Thursday, June 06, 2002

I haven't posted in a long time because I've been watching the world go by and doing a bit of reflecting as to where history is likely to take us from here. It seems clear, now, that the great legacy of the Clinton Years will prove to be the draining from American public life of what few vestiges of idealism and innocence still existed after the '80s. It's as if a giant damp gray muffling blanket of cynicism and indecision has been dropped over us. American idealism, after all, derives from our famous self-confidence, to which 9/11 put paid and which can only be rekindled, in this idealist's opinion, by exhortatory, perhaps even poetical powers utterly lacking in our public men. 9/11 is rather like the fire by which the occupants of Plato's cave descried the world outside: it throws everything into sharpest Manichean relief, it exaggerates and distorts, so stark is its glare that black seems white. It transforms a man who is basically a bum (Giuliani) into a hero and an event (Enron) which is basically a yawn - albeit, like everything else in the '90s, denominated with a couple more zeros than in earlier bubbles and scandals - into the financial equivalent of the sack of Troy.
Hamlet would recognize the world of 2002: "weary, stale, flat and unprofitable." And small. The penny-ante chiseling, from Kozlowski to the Farm Bill, is unbelievable. The developed world is lacking in will - as the Palestinians sense.
The trouble is, just as logs hide parasites, twigs can conceal dragons. Here's one to think about. The next five years could see the end of the "Dollar Hegemony" that gave us the '80s, the '90s, Alan Greenspan and what we thought was immunity from the fundamental laws of economics. Economically and fiscally, we have practiced the equivalent of unprotected sex in an Age of AIDS - and the money disease may prove as fatal as its sexual counterpart. Good help us.
What we need is LEADERSHIP. Someone who looks good on horseback, someone who speaks resonantly. This may not happen, because what is possible in a "meritocracy" may not be possible in the sort of resume-driven nomenklatural "connectocracy" we have become, and so I hold out scant hopes. I like W - but as Jock observes of the new officer in that great film "Tunes of Glory," he's a wee man, and this is no time for midgets!

Monday, May 20, 2002

Yesterday, May 19, I went to see "Long Island Sound," a previously unproduced play by Noel Coward being done by TACT - The Actors Company Theatre - at 214 W 54 St. I went mainly because a lead in the play - the lead in the play, I suppose you'd say - and a leader in TACT is a friend, Simon Jones. My expectations were moderate. The play had been given one of those odd Ben Brantley reviews that didn't sound right, that were faintly off-putting and somehow skewed, as if the critic's real beef wasn't what he was saying. In Brantley's case, let me hazard a guess: as a member of the Times' notorious "Mauve Mafia," he didn't like the broad manner - very 1947 and very Noel Coward 1947 - in which the gay characters are played. The play is done very "period" - that is a good deal of its charm and a fair part of its point.
Well, let me tell you! It was mar-ve-lous! As marvelous as the party about which Coward composed his famous song after experiencing the Long Island country weekend that also went into the writing of "Long Island Sound."
This is as good a comedy as "Noises Off," and certainly more expertly and wittily done than the current heavy-footed revival of Michael Frayn's famous farce. The premise is sure-fire. An homme moyen sensuel finds himself precipitated into a web of entanglements and egotism populated by a lot of entirely self-absorbed upper-crust types. The acting is expert (12 of the 19 in the cast have acted): the lines don't get swallowed, the time is expert, the gestural work just so.
If I from time to time regret no longer doing the column, it's because I can't give a leg up to something like "Long Island Sound" which gets overlooked while crap gets promoted by the mincing jackasses the Times has installed as gatekeepers. There are nine performances left. See one of them ! See two! A bargain at twice the price!
212 645 TACT.

