Stop Making Sense 


As political book talks go, the one at UCLA’s Hammer Museum last Wednesday night started out grand. Janeane Garofalo turned up wearing a blingy orange cap over her bleached-blond head and squirmed modestly to Hammer director Ann Philbin’s introduction of her as a “celebrated actress”; Laura Flanders, less flashily dressed, sat graciously while Philbin announced that Flanders’ new book, Bushwomen: Tales of a Cynical Species, had just made The New York Times best-seller list. The room filled early, the audience listened intently, and Flanders seized the chance to read out loud from Lynne Cheney’s sexy Signet-classic saga of a “condom-carrying Wyoming woman,” Sisters, circa 1981.

Sisters has been overbilled as a “lesbian” novel in the way one might call The Da Vinci Code a “religious” book, but in fact, its main character, Sophie, is just an admirably promiscuous magazine editor who fucks her way across Wyoming because she believes in sexual freedom and reproductive rights. She longs, off and on, for a girl to love — not unlike, Flanders hinted, the vice-president’s mom.

“Did you know that Dick Cheney’s mom was on a softball team?” she asked.

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The book was one pillar in Flanders’ argument that none of these self-reported born-agains bothered much about dirty words until, she said, “Jerry Falwell came riding over the hill” and Reagan demonstrated the value of campaigning on the anti-moral-decay ticket. “A lot of people,” said Flanders, “shed their skins in 1981, and they did it to get elected.”

Sisters also served Garofalo’s thesis: that the current administration seethes with hypocrisy, a belief she backed up with a comic’s gift for extending ironies to their logical extreme. On the matter of the recently passed “Unborn Victims of Violence,” Garofalo joked that current Republican compassion seems strangely confined to the “pre-sentient mass of cells — once you’re out, watch your back!” When Flanders griped that Bush had not united anyone in America, Garofalo jumped to remind her that “He has been a great uniter — he brought the Sunni and the Shi’a together for the first time in history. Now that’s teamwork!”

Not even the keenest wit, however, could compensate for the sense that we’d heard all of this before — or, if not exactly this, something like it: Layer upon layer of doublespeak unveiled, contradictions juxtaposed, insincerities examined; so many jokes and barbs at Bush and his cronies that this election year has come to seem like one endless roast, as if the administration’s opposition doesn’t realize there are better things to do than throw darts at the president and his coterie of low-hanging fruit, a gang so corrupt it renders conspiracy theorists superfluous. (“I mean really,” Garofalo huffed, “if you’re going to steal an election, shouldn’t you be dazzling?”) Little time remained for perennial liberal issues such as health care, raising the minimum wage, better schools or cleaner-fueled cars. To even contemplate the Democratic Party’s shortcomings seemed treacherous. When a man stood up to suggest the Democrats present a weak alternative, Garofalo, who admitted voting for Nader in 2000, gently corrected him. “With these radical dystopians, there is a difference. At least try to appear united.”

By question-and-answer time the room had grown fidgety and a little desperate, as if the four walls were closing in and only these two women had been invested with the authority to scream. It didn’t help that Air America, the alternative talk-radio station that carries Garofalo’s Majority Report, had just been bounced from its Los Angeles affiliate, or that so few reporters in the traditional media were making an issue of Bush refusing to testify to the 9/11 commission under oath.

“You know what they’re saying, don’t you?” Garofalo asked. “They’re saying, ‘You wanna talk about 9/11? Fuck you. Wanna talk about lead in the water? Fuck you.’”

She apologized for swearing, but it was almost refreshing. Even a zesty obscenity or two seemed preferable to the interminable task of comparing Bush’s deeds to his words, or the public perception of Bush to his reality, or the intellect of Bush to a monkey’s. Those easy exercises almost always yield some joke, but we’re starting to run out of jokes. Even Donald Rumsfeld, Garofalo asserted, must be amazed at how easily he dupes the public — “There must be some part of him saying, ‘What a bunch of saps!’”

Around five months ago, sex therapist Dr. Susan Block stood up at a party celebrating a spate of books critical of Bush to wonder how liberals would ever come up with a story to rival the Republicans’ tales of moral turpitude and foreigners who hate American freedom. Several Tuesday primaries and Falluja uprisings later, it seems even the best of Bush’s critics have given up trying.

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