Radio rage

The assassination jokes and "liberal" conspiracy theories on talk radio could be an ominous sign of things to come. Plus: Madonna vs. Daniela, gay men's favorite divas, a charming TV show for kids and more.

Published May 13, 2009 10:39AM (EDT)

In John Frankenheimer's taut 1964 film, "Seven Days in May," the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appalled at a disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union, plot a coup d'état to remove the president whom they regard as too soft and naive about the evil of America's enemies. The screenplay by Rod Serling (based on a 1962 novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II) is filled with passionate lines that seem right out of today's talk radio -- "intellectual dilettantes" versus patriotism; America's loss of "greatness"; the superiority of military experience to civilian judgment and governance.

Troubled by the increasing rancor of political debate in the U.S., I watched a rented copy of "Seven Days in May" last week. Its paranoid mood, partly created by Jerry Goldsmith's eerie, minimalist score, captured exactly what I have been sensing lately. There is something dangerous afoot -- an alienation that can easily morph into extremism. With the national Republican party in disarray, an argument is solidifying among grass-roots conservatives: Liberals, who are now in power in Washington, hate America and want to dismantle its foundational institutions and liberties, including capitalism and private property. Liberals are rootless internationalists who cravenly appease those who want to kill us. The primary principle of conservatives, on the other hand, is love of country, for which they are willing to sacrifice and die. America's identity was forged by Christian faith and our Founding Fathers, to whose prudent and unerring 18th-century worldview we must return.

In a harried, fragmented, media-addled time, there is an invigorating simplicity to this political fundamentalism. It is comforting to hold fast to hallowed values, to defend tradition against the slackness of relativism and hedonism. But when the tone darkens toward a rhetoric of purgation and annihilation, there is reason for alarm. Two days after watching "Seven Days in May," I was utterly horrified to hear Dallas-based talk show host Mark Davis, subbing for Rush Limbaugh, laughingly and approvingly read a passage from a Dallas magazine article by CBS sportscaster David Feherty claiming that "any U.S. soldier," given a gun with two bullets and stuck in an elevator with Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Osama bin Laden, would use both bullets on Pelosi and strangle the other two.

[Listen to Davis below]

How have we come to this pass in America where the assassination of top government officials is fodder for snide jokes on national radio? Davis (who is obviously a glib horse's ass) did this stunt very emphatically at a news break at the top of the first hour. It was from there that the Dallas magazine story was evidently picked up by liberal Web sites and disseminated, pressuring CBS to denounce Feherty, who made a public apology. The gravity of this case was unfortunately overshadowed by feisty comedian Wanda Sykes' clumsy jibes at Rush Limbaugh the next night at the Washington Correspondents Dinner. Sykes (who is usually hilarious) was rushed and inept, embarrassing herself and her hosts. But what Mark Davis did, in irresponsibly broadcasting Feherty's vile fantasy, was an inflammatory political act that could goad susceptible minds down the dark road toward "Seven Days in May."

Talk radio has been seething with such intensity since Barack Obama's first week in office that I am finding it very hard to listen to it. How many times do we have to be told the sky is falling? The major talk show hosts, in my opinion, made a strategic error in failing to reset at lower volume after Obama's election. When the default mode is feverish crisis pitch, there's nowhere to go, and monotony sets in. Lately, I've been doing a lot of tuning in and impatiently tuning out. As a longtime fan of talk radio, I don't think this bodes well for the long-term broad appeal of the medium. I want stimulation and expansion of my thinking -- not shrill, numbing hectoring and partisan undermining of the authority and dignity of the presidency. Rabidly Bush-bashing Democrats shouldn't have done it to the last president either, but that's no excuse for conservatives, who claim to revere our institutions, to play schoolyard tit for tat.

Not that Obama's policies and conduct shouldn't receive sharp scrutiny. Despite my disgust at the grotesquely bloated stimulus package which did severe early damage to this administration, I am generally happy with Obama's eagerness to tackle long-entrenched social problems, although there is sometimes a curious disconnect between what he says and what he does. The degree to which Obama is or is not a stealth socialist remains to be seen. But it's about time an ambitious young leader shook up the stale status quo. The sepulchral, doom-obsessed and megalomaniacal Dick Cheney's self-intrusion into the news last weekend was a nice demonstration of just what a fresh new breeze Obama represents in Washington.