Thursday, May 16, 2002

The chinstroking, hand-wringing cultural grasshoppers are out in force in New York City. For all the obvious reasons (9/11, the economy, stupid! etc. etc.) the city is looking at a deficit. Cuts are being made in budgetary line after budgetary line - including the one that covers grants and subsidies to cultural institutions. During the fat years, these institutions spent every nickel that came their way. Huge, successful fund drives brought in tons of cash that was promptly disbursed for expansion. Now those facilities are underpopulated and the cash register chimes with a low tinkle rather than a lusty tintinnabulation. One sound unheard during the fat years was the ringing of fresh cash dropping into piggy banks. And so now the museums etc are wailing about closings etc.
Well, excuse me! How about dipping into principal to plug some of these holes. Or sticking with essential services?
And how about the city doing its part by selling off, say, the glorious, glamorous Tweed Building as a World Headquarters for some ambitious civic-minded global enterprise - which might bring in $200 million-$300 million and stanch a further significant outflow for operating costs, not to mention eliminate endless costly bickering about who's going to use it.
I haven't blogged in a couple of weeks. Getting the final NY Observer withdrawal toxins out of the bloodstream, I guess. Typically, the paper started arriving again once I quit. My sense is that Arthur Carter has lost interest and that his focus is now on making art, which in his case amounts to the equivalent in welded metal of the Prince of Wales's watercolors. Perfectly competent but if you've seen the real thing, not all that mouth-watering. The NYO has reached the limits of the market for its present editorial product - and that market just doesn't produce the revenues needed to break even.
A couple of points seem worth reflection. One is this business of relative stock market values. PEs, it is pointed out, are still high by historical norms. But the business cycle no longer seems as vicious as it once did, so maybe some mark-up in the base PE level is warranted. Just asking. Also the drop-off, in terms of price, from peak (over)valuations seems easily as drastic in the recent correction as in any I can recall: end-60s-70s, end-80s.
Of course, the dollar remains the big question. For over five years, I campaigned in the NYO for the view that the greenback's hegemony was the basis for the Roaring '90s - not the New Economy. Now everyone's buying into that. Fortunately, until the economies behind the yen and the euro start to look like serious challengers, the dollar will reign, if only thanks to an absence of alternatives. But keep a wary eye.
Having for five years labored on a novel called NOBODY'S FAULT in which the "inciting incident" - as certain Hollywood types say - is the spur-of-the-moment adultery of a suburban homemaker named Connie, I couldn't resist going to see "Unfaithful," the new movie that's based on the same premise. It's not very good, and the crime-solving skills on offer would cause Briscoe and Green/Curtis/Logan to turn in their badges. But Richard Gere is terrific, conveying a personality that is completely at odds with the way his character is depicted by the critics.
I also saw "Spiderman." It's OK, especially the human parts, but when the computer animators crank it up, it goes flat. I have acrophobia. I can't walk across a bridge of any height (couldn't handle the span over Route 27 at the last Shinnecock Open) but airplanes don't bother me because I can't triangulate myself to the ground. Computer animation's like that. It lacks the vital connection.

Thursday, May 02, 2002

In a col I wrote before I ankled (as they used to say in Variety) the NYO, I expressed a certain skepticism about a party thrown in Jamaica, obviously on the cuff, for one Star Jones, a fat woman who's on a show sometimes hosted by the equally repellent Barbara Walters. So I was delighted to come across the following words in the Gleaner, Jamaica's paper of record, in an article bemoaning the state of tourism there, and that the Jamaica Tourist Board is tap city: "A source at the Ministry of Finance told The Gleaner yesterday that the JTB had been very "reckless" in its spending, citing as examples US$1.3 million spent on creating a single ad, "which is yet to be aired," and "spending loads of cash throwing a party recently for an American celebrity." " That it was a dubious celebrity makes it worse.
Incidentally, I urge readers to check out the website of our Jamaica house: Here's why, SUMMER in Jamaica is terrific. No hotter than the Hamptons and with these offsetting advantages: totally dependable sun, more swimmable ocean, restaurants, golf, tennis, beach etc. right there and wholly accessible, pampering first-class - AND, what is to my mind the most important factor: asshole count 1% or less of what it is in east Hampton etc - all for 1/4 the price. Check it Out, I say!

Saturday, April 27, 2002

An interesting thing is happening in investment markets. An endowment that I follow closely added a bunch of growth managers back in 2000, the absolute worst time. They bought all the big names, many of which have fallen 90% or more. Now a number of those stocks are being picked up by this endowment's value managers - which adds new resonance to the term "averaging down."
Speaking of Endowments, in the late column a few months ago, I ventured the guess that Yale, which has 35% of its unreally-good-performing portfolio in unconventional and lock-up investments whose value is set by committee say-so and not the market, might be the Enron of big investors, a monument to fiat valuation. I expected a yelp of reproach from New Haven. Not a word. This may be a case where no noise is bad noise.
For quite a while now, I've been beating the drum for the view that our extraordinary 90s "boom" was largely the consequence of the dollar's hegemony. A power that in scope and absoluteness has been matched by no currency in the history of the world. An interesting view is offered by Henry Liu in Asia Times Online. The link is:

