Gotham Diary:
May 2017 (III)

15, 16, 18 and 19 May

Monday 15th

How often have I sat here on recent Mondays, with no idea of where to begin or how to proceed! The writing project is a legitimate distraction, but it doesn’t explain the knot in my tongue. To my great relief, Charles Sykes untied it yesterday, with an opinion piece in the Times’s Sunday Review.

But the real heart of anti-anti-Trumpism is the delight in the frustration and anger of his opponents. Mr. Trump’s base is unlikely to hold him either to promises or tangible achievements, because conservative politics is now less about ideas or accomplishments than it is about making the right enemies cry out in anguish.

I don’t know why I couldn’t figure out how to say this myself, but I have been perfectly aware of it since the election. I suspect that I lack the courage to be nasty about people whom I fear, dislike, and don’t understand. It has always been easier to save my blasts for the liberal élite, which ought to know better than to do the things it does. The members of the liberal élite, them I know well.

Last week, when the Comey firing occasioned so much righteous indignation to the left of the alt-right, I frowned with dismay — at the outrage — but that’s as close as I got to grasping why I myself did not find the crisis very critical. There was nothing illegal about the deed; the worst that could be said was that the President had done something that looked bad. But looked bad to whom? It looked great to the anti-anti-Trumps — let’s call them the Auntie Grumps — precisely because of the conniptions that it provoked in the very bosoms that had bellyached about Comey all summer long, and then again right before the election. “It’s just insane actually,” Tucker Carlson giggled. I’m making up the giggling part; I’ve never seen Carlson in action. But there must have been at least the ghost of a smirk.

In today’s paper, Charles Blow tells us that the President’s approval ratings are dropping, dropping, dropping — and perhaps they are. But Americans are screwy about politics. Having been exposed to market-driven television news for so much longer than people anywhere else on earth, Americans respond schizophrenically to political figures who caper in front of the cameras. They know, and they can tell you, what’s good and bad about policies and programs. But they can’t help responding to politicians themselves as entertainers. The last truly entertaining American president was Richard Nixon, but he hated la publicité even more than Donald Trump loves to bask in it. To paraphrase CBS chief Leslie Moonves, Donald Trump is very entertaining. And one of the most entertaining things about him is — but you’re not old enough. You don’t remember Froggy, the impish puppet on the Andy Devine Show, one of the early kiddie programs. Maybe you’d better watch this first.

In this clip, the Auntie Grumps are the children laughing with delight at the self-sabotaging suggestibility of the tuba player, who can’t help picking up Froggy’s naughty interjections. Froggy is of course Donald Trump. The tuba player is you. Every time Froggy says something, you forget that Donald Trump is only pretending to be the president, and not very well. You take him seriously and explode with exasperation. The kiddies are thrilled!

The Froggy episode that sticks in my mind involved a professor of some kind, doing a demonstration.

Professor: And then you take this glass of water (pours a glass of water from a pitcher) —
Froggy: And you pour it on your head.
Professor: And you pour it on your head (does so).

One fears that the editors of the Times and The New Yorker are going to die of pneumonia.

We can’t tell yet just how autonomous Donald Trump is in the White House. What was the consensus in the West Wing when Comey was fired? We won’t know for a while. What, I’m particularly interesting in knowing, were Mike Pence’s thought on the matter? My suspicion is that nothing happens without a second opinion, without the input of a responsible adult. The President is surrounded by responsible adults. They let him play with Twitter because that is essential to his shtick as an entertainer. They let him ad lib for the same reason. But does he actually do anything on his own? It doesn’t seem to me that he does.

If the “Russia matter” is really at the bottom of the Comey firing, it, too, is a curious business. Certainly there has been a great deal of impropriety — or what would have been regarded as impropriety by the liberal élite’s predecessor, the (much smaller) power élite of the Fifties and Sixties. Remember what happened to Sherman Adams! In those days, Russia, or rather the Soviet Union, used to be our mortal enemy, and the mere suspicion of chitchat would have brought disgrace. Now Russia is just Russia, and, like the United States, it is flying on nationalist tailwinds. It’s hard to take private and no doubt conspiratorial conversations between top officials on both sides any more or less seriously than the parleys of two crime bosses. Impropriety is the least of it!

As Lenin asked — or was it Chernyshevsky? — Que faire? What is to be done? How do we react when Mount Trump erupts? Bearing in mind that Mount Trump is a concoction of plaster of Paris and kitchen cleaners, we must resist the temptation to erupt ourselves. We must not erupt. Trump’s applause is coming from goons who think we’re funny when we blow up. Maybe they don’t think it’s funny, but they’re so tickled that it is we, and not they, who are on the hotseat that they can’t help laughing.

Instead of erupting, we ought to be thinking, Where did we go wrong? Because we did go wrong. The liberal élite has almost ostentatiously failed to lead this country ever since it came to power in the late Sixties. (Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” is a fine example of what has taken the place of leadership since then.) The liberal élite has given up leading and taken up catering.

If you’ll think about that for fifteen minutes, you have my permission to blow up.


Tuesday 16th

Then there is the Magazine’s cover story. The piece about “open marriage” that decorated the front of the Times Magazine on Sunday with four cute photographs: husband and wife, husband and girlfriend, wife and boyfriend, husband and wife (bis). Such depravity! (And, in my imagination, I say it with the bleak but gooey scorn of the late Fabia Drake.) As far as I’m concerned, an open marriage is either recklessly endangered or not serious. “Open marriage” is not a fit topic for public discussion, certainly not in a “family newspaper” that is so cloyingly prissy about refusing to print certain earthy words. What a heyday for the Auntie Grumps! Everything that provincial America hates about New York is right there in that collection of four photographs. It’s hard to know which is more depraved: the marriage or the publicity.