I applauded the low profile taken by the Obamas on National Prayer Day, when they enjoyed family time in the White House instead of parading their piety around in front of TV cameras. This is a very positive first step toward detaching the American presidency from the heavy religious baggage that has complicated our politics for far too long. On the other side of the political spectrum, Obama's willingness to court controversy among his own core groups by supporting civil unions rather than gay marriage (a position I agree with) is a sign of his own independence and strength of character.

I am still steamed, however, by the blunders made by the administration in its first response to the colossally stupid buzzing of New York City two weeks ago by a presidential plane and military jet. Press secretary Robert Gibbs should have been fired for the simpering, shrugging way he dismissed queries about this outrageous and terrifying event, which had occurred many hours earlier. Acting as if the issue was as insignificant as Lindsay Lohan's latest dating flap, Gibbs claimed to know nothing more than the few passing references he had seen to it on the Web. 

[Watch Gibbs' response below.]

Later on, the press was told that Obama was privately "infuriated," but no official statement from him was released, and Obama himself was never made even briefly available for comment in person -- which he could have easily done by a simple stroll in a hallway.

The Obama administration was caught with its pants down on this one. It seemed likely even then that Obama knew nothing about that obscenely wasteful photo op, and indeed a subsequent investigation led to the termination of the incompetent White House official who was responsible. However, Obama made a serious error in failing to speak to the public directly and promptly to allay anxieties and express his own displeasure. Forget 3 a.m. phone calls: This was a high noon, tough-it-out commander-in-chief moment! The erratic deployment of a military jet over a major U.S. city was ultimately Obama's responsibility, and it was up to him to show that he knew it. Using layers of spokesmen to distance this issue made the president seem passive and uncertain about his own constitutional duties and powers.

On to cultural issues. I laughed out loud at my campus mailbox as I flipped through a new book edited by Michael Montlack, "My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them." Boy, do I understand diva worship! It's definitely one of the weird, possibly DNA-linked traits that I have always shared with many gay men and very few lesbians. There are so many wonderful things in this book. Joseph Campana, for example, says about his passion for Audrey Hepburn: "Who hasn't had real relationships with imaginary people or imaginary relationships with real people? What else were the arts invented for if not for consummating the deep and necessary loves that can only be lived in the imagination?" Hear, hear! That's practically my militant manifesto.

Collin Kelley remarks about the aging but still ultra-sophisticated Jeanne Moreau, "A lifelong cigarette habit seems to have worked in her favor rather than against." Reginald Shepherd observes about Kate Bush, "No real diva is loved by all. Without detractors, one can't be a diva." David Bergman writes about the attraction of young gay Jews to Lotte Lenya, who sang in German, "the forbidden language": "Lenya had the world-weariness we aspired to, and the innocence we were stuck with ... Yes, the sea is blue, so blue, she sang as if she had never noticed it before and it might suddenly be taken from her ... She had the exile's iciness, the survivor's ruthlessness."

My favorite chapter, predictably, is Lewis DeSimone's ode to Auntie Mame, a principal icon of mine since childhood, when I saw Rosalind Russell's bravura performance in the 1958 film. DeSimone's subtitle is a line that still thrills me (with its application to both art and life): "I'm going to open doors for you, doors you never even dreamed existed." I know that masterful film and Patrick Dennis' witty original book so well that it amazed me to learn something new: DeSimone notes that the climax of the airheaded prepette Gloria's notorious ping-pong speech is "a confrontation with a locked closet door" -- a surfacing of the gay subtext. And he hits the nail on the head with this: "Mame is the perfect parent in large part because she is so woefully unprepared. She has no training in the traditional methods of relating to children -- either ignore or infantilize them -- so she treats Patrick like a small adult instead." Which is, of course, how we got little Patrick's immortal line about martinis: "Stir, never shake. It bruises the gin."

Well, the one-year anniversary is approaching in late May of my slide lecture ("Varieties of the Erotic in 20th Century Art") at the Teatro Castro Alves in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil -- after which I was hit by the lightning bolt of a parcel of Daniela Mercury DVDs. Yes, Agnes Gooch (my clerical alter ego in "Auntie Mame") sure got her limbic system rewired! Here's the article I wrote for the April issue of the Brazilian magazine Bravo about my staggering experiences at the Salvador carnival in February. Bravo's photo of Daniela and me (with her handsome bearded Italian boyfriend, Marco Scabia, and my Brazilian Vergil, Gunter Axt) at the top of her trio elétrico is pure Mame: The Gooch is clearly in a Dionysian zone following Mame's fabled maxim, "Live, live, live!"