Friday, April 26, 2002

The explosion of a drum of lacquer yesterday on Manhattan's West 19th St. has everyone (led by the Post, naturally,) looking over their shoulders and making nervous "9/11" whimpers. I want to suggest a theory I've been mulling over for some time, which is that 9/11 was a work of one-off entrepreneurial terrorism confected mainly by Mohammed Atta. Why isn't it likely that he worked out the details on his own? He would have seen where the first WTC bomb attack went wrong, and the Egyptair "suicide" crash could also have rovided inspiration. Having come up with a "business plan" or "model," he then pitched it, the way you or I would pitch a venture to a VC firm, to Al-Qaeda. They bought in, agreeing to supply money and possibly some muscle, but told him to see if he could also get Saddam Hussein to invest (the Rockefellers will take a deal, but they like it better if the Phippses are in, too, or Kleiner Perkins). This could account for Atta's trip to Prague and the meeting there with an Iraqi intelligence honcho. My guess is, things being as they are, Baghdad thought it over and decided not to invest, but the Osama people thought it too good to pass up as a bang-for-the-buck play (I am not making light, this is exactly how a terrorist investor must think!) Once you've achieved the first bang, all it takes are rumors and hints to send disabling ripples through your targets. And to set other Attas dreaming over their keyboards.
If someone wants to make a 9/11 movie, this is the plot to use - and you read it here first.

Speaking of Atta, one reason I quit the Observer was my absolute disgust with its year-end 2001 issue. You may recall that the cover illustration was a reworking of the famous Bourke-White 1930s photo showing a bunch of high iron workers perched on a girder suspended from a crane cable high over Manhattan eating their sandwiches. In the NYO rework, the central figure is still Bourke-White's. but he's flanked by a bunch of heavyweights on the order of Christy Turlington and Dominick Dunne, who inside are only too anxious to tell us how they spent September 10! Just so you know, all spent it with their three best friends: Me, Myself & I.
Now here's the fun part: a week after the NYO take appeared, it was revealed in a marvelous Newsweek piece by Evan Thomas that the only image that hung on the walls of Atta's minimal Hamburg apartment was the Bourke-White photograph!

Thursday, April 25, 2002

Occasions where life imitates art, especially the art of parody, are to be treasured. Recently warnings have been issued to banks and other U.S. financial institutions to be on the alert for terrorist depredations. Honestly, though: is there a terrorist in the world capable of wreaking the sort of damage to our banking institutions that their own managements have? What has Osama Bin Laden got that J.P.Morgan (Chase) Chairman Harrison hasn't? Actually, I published a novel some years ago called The Ropespinner Conspiracy of which the premise was theat the Russians planted an economic mole, not unlike then Citicorp CEO Walter Wriston, inside the nation's flagship bank, not unlike Citibank as it was at the time, and engineered their agent's way to the top, whereby he proceeded to bring down the U.S. banking system by doing what American banks at the time were doing in real life in the way of reckless lending, conflict of interest etc.

Sunday, April 21, 2002

I have to say I'm intellectually amused by the apparent "business plan" confusion at AOL-Time Warner, although I'm not in the least bit amused financially, since I've inherited the stock.
What to do, what to do, what to do?
Well, here's a thought.
AOL is subscriber-based. It's looking for Time-Warner synergies. Why not allow AOL subscribers, working through AOL proprietary software, to build their own composite Time-Warner online magazines? Select the bits of Time, SI, EW, People etc they're interested in (by category) and furnish these once a week in a printer-friendly format for the armchair crowd; all the graphics bells and whistles would be available online. Price this as a premium service, based on a minimum plus formula. Make the composite E-Book downloadable. For example, I'd pick Time's news and science coverage & Bob Hughes art reviews; People's book reviews; EW's movie reviews etc etc. "My Magazine." What would I pay for this? $5 a week? Very possibly. More if AOL/TW reached out to Conde Nast etc. And then if there was a proprietary interface between, say, a travel mag and an expedia ("Like this trip? One-click it for $X") that's a combination of insight, info and convenience worth a subscription add-on.
What this all means is that the media have painted themselves into a corner by forgetting that it's readers and viewers, not a bunch of 30-something media buyers spouting dubious demographics. Go back to the customer and treat him or her as something more than a survey quantum.
Tomorrow, Monday, April 22, my old friend Alfred Taubman will find out into what size pieces the mills of justice intend to grind him. Until last week, I personally felt that jail time would be ridiculous, not simply because of age and infirmity, but because Al had been found guilty of something that has been going on for years, with a constantly changing cast at the institutions involved, and has been a crime on the statute books for all that time, but which the Government suddenly decided to prosecute. The "crime," to the extent there has been any, has been purely financial in its effects; money damages were all that justice really called for.
I feel differently today. Why? Because last week a Federal brief on Taubman's behalf recommended mercy based on "character' testimonials from the likes of the despicable Henry Kissinger, whose hands figuratively drip with the blood of innocent millions his venial grandstanding condemned to slaughter and starvation, and the equally loathsome Barbara Walters, a a much "worked"-over TV personage who routinely puts infanticides on TV to plead, tearfully, for public sympathy. Clearly, anyone who has such people for friends should not be allowed loose in the streets.
If Al is sent to the sneezer, his sentence will be testimony to the stupidest defense strategies ever devised. Devised, I say in sorrow, by the great white-shoe firm of Davis, Polk - to which I can claim some slight kinship: an ancestor on my mother's side, Francis Bangs, was a founder of the firm of Bangs & Stetson, Davis, Polk's father firm. His son harried Boss Tweed into collapse, which may be why I like to stick pins into swine like Kissinger. It's genetic. In the event, Davis, Polk's defense strategy was to try to convince a jury that a man who is palpably one of the cleverer and more creative businesspeople in the country was, when it came to Sotheby's, a narcoleptic oaf who seldom knew what was going on and entrusted everything to the dire machinations of his #2, Dede Brooks, herself descended from a line of crooks (see under JWP Corp).
Having with this brilliant strategy secured a conviction for their client,Davis, Polk now seeks amelioration in the penalty phase by soliciting character testimonials from persons of no character. God, I wish Gilbert & Sullivan were alive to get this all down in words and music!

