the carnival parades several times. When I go dancing with her, I am like the kid with a fresh driver's license trying to drive a Ferrari, although I have learned a bit over the years.

I am amazed at the culture in Brazil in many ways beyond the wonderful women. Brazilian teenagers are happy! The angst, rebellion and binging behavior that is (and was for me and my generation) the norm here is mostly nonexistent. A 23-year-old can live at home with his parents and have a warm and respectful relationship going both ways. A 13-year-old girl can wear a tiny bikini and look like a blossoming young woman without being hooted at by drunken guys or sneered at by disapproving women.

John Moore
Boulder, Colo.

I was fascinated by your remarks about the close yet nonjudgmental relationship of parents and children in Brazil as well as the freedom that young women enjoy to show off their bodies without harassment from hooligans. I observed both of these things during my stay at the Salvador carnival in February. What are the cultural reasons for this? I am eager to hear from Salon readers about the Brazil/U.S. dichotomy. I adore Brazilians, male and female, and felt especially at home in Salvador da Bahia, where my Italian energy level seemed perfectly normal and was in fact overshadowed by many vivacious personalities bursting like fireworks.

Meanwhile, my study of Daniela Mercury's astonishing corpus of work continues. Of the CDs she gave me three weeks ago in Miami (where she tirelessly sang and danced in a huge three-hour concert on Hollywood Beach), I have been stuck on "Musica de Rua," which is an absolute knockout, and am now heavily into "Elétrica," a live album executed at an intoxicating pace. At her invitation two weeks ago, I had the great pleasure and privilege of watching Daniela mix her new song with Wyclef Jean in the production booth of a recording studio near Times Square in New York City. Of course I will be returning to the subject of Daniela in future columns. I remain completely overwhelmed by the exuberant intensity and rhythmic intricacy of her music, and I deeply admire her professionalism as an artist as well as her generosity and unpretentious warmth as a person.

Subject: These weren't a few birds; they were Barbie birds. Knowing you're a fan of the seminal Hitchcock classic, "The Birds," I couldn't help passing this along.

Amanda Myers

This is a hoot! A $40 Barbie Doll sporting Tippi Hedren's classic spring-green suit, with pecking blackbirds attached as accessories wonderfully paralleling Tippi's ever-present purse! (I make much of that purse in my British Film Institute book on "The Birds.") To add to the sadistic play in twitting girl Barbie collectors, this ad shows the haunting Victorian schoolhouse of Bodega Bay hovering on a hill in the background. That'll teach ya!

Camille, how can an educated, classy woman like you not see through that horrific film "Titanic"?

Kate Winslet's character, Rose, was one of the vilest and most disgusting characters ever to grace the silver screen. From beginning to end, she displayed nothing but character flaws and a lack of concern for everyone else around her. As the movie starts, she is a rich brat who is depressed that she has to marry an incredibly rich and handsome man because he treats her badly. Perhaps she should have taken into account his personality rather than his bank account when she accepted his proposal.

Rather than take responsibility for her own actions, stand up to her mother, and tell him to his face that she is not in love with him, she instead decides to take the easy way out and kill herself. Now, the whole world would be better had she just jumped off the back of that damn boat. Instead, our boy Leonardo DiCaprio talks her down from the ledge, and she sees him and thinks, "Ooh, cute poor boy." So then she decides to slum it for the weekend and hook up with the cute poor kid. Then, to prove her total lack of morals, she decides that she will ask Jack to "draw her" -- naked, of course.

So, while engaged to someone else (because she never had the decency to call it off), she decides to get naked for a guy she has known for all of about 24 hours. Immediately afterward it's time to consummate the hours-old relationship in the back of a car that is not theirs. Wow, that's a real "moral" Victorian woman for you! Of course, that is not enough. The ship hits the iceberg (we didn't see that one coming). By the way, she was on deck when that happened. I wonder if our lookout was too busy snooping on her and Jack to notice the iceberg. Maybe it's actually her fault the ship sinks in the first place.

Anyway, our hero Jack puts Rose on a lifeboat. Of course, being safe is not enough, so she jumps back onto the sinking ship -- a prime example of great decision-making. After it goes down, Jack is safe on a door of some sort, but he has to give up his spot to save Rose. Now Rose is on the door, and Jack is stuck in the freezing waters. So in a sense she kills Jack in a slow, frigid, painful way -- sort of like the experience I felt while watching this movie. She holds on to Jack's shivering hand, telling him, "I'll never let go, Jack, I'll never let go." Of course, after a few minutes in Arctic waters, Jack's hand is no longer shivering. Winslet, in tears, continues, "I'll never let go, Jack, I'll never let go." Around then, the lifeboat arrives, and Winslet immediately lets go, "Hey, I'm over here!" Jack sinks to the bottom of the ocean, and Ms. Winslet grabs a spot on the lifeboat. Real nice, Kate, real nice: Whatever happened to never letting go?

We then hear the rest of Winslet's life. Her fiancé loses his mind and ends up killing himself (you're two for two, Kate). However, she finds a nice man, marries him, and lives a great life. Eventually, he dies (I wonder what she did to make that happen), and we see Winslet's Rose again at age -- I don't know, let's say 126 -- with her granddaughter or whoever is on the ship trying to find the Titanic's wreckage. At the end of the film, Rose walks to the back of the ship and takes the priceless diamond necklace that she could give to her grandchildren, which would set her family up for generations, but instead she throws the freaking necklace into the ocean! Queue overplayed, overhyped and over-sung Celine Dion song (I mean, seriously, by the end she is practically screaming the lyrics -- like Celine, we get it, you have a great voice, stop assaulting us with it already).

Back to throwing the fancy necklace: She might as well have thrown three generations of her family over the side of the ship. Could she possibly be more selfish? Well, yes, she could, because then, apparently Rose dies, and we see her in heaven. For some reason, heaven is the Titanic (not exactly what I picture paradise to be). She opens up a stateroom door, and there is Leonardo's Jack waiting for her in bed. Not her actual husband, mind you, but Jack. So she is even cheating on her husband in heaven.

I rest my case. The vilest, most horrifying character in cinematic history. An Academy Award for playing the she-devil would be one of the greatest travesties in mankind's history since ... the actual Titanic.

Signed, Every Rose has its Horns
Steve Derion
Manahawkin, N.J.

What joy! I had thought that the "Titanic" department of this column was closed for good. My 11-year crusade about Kate Winslet's lost "Titanic" Oscar seemed over this year when she won a Golden Globe and had unstoppable momentum for the Oscar, which she finally did get. But no --  "Titanic," like lint, is forever!

Many, many thanks for your letter -- one of the funniest I have ever received at Salon. I was practically on the floor in convulsions of laughter when I got it. The genre of your letter is burlesque -- a parodic sendup or travesty of a well-known and revered original. In the 19th century, burlesque was a popular form in both England and the U.S., including on the stage, which featured rude, rowdy lampoons of prestige plays. Burlesque acquired its tawdry strip-show associations long afterward.

On her hit TV variety show, Carol Burnett did brilliant burlesques: Her campy versions of "Rebecca" and "Mildred Pierce," for example, are phenomenal and full of surprising, sharply observed insights into those classic films. Burnett's shows should be in constant rotation in TV syndication. They are a working laboratory for aspiring young actors, who barely even know who Lucille Ball is these days. Comedy is an art form, but its past masters have receded in a callow entertainment industry addicted to sophomoric snark.

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.

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

MORE FROM Camille Paglia

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