For this month's installment of my Daniela Mercury department (or, more exactly, mega-church and theme park), I have flagged two fascinating low-key videos that show Daniela's casual mastery as a live performer. My column of last August assembled far more elaborate and flamboyant videos that demonstrate her high-glam, super-sexy, ball-of-fire, magister ludi side -- the tireless, work-it-to-the-max persona whom audiences see in concert on her world tours. These, however, from the 2007 Porto do Sol festival in Salvador, show Daniela completely relaxed in blue jeans and a flowing white blouse. Because she isn't dancing, she is brimming with emotion, elicited by the music as well as her intimacy with the home crowd. The first, "Essa Ternura," is a contemplative Latin love song co-written by Paul McCartney. The second song, "Tempo Perdido," clearly has a political edge; the acoustic guitars and passionate tone feel, in American terms, very 1960s. Whenever I play it, I can't get it out of my head.

Having followed Madonna's career with enthusiasm and then disappointment for the past 25 years, it's difficult for me to avoid making comparisons. Madonna and Daniela (seven years younger) are both theatrical Leos who were born in provincial obscurity, began their careers as dancers and became singers and major impresarios of their own troupes. Madonna remains the most visible performer on the planet, as well as one of the wealthiest, but would anyone seriously say that artistic self-development is her primary motivating principle? She is too busy with Kabbalah, fashion merchandising, adoption melodramas, the gym, and ill-starred horseback riding to study art. Madonna can still produce a catchy pop song, but she hasn't expanded her artistic vocabulary since the 1990s. Her concerts are glitzy extravaganzas of special effects overkill. She leaves little space in them for emotional depth or unscripted rapport with the audience.

Compare the two photos, above. Daniela, holding her 2007 Latin Grammy award, is, despite her excitement, warm, open and observant. Guess what: Daniela, unlike Madonna, actually recognizes the existence of human beings in the real world outside her ego. She has a graceful, natural, ripe womanliness (she has two grown children and recently became a grandmother), but there is often an undercurrent of something boyish, mischievous and subversive. Energy, spontaneity, humor, candor and hospitality are leading values for Daniela onstage and off. Check out this nifty photo of her (in a plunging top and black cargo pants) on a Spanish language TV show, where she is typically relaxed and unpretentious.

Now behold Madonna, arriving muscular and veiny-armed at the Vanity Fair party after this year's Oscars in Los Angeles. Trying to be fair, I am not posting the horror candids of a skeletal Madonna in gym rags, nor am I showing her glassy-eyed at the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame Awards last year, when she was reeling through a bad pre-divorce patch. But Madonna, like Joan Crawford or the late Marlene Dietrich, has become a mask whose eyes see nothing but itself. Her life, for all her globe-hopping, has become rigid, predetermined, suspicious and claustrophobic. Despite her spiritual talk, Madonna is a voracious materialist and status-monger who is as addicted as Leni Riefenstahl to her triumph of the will. Persons have become mere instruments to her -- which is why she cannot communicate with them heart-to-heart. And it is why Madonna's creativity has tragically withered.

As a denizen of the Web, I watch very little TV anymore, aside from the eternal glories of Turner Classic Movies. So I have been surprised at how much I've been enjoying Nickelodeon's teen show, "iCarly," to which my 6-year-old son has graduated after many entertaining years of nonstop "SpongeBob SquarePants." Series creator Dan Schneider (who also did "Drake & Josh") has a fabulous sense of comedy, both verbal and physical. A reliable rule in the popular performing arts is that quality is proved the second or third time around: I can testify that "iCarly" episodes retain their humor and freshness on repeated re-viewings. Miranda Cosgrove's smart and spirited Carly is terrific, but so is Jennette McCurdy as her feckless pal Sam. The two have a hectic, daffy Lucy and Ethel chemistry. The tart-tongued McCurdy, at 16, has amazing timing -- and a long and successful career ahead of her as a go-for-broke comedian and mime in the all-American Carol Burnett style.

Question for Salon readers: Does anyone recognize the following scenario from an early 1950s TV program? "Meet me at the Argentine" was the sinister repeated theme line. The climactic encounter occurred at a stone pool with seals -- a setting that, after many decades of puzzling, I have finally tentatively identified as Astor Court at the Bronx Zoo. Please help!

Finally, in response to further reader queries, I must repeat that no, I do not have a Facebook page. Nor am I a "friend" on anyone else's Facebook page or any other site. As a matter of long-standing policy, I have no active Web presence of any kind except on Salon, to which I have been contributing since its debut issue in 1995. While there may be Web pranksters masquerading as me, please be advised that yes, there really are other genuine Camille Paglias, who must wander the world burdened or cursed with my name.

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

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