Tuesday, April 16, 2002

Back around the beginning of the 80s boom, a book by two Harvard Biz School Professors, Abernethy and Hayes, made quite a stir. It was called Managing Our way to Economic Decline. Then the 80s really took off, and the 90s followed, adding two more zeros in the process, along with bringing us Jack Welch, and people sort of forgot a thesis for which there had seemed considerable pragmatic evidence when the book was published. But I think the thesis still holds, and I know of no more cogent starting-point than Major League Baseball.
AP reports that so far this season no less than 8 major-league clubs have set records for low attendance at a scheduled, regular-season game, including Cleveland, whose "the Jake" is as beloved a venue as there is around. This bears thinking about.
My own baseball life started to get serious in 1946, when I was ten. That year I remember lying on the floor of my father's apartment listening to the radio account of Game 7 of the world series, Red Sox-Cardinals, with the latter winning when Enos Slaughter took advantage of Sox shortstop Johnny Pesky's hesitation with the relay to barrel home. The next year, I was in the same position when Bill Bevens of the Yankees pitched (and eventually lost) the sloppiest no-hitter ever crafted. By then I had seen a few games - I had seen Dimaggio slide, a feat on the order of Horowitz playing Scarlatti - and I was hooked.
There were 16 major league teams then, 25 players per roster, and knew every last one of them, and I knew their batting or their earned-run averages. Being a fan was manageable.
I love baseball still, and in the years intervening since boyhood, I've seen it from the inside, since my late father was a member of syndicates that bought the Tigers from the Briggs family and, later, with Gene Autry as figurehead (the real stringpuller was a St. Joseph, MO, broadcaster named Ken Brown) started the expansion team the Los Angeles (now California) Angels.
But being a fan is no longer manageable - thanks to baseball's managemernt class: its owners. These idiots are usually characterized as among the country's most successful businessmen. They aren't. They are among the country's most successful system-exploiters, which i recognize in the minds of many comes to the same thing.
Well, as I say, I consider myself a fan, although I have scant idea who plays for who outside of New York. I hardly ever go to a game, although I try to go at least once a season if only to remind myself that the game is played by six-inch figurettes inside a TV.
By my lights, the game has all but lost its claim to be either our emblematic national sport or our national pastime.Baseball takes too long, is too expensive, is played at the wrong time, has become kid-unfriendly. To achieve all those things takes genius of a perverse sort. Last year, my son Francis and I trekked via the F train down to Coney Island to see the Brooklyn Cyclones play the Lowell Spinners (?) in the glistening new ballpark that was the overrated Giuliani's personal $25 million to the undeserving Wilpon family. When we left, after 2 1/2 hours, the score was 11-8 but the game was only in the bottom of the third inning.!
Why has this happened?
There isn't any one cause. Pitchers take forever, and now hitters do. Intervals of inaction are longer, which I suspect is for the sake of advertising - and this, I think, is where we can look to a larger canvas.
Major-League baseball is now almost entirely about TV, and TV is about advertising. So is magazine publishing about advertising. And the boom. What got lost in here have been fans, or readers, or 'Net nuts - and what they want from a given product. What they get out of whatever game or medium they have the option of tuning into or out of. Of course, it may just be that the pernicious example of Microsoft - which has achieved a multi-multi-billion dollar market value on the basis of products that in any other industry would be condemned (and presecuted) more roundly than the Pinto - has set the tone.
Years ago, at Lehman Brothers, when I started to travel the country doing investment banking, looking at different kinds of businesses, listening to all sorts of businesspeople, I soon began to wonder why it was that relatively little attention was being paid to what the customers wanted: not Wall Street, not the creditors, not the Madison Avenue types spouting demographics, but the customers. Especially when the most customer-oriented businesses, like Wal-Mart, or Home Depot, or EDS, or Cummins Engine, soon turned into the most profitable businesses around.
Then I started writing, and in the twenty years since, I've watch publishing degrade into somethings that seems to be about marketing and advertising, and hardly ever about readers and reading. Which may be why big publishing successes like John Grisham burst on the scene as complete surprises both to the industry and their own houses.
And if publishing has degraded, baseball has fared worse. Maybe because like every other business I can think of, there's been too much money around, a flood of wealth we've confused as being generated by our brilliance, rather than the accident of fiscal history that has let the dollar get away with a reckless behvior that history has permitted no other currency. Baseball, after all, is about nothing more than giving fans the timely opportunity to see talented athletes pitch, catch, run, throw and hit on lovel level playing fields in which the green that matters is the color of the grass and not the money. Unless the game is returned to those basics, and not just for the final seven-game Series of the season, the eight bad-drawing teams will become ten, twelve, eventually more - until there will be no one left for the Yankees to play, and baseball will have died. Suicide-bombed by its owners: the most brilliant businessmen in America.