I didn’t read the story. Kathleen did, and told me that there wasn’t anything in it that surprised her. A married couple decided that the way to revive their flagging ardor was to pursue relationships with others, and to do so not with surreptitious one-night-stands but with out-in-the-open lovers. Significantly, these lovers were labeled “boyfriend” and “girlfriend,” as if to avoid, by performative utterance, the Continental wickedness of “affairs.” Instead, our amatory adventurers evoked a high-school atmosphere, and the immaturity to go with it. What they want even more than good sex is unattainable youth. Not only being young and in great shape, &c &c, but being ignorant of what’s to come. Remember the good old days, when you didn’t know any better?

I keep hiccuping on the publication, the fact that the Times not only published this story but did so with the cover of its weekend magazine. The editors must believe that the objections to open marriage must be based on religious principles — principles that Times readers are presumably too sophisticated to share. Such thinking overlooks the likelihood that the religious principles involved, however gnarled by supernatural socketry, reflect existential wisdom rooted in the experience of intimacy, fidelity, and the “caring” part of charity.

Maybe bots will be the solution after all.


Thursday 18th

The other day, I received an alumni magazine in the mail. I flipped through it, almost annoyed by the smiling faces of students and teachers who had nothing to do with me. Many of the buildings in the photographs were unfamiliar. I could not imagine where they were on the campus, and in one case I couldn’t figure out what the building was for. There must have been a few shots of athletic teams, but I have a knack for not seeing those. Altogether, the magazine filled me with a desire to cancel my subscription. Better than that: could I write to the school and say that I was dead?

I don’t mean to be morbid. What’s dead here are my school days. The school itself has changed since then, but even if there were no new buildings, and even if students were still all male — if, that is to say, the alumni magazine were still in black-and-white — there would be nothing in it for me but a lot of familiar scenes. The teachers are long gone. Many of my classmates have died. But the main point is that my school days are over. They were very important while I was living them. I’m deeply grateful for the education that I received there, because it encompassed learning to teach myself. But in the moment of graduation, my connection with the school came to an end.

The pretense of its continuation was of course elaborately maintained. I was so deluded by the possible meanings of “alumnus” that, in the low years that followed graduation from college, I drove out to my old school with vague hopes of finding a job. Kindly, nobody laughed at me, but my hopes were ridiculous. I wouldn’t have hired me. Then, after my father died, I donated a modest four-figure sum, and suddenly found myself on a new invitation list. I meant to visit, but never got round to it. Kathleen was not interested. Reunions came and went without me. I was able to keep up my friendships with the two classmates whom I really liked without any reference to school.

If it hadn’t been for that old standby, my complete lack of interest in sports, it might have been different. Although everything else about a school changes, the games don’t. Football and basketball and soccer and swimming and wrestling go on featuring the same kind of competition, and I suppose they must provide an inviting portal for imaginative recollection. But I never took part in that sort of thing. It didn’t interest me at all, and I didn’t believe that it belonged in schools. I still don’t, all the more intently for understanding just how dependent schools are on sports for appeals to alumni. It’s an American cancer.

My past, my memories, like anybody’s mean a great deal to me. But they exist only in my mind. The campus on which I was educated fifty years ago is purely imaginary now, and cannot be revisited in the real world. As for the education that began there, my boast is that it shows no signs of ending. It has transferred, with all its credits, to the academy of my book room.


Friday 19th

Because the author of the piece in The New Yorker was writing about a precocious visit to a voting booth, the statement of his height at the time was not irrelevant. He was nine years old and four foot one. He wasn’t really voting, of course, but his vocation had already declared itself: Thomas Mallon would pursue a career in politics. The comparison to my grandson, who turned seven in January and who stands four foot seven, and who by the age of nine may not require a beanstalk in order to climb into the clouds, was not one that worked in my grandson’s favor. He might be taller and larger — he easily weighs more than the nine year-old Mallon’s fifty-five pounds — but insofar as he has inherited other things besides his height from me, I wish that I might instead have passed on the genes that Mallon inherited. Making every allowance for the literate man’s ability to imbue recollection with coherence, the young Mallon still comes across as an astonishingly organized boy. Smart and healthy, all he had to do was grow up, and then, just like that, he could walk into his chosen way of life. My envy overfloweth.

Not really, not really. I don’t suppose that Mallon’s progress from political official to political novelist was a walk in the park. But even if it was, I don’t envy him or anybody else, because I know that I am special. Unfortunately, my specialness suffers from locked-in syndrome. It depends not on the blinks of my eyelids but on the taps of my fingers for attestation of its existence. It must be terribly difficult to divine the nuances of emotion from the binary code of one blink or two, but as to my own meaning in life, at least as expressed in these endless entries, I wonder if it is not Debussy’s sunken cathedral, sounding massive and hardly more nuanced chords from the bottom of a murky sea.

Mallon’s piece tells us, among other things, how, as an established man of letters, he was welcomed to the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston and given a glance at the letter that he himself wrote to JFK way back in 1962 to express his disagreement with the President’s “support” of the Supreme Court decision in Engel v Vitale, which banned public-school prayer. Mallon had preserved the response, from a West Wing factotum, but he had not kept a copy of his own letter (indicating, to my curialist eyes, a lapse worthy of inquisition), and it piqued him to see what he had written. The President had of course supported the Supreme Court, not the argument of its decision, but “[u]nderneath all that fustian, I can in fact find something attributable to John F Kennedy, to a climactic line of his Convention acceptance speech…” Short of a limitless amount of cash, together with the sense to spend it well, I can’t imagine a more satisfying fortune than Mallon’s inheritance.

I am still trying to figure out my own.

Bon week-end à tous!