Monday, April 15, 2002

Just as a matter of information, I have written my last column for The New York Observer. As the English say, I "sent in my papers" last week.
Why? Well. what I think is important and what the paper's readership thinks is important are obviously worlds apart, and after much reflection I've concluded: what's the point? We live in an era of extreme fractionation, so it's all about niche and venue. I noticed this some years ago when a couple of my novels were designated "Page-turner of the Week" by People, the largest-selling English-language magazine. Sales didn't spike ten copies, however - which led me to formulate the rubric: people who read reviews don't read People and people who read People don't read reviews. QED: if you take the world seriously, and are trying to communicate with others who do, The New York Observer ain't the place to be and to keep on writing simply to beat one's head against a vacuum. From time to time, if I have anything I think worth saying, or spot something worth comment, I'll post it here. Check this space.
In the meantime, I shall cultivate my garden and ponder the mysteries of life, especially golf. This past weekend was all Masters, all the time. Tiger Woods won on Sunday on what must have been the most difficult course set-up ever for a major championship, thanks to the course's added length, which made difficult pin positions absolutely fiendish . His achievement was remarkable. The make-or-break, survive or die stretch at Augusta is holes 9-15. With one exception, Tiger played those holes in par or better and managed to put his approach shots in places from which he could easily get down in two, while his opponents were looking at multi-break 50-footers or worse and eventually fell too far back. In the eye of the storm, he kept a grip on his game, which is what golf at that level is about, I guess (never having been there).

Thursday, March 28, 2002

Starting back in the summer of '54, when I worked for Halliburton in Duncan, OK, I've spent a fair part of my working life in and around the oil business, which my late stepmother once not altogether inaccurately characterized as "All good news and no money!" So I'm naturally interested in the kerfluffle the media and the Democratic center are trying to stir up about the energy industry's impact on energy policy. That oil companies, via the piggy-back and the lobbyist, should wish to influence energy policy seems to come as a great and insupportable shock to The New York Times et al, much as the average woman in a supermarket checkout line seems astonished by the realization that she is expected to pay for the groceries the clerk has just rung up. If you read today's Times, you will discover that when it comes to energy policy, it is OK for NRDC and other conservationist groups to have input on policy changes effected for environmental reasons without regard to supply-demand effects, it is not OK for oil producers and marketers and consumers, people also directly affected by supply-demand effects, to have a voice on those very same changes. Left unsaid, but as obvious as that elephant over there against the wall, is the implication the media is really trying to sell: that any recognition by this administration of energy-industry interests somehow is all about Enron and therefore crooked.
I happen to agree with the WSJ's Paul Gigot who expressed the thought the other night on the paper's talk-show - along with "Forbes on Fox" the only TV gabfest I watch - that the white-hot frenzy with which the media are working the priestly molestation story has more than a little to do with a wish to discredit the Catholic Church on such more vital issues as abortion and divorce. I say this as someone who is 150% pro-choice and who, looking back, often has second thoughts about the ease with which divorce is obtainable in our culture. I make the point also as someone who attended single-sex schools from fourth grade through college, and who vividly recollects the sexual cruelties adolescent boys are capable of visiting on one another, cruelties as susceptible of repression in memory and as useful in the purpose of institutional discreditization as anything a priest might get up to. Indeed, I shall be very surprised if in the near-distant future we do not see a barrage of law suits essentially directed at the endowments of Yale, Harvard, Exeter etc. brought by plaintiffs alleging sexual molestation at the hands of masters which was supressed in the interest of getting a diploma but which has now, suddenly, been recovered in memory.

One more thought. In my last novel, BAKER'S DOZEN, published (sic) by FSG, the "villain" plots a ground-to-ground missile attack on a big Venice bash, a celebrity feast of self-congratulation combining the worst of the Davos Conference and the Vanity Fair Oscar party. As a writer, one wants to make readers think. And yet another year has gone by when a giant step toward the betterment of mankind could have been taken and wasn't. Just think of how a couple of mortar shells judiciously dropped onto one of these Oscar night celeb feasts of self-love might help the state of things by focusing attention. A cynical mind might argue that terrorists are missing the boat by killing cops and foremen and white-collar middle-level workers, or innocent people sitting down to a Passover supper, because - frankly - the people at the top, those with the power to effect, have grown utterly remote from the F-Train reality most of us have to live in. Wars are not won by armies whose officer class is disengaged. Or back at Morton's toasting one another.
I've been guilty of careless bloggery but I went off to Jamaica for a brief golf trip with my son Francis and found myself in e-purgatory. Nothing seems to have improved in the interim, however. Do read Jed Perl's coments on the Richter show on The New Republic's website (I still haven't figured out how to incorporate links in my blog.) Perl REALLY hates this show, and with many more good reasons that I came up with. We are into an age of intellectual and cultural impoverishment, make no mistake about it, although for someone my age it's beyond hope. I've been rereading (reading in some cases) Graham Greene - most recently The Comedians. The difference between the quality of novel writing then and now is disheartening, and worse still are all the warning signs in the work of writers like Greene that went unheeded.

Friday, March 15, 2002

"What is it that people think they are hearing?" That was the very apt question posed almost ten years ago by then New Yorker music critic Andrew Porter in a review of a performance in which an over-the-hill German baritone had shouted his hoarse way through Winterreise and then received a half-dozen ecstatic curtain calls at the 92nd St. Y - one of Manhattan's most self-regardingly "sophisticated" culture venues, if such can be claimed by a place that regularly features Charlie Rose. And it's a question that still can be posed with even more pithy aptness nowadays, and not only with respect to "hearing" but to "seeing" or "looking at" or any of the other mediations via sense by which we apprehend manifestations of so-called culture. Today, having a spare hour, I wandered over to the Museum of Modern Art to see the retrospective of the German painter Gerhard Richter, who is being peddled to us as one of the towering giants of milennial art. A shallower, less engaging show I can scarcely ever recall seeing, and certainly not one so highly touted. Shallower and more boring. My MO in such exhibitions is to walk through the galleries slowly, letting my eye take in what's on the walls, and if it's caught by something that demands closer looking, to follow its urgings. I couldn't even finish the Richter show, quitting after half the upstairs portion. The thing is, everything on offer reminds a halfway-educated eye of something already seen elsewhere - and done better. There are hint-reminiscences of Warhol, of Velasquez, of Fragonard (in which Times critic Michael Kimmelman claimed to see Vermeer, suggesting need of an early visit to a competent opthamologist,) there are knockoffs of Richter's German contemporaries so superficial they amount to pastiche - and all hung within a few yards of the great stuff Alfred Barr and successors built MOMA on. And what of the crowds thronging the show? What do they think they're looking at? Why is the most common audience sound one hears nowadays a kind of nervously uncomprehending giggle? Apart from the efforts of publicists and column-whores, I suppose the popular success of shows like this, or most of the other crap that's ringing the cash register around town, is proof positive and pecuniary of Lady Bracknell's praise of natural ignorance. Ignorance - an utter lack of cultural experience, knowledge or context, usually excused by "Well, I thought it was fun!" - can account for the success of "Godwaful Park," a movie cordially disliked for its lack of sense, accuracy and honesty by practically everyone I know. I suppose I should also admit that I only managed to sit through one act of the "The Sweet Smell of Success," to which we were given previews tickets, and which I thought missed on all cylinders by just this much, the way a show can when TOO much talent is involved and falls all over each other, the way that it's supposed to have happened back in the '40s with "One Touch of Venus." These days, however, anything can be gotten away with.

Tuesday, March 12, 2002

One of the few pleasures of writing for The New York Observer is to see the big boys come huffing & puffing in one's wake on an angle of news interpretation or commentary two or three weeks or more after I got there, wrote that. Today's Times has a big piece on Vinson Elkins, Enron's #1 law firm, a piece redolent of "Look, Ma, I'm scoopin'!" Those who read "The Midas Watch" back in January, as perhaps the Grey Lady of 43rd St. did, might recall the following passage:

"My mind keeps going back maybe thirty years, to a cocktail party in the swank Houston quarter of River Oaks and a conversation I had with the late David Searls, managing name partner of the great Houston law firm then known as Vinson Elkins Weems & Searls.
For whatever reason, I found myself asking “Judge” Searls, as he was called by his friends, “David, which is the biggest legal shop in this town: you guys or Baker Botts?”
David had one of those snapping-turtle mouths you often see in power-Texans, a snicker-snee of a mouth with a cruel overbite that looked like it could take the head off a rattlesnake in a second’s quick chomp. It was a physical trait he shared with Lyndon Baines Johnson. At my question, the fierce lips twisted into a clever sneer. “Hell,” he exclaimed, “Baker Botts is the biggest law firm – but we’re the biggest investment-banking house!”
An answer which left him pleased as punch and which, as far as I was concerned, made perfect sense. Back then, as we in the finance business knew, you could never get at anyone at the top of Vinson Elkins to give you a legal opinion; the partners were all off promoting or doing deals, their own and their clients’.
Now a law firm that thinks in investment-banking terms is going to be more concerned with “Yea!” than “Nay!”, more with facilitation than rectitude, more with what can be gotten away with than what shouldn’t be done in the first place, more as enablers than counselors. I therefore wasn’t surprised to learn that when Enron fell over like a tall tree, disclosing roots that were rotten and vermin-riddled, among the grubs, beetles and other parasites to be observed blinking in the unwelcome daylight was Vinson & Elkins.
De mortuis etc….and David Searls is long dead and had no part in this, but attitudes do tend to institutionalize within firms, to become part, as it were, of the genetic material. Before taking its current name, the firm went through an interlude as Vinson, Elkins, Searls and Connolly, when there was added to the names on the door another old East Texas snapper-mouth, John Connolly, the late former Governor and Treasury Secretary who would be crushed like Laocoon in coils of public- and private-sector scandal and insolvency. Someone once asked me, “What do you think went through Connolly’s mind when he was proffered the envelope with the milk-fund money for Nixon?”
By then I knew the Houston good-old-boy form and my reply was a matter of reflex: “Hell, that’s easy. He was just trying to figure out which pocket to stick it in.” That’s the sort of answer that marks a lawyer as the sort of folks you can “work with.”
Vinson & Elkins – which signed off a whole bunch of misleading accounting stuff and very likely honchoed the setting-up of Enron’s close to 900 offshore tax havens - will be one of the deep pockets that those seeking Enron redress will go after, and that’s probably as it should be. My purpose is not to rail at lawyers and the distortions in the law. Suffice it to note that of the eleven men elected to the Presidency in my lifetime (Ford doesn’t count,) only three (FDR, Nixon and Clinton) were lawyers by training. Of these, two – fully 67% - came close to being impeached, which seems a high ratio and cause for alarm.
The more interesting aspect of the big law firm’s enabling role in all this is symbolic, as I see it. Because – as I see it - Enron is the crowning metaphor for the Clinton ascendancy. Its operating philosophy - “How much can I get away with?” (endorsed by the big energy-trader’s lawyers, accountants, politicians-in-pocket and so on) – was the very mantra by which this nation, from the White House on down, began to live in 1995. This was the period during which the worser hens of our nature laid the eggs from which have been hatched the jetliner-sized chickens that have come home to roost, at a cost beyond calculation, beginning last autumn."

Forgive me for tooting my own tin horn, but in fifteen years of writing for NYO, no one else there has.

Monday, March 11, 2002

One amusing ploy for which one now has to watch out for in the NY Times (motto under little Sulzberger: "As Much of Our Agenda As We Can Disguise as News") is the "reverse knock" as I think of it. Say/Write "X" to achieve NET effect "Y" in the sensible readers' mind. For example, to denigrate Bush, whom the Times hates, the paper will write that Cheney' - who, take it from me, couldn't run a fire hydrant - is actually running the government. IE if #2 is in charge, #1 must be a dolt. A nice example, that fooled a lot of people, was in last Sunday's Week in Review. a parody attack, in the lead-footed obvious style that Christopher Buckley has ridden to Op-Ed fame and fortune, on Doris Kearns Goodwin's "baseball" writing. People took it seriously and then had to eat crow when it became obvious that it was a jest - huh, huh! But the point was, by parodying Imus-whore Goodwin's proclivity for "borrowing," to minimize it - take the edge off the offense - by making a joke out of it. Thus goeth the Paper of Record. The "Arts & Leisure" section now exhibits a greater variety of fruitcakes than that place in San Antonio that sends me Christmas catalogues. I happen to be opposed to, and by now fed up with, sexuality-based arts criticism unless the work under review genuinely – and within its own terms, as did the John Koch show – justifies it. I'm waiting for the Times to print a photograph I saw mentioned in a recent Tatler: a photo of one of one its leading critics taken in younger days at an Oxford revel, nude - except for a hat with a long feather. I'd like to see how the Gray Lady's photography critics - or Doris Kearns Goodwin - might deal with that image!
Most of the people I know would not be caught dead reading PEOPLE unless the magazine just happened to be on the table next to their chair in the waiting room. But week in, week out, PEOPLE delivers the goods in the review department. Although my own experience is that a good review from PEOPLE doesn't translate at the box office, the problem being (I guess) that the sort of people who read PEOPLE don't read reviews and the sort of people who read reviews don't read PEOPLE. I was reminded of this when I went cruising around the Web to see what critics' views of Monsoon Wedding had been. As I've learned from long study to expect, PEOPLE's review was right on the money and to the point.
Bottom line: if you're a reasonably cultivated, intelligent, non-"trendentious" human being whose cultural taste is not driven by sexuality - a species uncatered-to by, say, The New York Times - looking for something good to look at or read, you can do a lot worse than check out the front of PEOPLE.
Do yourselves a favor a see the new Mira Nair film "MONSOON WEDDING"! We went last night. I put it in my top five! It's full of life and wit and family pathos, and it's wonderfully eye-opening about India, and beautifully made - but in addition to these vitalities, the movie's suffused with a quality I find generally if not utterly lacking in hard-faced American pictures, no matter how "good". That quality is tenderness.

Saturday, March 09, 2002

One of the most entertaining episodes in The Nanny Diaries, which I praised here earlier, takes place in a house in Nantucket, where the mistress of "Mr. X," the philandering husband, keeps telephoning and "Mrs. X", fully aware of who's calling and what's been going on, simply picks up the phone and then hangs it up without answering until the calls finally cease. As life and art often keep close company, in recent days I've found myself wondering whether a similar scene mayn't have been enacted not so long ago in another Nantucket vacation house, that of GE Chairman and apparent stud-muffin interviewee Jack Welch. As we used to say on Wall Street, a closed mouth gathers no feet, an apothegm that also applies to zippers.
A number of 'blog watchers have weighed in on the subject of what high-tech has done to golf. Worth repeating is an observation made by a columnist in (I think) GolfWeek: the new technology has helped the pros while really not doing all that much for us golfers-in-the-street or ordinary players, and that is just exactly the reverse of how it ought to be!

Friday, March 08, 2002

I'm not a particularly great admirer of Peggy Noonan's column ( but her piece this morning raises a number of points worth thinking about. Do go online and read it.

Thursday, March 07, 2002

Saw Profiev's War & Peace last night at the Met. Noisiest night I can recall spending in the big House. Part One is delightful, close-focused about relationships. Grounds for joy and optimism at the intermission. Part Two, however, feels longer than three Gotterdammerungs laid end to end. Consists of alternating odes to "Mother Russia" - this act was written post the German invasion of the USSR in 1941 - and chorus lines of nancy-boys dressed up like Mr. Nutcracker goosestepping stage right and stage left, with lashings now and then of Napoleon outside Moscow doing a convincing impersonation of someone who bought Enron at the top. Seldom less than a hundred people onstage. I was reminded that the great Russian pianist Richter refers in his notebooks to W&P as a chamber opera. It might play more effectively that way, although not in NY which continues to equate noise with merit.

Remember when Ronald reagan cribbed a line from "The Bridges at Toko-Ri" (or maybe it was "Sayonara" - it was one of those Korea fly-boy epics of the late '50s) and remarked "Where do we get such people." It's a line that leaps to mind everytime I clock on, and I do, religiously, every morning, to David Patrick Columbia's It's a site I cannot recommend highly enough for those wishing to understand what sort of people Gibbon had in mind when writing "Decline and Fall...." I pray you: don't miss it!

Went to a new musical the other night. In previews, so can't name names, but all involved are famous and at the top of their respective theatrical niches. Like the team (Weill, Ogden Nash, Perelman etc.) that cobbled together One Touch of Venus back in the forties. A fascinating evening. Every single scene, line, casting decision, tune etc. is just about 15% off the mark so nothing really works. The show isn't good, but it'll work commercially because the hired help like Liz Smith will puff it. I do yearn for the days when "gossip," so to speak, was what people didn't want printed about themselves, rather than what they pay people to cajole pussycat, repeat-after-me "gossip columnists" to echo.